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Scott Begbie: All The President’s Men… the good, the bad and the horrific

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Donald Trump might be the 45th president of the United States, but he’s my eleventh.

Since John F Kennedy, I’ve seen them come and go – watch them with either admiration, consternation, indifference and even sheer horror. And, no, the latter isn’t just for the current resident of the White House.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how the leader of a country thousands of miles away can have such a massive impact on the life of a kid growing up in a scheme in Edinburgh.

Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States.

But the US President has always been part of the backdrop of life in the UK and the rest of Western Democracy.

I feel like claiming JFK as the first president I was properly aware of, but seeing as how I was barely two years old when he was assassinated that can’t be right. But all through the 60s, he was held up as an exemplar of what a US president could and should be. Certainly, he’s what I’ve always thought the leader of the free world needs to aspire to.

And let’s not forget, he was the inspiration behind the moon shot and the Apollo missions that captured the imagination of the world. Clips of his speech, pledging to put a man on the moon and return him home safely are as firmly entrenched in my childhood as the elephant standing on John Noakes’ foot in Blue Peter.

JFK set America the challenge of landing a man on the moon and bringing him home safely.

Told me to shut up

Lyndon B Johnson was a complete unknown to me, other than seeing American protesters on the news chanting: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today”, alongside footage of war in Vietnam. I had no idea what that was all about, but then I was still in primary school and more interested in what Basil Brush had to say about the world.

The first president that I took an active interest in was Richard Nixon. When I say an active interest, it was more to do with taking modern studies in third year – because I thought French was too difficult – and my class was taken along to see All The President’s Men. Yes, that’s right. I was being taught things in modern studies that are now taught as history.

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman starred in political true-life thriller, All The President’s Men.

At this point I would like to say the tale of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward taking down a corrupt president inspired me to join the honourable craft of journalism. The reality is I was more concerned about trying to sit next to a girl I fancied and thought this might be an opportunity to impress her with my wit and repartee. She just told me to shut up because she was trying to watch the film. Curse you, Robert Redford.

Gerald Ford next. Right. Moving swiftly on. That’ll be the indifferent one.

Reagan was reviled

I was taking more of an active interest in politics generally and the US by the time Jimmy Carter moved into the White House. Ah, poor Jimmy. I always thought he got a raw deal for being an honest and honourable man.

It was during his presidency that the Israeli hostage crisis happened. As the hijacked airliner and Israeli hostages sat on the tarmac of Entebbe airport in Uganda, the world held its breath and watched. Many feared it could lead to a wider conflict. When news of the Israeli forces raid broke live on the telly, one worthy in an Edinburgh pub shouted: “Oh my God, this means armadillo!”

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, US President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin shake hands at the time of the Peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979.

Fortunately it didn’t. In any sense of the word.

However, most of us feared armadillo and that his bigger cousin Armageddon might be ushered in by Ronald Reagan. At the time, Reagan was reviled by many in this country. I was among the brigade who thought that Ronnie Raygun might be just unhinged enough to push the button. Certainly, it was a running theme on Spitting Image.

This was the area of CND, of anti-nuke demonstrations, of the Greenham Common women’s camp, the eternal vigil held on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill. I joined the protests against American Cruise missiles being based in the UK. I didn’t want my country used as an aircraft carrier for Reagan’s weapons of mass destruction. I marched against Trident and Faslane.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s Spitting Image puppets.

In the end, the Soviets blinked first and the Berlin Wall came down. But my, those were squeaky bum years for many of us. In hindsight, Reagan wasn’t the warmonger we feared, but that was a game of brinksmanship that left many of us in a Cold War sweat.

Not that we could relax for long. Hello George Bush (the first one) and here comes the Gulf War. Shock and awe, eh? For my part, shock that we were watching a war with global ramifications and awe at the way that the evils unleashed by opening that Pandora’s Box are still with us today.

President George HW Bush, pictured in 1989 briefing reporters at the White House.

First televised war

At the time of the first Gulf conflict, I was working in Canada and was appointed Gulf War editor for the paper I was working on. All that meant was compiling news from the various wire services not – as my horrified mum thought back home in Edinburgh – going anywhere near a front line of anything.

The closest I got to the action was the TV screen. Just like everyone else. This was the first televised war. I remember watching the live footage of bombings and cruise missile strikes and being horrified at death being dealt out so casually. This was the era of rolling 24 hour news coverage when TV reporting, certainly in North America, stopped being calm and reflective and turned into improv theatre.

Then  Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, plays the saxophone as host Arsenio Hall stands by during a campaign stop on The Arsenio Hall Show in Los Angeles.

After those febrile days hope was dawning in the shape of one Bill Clinton Esq.  Living in North America, this was my first chance to see in real time and up close the phenomenon of a sea change in the presidency. A presidential candidate who plays saxophone on telly? That’s cool. And with him he brought a sense of hope and change in the world.

He had many great achievements, not least being one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement. It’s just a pity he’ll be more remembered for Monica Lewinsky.

So on to hello George Bush (the second one, the one with a Dubbya). And here comes another Gulf War – the one built on spurious claims of weapons of mass destruction. Time to get on the marching boots again, this time with the added “die-ins” where I ended up lying on the cobbles of Edinburgh’s High Street, wearing a T-shirt that said “George Bush & Son, Family Butchers (est. 1989)”. I still have it. In fact, I’m wearing it as I type these words.

President George W. Bush launched the second Gulf War.

Don’t say anything

I also have another Dubbya T-shirt that I impulse purchased thinking its play on the president’s name was hilarious. Then I realised I wouldn’t wear that in front of my children, so couldn’t possibly wear it in public. It’s been on a shelf ever since.

With Barack Obama in the Oval Office, I was able to happily hang up my marching boots for eight years and just enjoy seeing a sophisticated, intelligent, warm and dignified human being in post as ostensible leader of the free world. Halcyon days, indeed.

Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States.

Which brings us to Donald Trump. I was always told if you can’t say anything nice about something, don’t say anything at all.

So, Joe Biden, then? Looking forward to seeing what the man who brings my presidential tally up to a dozen will bring to the party … hopefully no need for me to lie on cold, damp streets again.