Published on 17 Dec 2012

After Newtown's nightmare, who would be Obama?

I’ll admit my love affair with America has been a tangled business. It is layered with both love and hate. It is laced with romance, myth, endless misbehaviour, violence, and tragedy.

It affects us all, this complex “leader of the free world”. Ultimately it is an eternal and unhappy affair, and yet I cannot leave it.

I lived in America as a correspondent at the very zenith of American power in the build-up to the moment when the 20th century’s “60-year war” – the cold war – was “won”.

I shall never live so well again. In my pillared white wooden home, with its deck, on the tree-lined Macomb Street in Washington’s Cathedral district. The sky was blue, the seasons moved between freeze and sweat across the four years that I lived there.

The horrific massacre of the innocents and their mentors in Newtown, Connecticut have brought it all back. What is it about America that renders so powerful a nation so incapable of coping with its once brilliant constitution?

On the day of the shooting, before it happened, in a Twentieth Century Fox viewing theatre in London’s Soho, I watched Lincoln, Stephen Spielberg’s completely brilliant and devastatingly moving film centred around the greatest American president who ever lived.

More from Channel 4 News on the Connecticut shootings

Even today, I cannot think that Lincoln – who ended the civil war, ended slavery; and saved the American Union – would not have won the debate on guns.

Spielberg’s remarkable film draws from a portion of the book Lincoln Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I have said before that I regard this book, which Obama took with him into the White House, as one of the most exceptional books written in our time.

Thus far, President Obama has not attained the heights that Lincoln achieved. Although, heaven knows he has been inflicted with a Congress at least as cantankerous as the one Lincoln suffered. But after Newtown, assaulting gun control will now be seen as a key challenge if Obama is to nudge the reputation of his presidential hero.

But there are so many other challenges in his political shunting yard. There’s the matter of health care – seen by many of us beyond America’s shores as a fundamental human right that we almost (dangerously?) take for granted. Then there is “the abroad”. Iran, Syria, the world economy, China, and so much more.

Who would be Obama? Many argue that America has peaked. Some will see Newtown as the horrific failure of one structural element of the dream of “freedom” that Lincoln dreamt.

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16 reader comments

  1. amari blaize says:

    I have a love hate relationship with the States too, as well as a lot of friends. Obama, not being the messiah, is doing as well as bush or nixon and many of the others. It is a myth that Lincoln freed the slaves. He was simply part of a mosiac of input at a tipping point, and in office at the right time.

  2. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    Obviously you are more aware of political America than many . We UK box watchers always saw it as gushing, insincere with a need to demonstrate bigness.This perception is shifting towards a slightly hysterical evangelacising of various religions. I personally am slightly disturbed by the sweeping of emotion through crowds . Perhaps I developed this perception of a slightly out-of-self control America by events as portrayed through reporters.

    Obama has a likeable persona and looks good. A leader needs to lead by example and he fits the bill. Has America peaked? who knows ; but as we introduce more and more of ‘the abroad’ into all countries there are bound to be changes. I am impressed by my Pakistani patients , particularly the women, who won’t smoke or take alcohol. Now there are big industries America relied upon…

    Obviously you are more aware of political America than many . We UK box watchers always saw it as gushing, insincere with a need to demonstrate bigness.This perception is shifting towards a slightly hysterical evangelacising of various religions. I personally am slightly disturbed by the sweeping of emotion through crowds . Perhaps I developed this perception of a slightly out-of-self control America by events as portrayed through reporters.

    Obama has a likeable persona and looks good. A leader needs to lead by example and he fits the bill. Has America peaked? who knows ; but as we introduce more and more of ‘the abroad’ into all countries there are bound to be changes. I am impressed by my Pakistani patients , particularly the women, who won’t smoke or take alcohol. Now there are big industries America relied upon…

  3. Meg Howarth says:

    Wrong question, Jon. The gun issue must be top of the agenda. Breaking the power of one lobby can also only be good for the US. Healthcare costs/neighbourhood safety etc, let alone reduction in massacres like Newtown’s would all be reduced if the madness of gun-ownership faced down. So more important to ask whether ‘cometh the moment, cometh the man’.

    The Second Amendment 18th-century ‘right’ for every individual to carry a gun HAS TO GO. The US’s domestic frontiersmen-colonising days are over – the land has been taken from its original inhabitants, guns are no longer needed for that unsavoury purpose.

    Political opposition to such a move must be met head on. Obama has to start now if there’s to be any chance of civilising the US out of its dangerous gun-toting backwoodsman nonsense. NB the NRA’s twitter accounts (@NRA @NRANews) have gone silent and its Facebook page taken down since the Sandy Nook horror.

  4. Philip Edwards says:


    Inadvertently you illustrate how deluded is “reporting” on the USA. You can’t even get the name right. The USA is NOT “AMERICA.” it is a loose federation on a continent of many other nations. It is not exceptional. It is not better. In fact is has become a rogue state hated by many around the world. It is a nation that started out with every advantage and threw it all away because it preferred organised greed, invasion and genocide. Unchecked, the cultural result was inevitable: the kind of terrible anguish we see at Newtown. What price now inane chatter about an “American Dream”?

    Foreign “correspondents” are easily bribed with a comfortable life, and become nothing more than propaganda merchants who ignore evidence staring them in the face. Sadly, you are typical. Only a few weeks ago you and Matt Frei were spouting the most appallingly ignorant puff pieces on the US election. All we got was a couple of grinning faces trotting out the usual garbage about a system that is patently corrupt and a culture that produces mass murder almost as par for the course. The rest of Brit media was little different. So what has suddenly changed? Why tears NOW and not before?

    The truth is the USA since its founding has allowed itself to be overwhelmed by systemic media lies that led to mass apathy and ridiculous illusions. Its politicians are almost bereft of decent conscience and will. Its Constitution has proved virtually useless for modern purposes, particularly on the issue of guns ownership. Its media is unspeakable ur-fascist at every level. It has become a dreadful, paranoid, vengeful country that will leave nobody in peace.

    Yet it is not irrecoverable, not while there are wonderful individuals like tragic father Robbie Parker. Nobody can even begin to imagine what he goes through, or the loss he has suffered. I believe people like Robbie Parker are the majority in the USA, not the gun-owning maniacs and profiteers who have hijacked US culture. Decent voices need to be heard and acted on. There should be no more obfuscation, no more lies, no more weak-kneed claptrap about a so-called “right to bear arms.” Enough is enough. If the USA cannot learn its lesson after this horror it never will. We shall see.

    As for Abraham Lincoln, over a generation ago Gore Vidal promoted the reality of him as opposed to the alabaster myths built around him. Goodwin was late by thirty years and missed much of the reality. I hope Spielberg has produced something closer to Vidal’s genuine patriotism than Goodwin’s anaemic effort.

    And mark this: the British establishment and its neocon crackpots have for the last thirty years faced us down the same cultural road as the USA. With that in mind, there is no place for complacency in our country. We could easily end up in the same historic cul-de-sac. And if we do, what part will you media employees have played?

    Meanwhile, our hearts are with the parents in Newtown. How can they not be?

    1. Martin Kay says:

      I don’t know about maniacs with guns. I would think many Americans, with good cause, are scared of the government. There’s something very fishy about all these youths who suddenly go off at a tangent and start shooting in schools and cinemas- remember 911.

  5. Channel 4 News says:

    Hi there,

    There was a technical problem with the original copy of this blog. We have deleted it from its original URL and republished it here. Your comments have been copied over.

    Thanks and apologies for any confusion.

    Channel 4 News

  6. Stan O'Neil says:

    Dear John,

    In your interview screened tonight with a gun lobbyist in the USA, he said that the problem would be solved if mentally ill people were denied gun ownership.
    I waited in vain for you to point out that the killer of the children at Sandy Hook school was mentally ill and did not own any guns. They were owned by his mother, a sane, responsible member of the community, and the first of his victims.
    That did not stop him using the guns.
    The problem is the existence of such weapons in US homes.
    There have been more Americans killed by guns held in private hands than the
    fatalities of all the wars that the Americans have been involved in.
    The worst day’s work that the Founding Fathers ever did was to grant the citizens the right to bear arms.

    Stan O’Neil

    1. Martin Kay says:

      I would think it’s the government who are mentally ill. Remember JFK, Oklahoma and 911.

  7. Mudplugger says:

    I am not a gun-user nor a gun-supporter, but it is important to apply some unemotive logic to this latest tragedy.

    One salient fact is that, after 200+ years of general gun ownership over there, it is only in the last 20 years that events like this have happened. Something has changed, and it isn’t the guns. It can only be the people using them.

    The next salient point is that a deranged person seeking to attack others has a vast choice of ‘harm-machines’ readily available, other than guns. Cars, petrol, axes, knives can all be used to kill just as many innocents as guns can – should we expect all those to be banned or regulated too ?

    It is a typical ‘dangerous dogs’ knee-jerk reaction to feel the ‘need to do something’, to pass some form of pointless legislation, just to be seen to have done something. But that won’t change the nature of those unstable people who set out to kill and maim others. Better to identify and address the root-causes, rather than some simplistic totem.

    1. Andy Smerdon says:

      Mr Mud – you echo what i said about the people not the weapons. The reason why these events happen more in the USA is not because of the ease these weapons are obtainable but the WISH to use them is more ingrained in their society.. Look at the sort of Films Hollywood produces.. the sort of computer games bought in their millions and played endlessly..,and as i said in my post- the comments you find all over the internet posted by angry Americans.. As a whole,America seems to of forgotten Teddy Roosevelt’s comment ” Speak softly,and carry a big stick.” they don’t talk anymore.. just go straight to the big stick (look at the US army’s record in its recent wars compared to our armed forces.).
      And as for being a more violent society – I grew up in Plymouth during the 1960’s and 70’s with bomb sites still evident,and we lived with the constant knowledge that we in Plymouth would be wiped out in the first hour if WW3 has started.. we used air-rifles (on each other..) and even watched endless Tom and Jerry cartoons.. but “we” as a generation seem to of survived.. We MUST ask what has changed before we can understand the problem and take action..

  8. Andy Smerdon says:

    Jon I too, lived the high life in the states for some years and enjoyed my time there.I also owned guns (and still own them here in the uk with firearms licenses ) The simple, simple fact is that Americans Own and Keep guns for the very same reason they don’t have a NHS system and still celebrate the 4th of July… Americans “feel” they are responsible for their own destiny,family, and property.. They keep guns in their homes,cars,and in some states openly or concealed on their bodies so that THEY and THEY alone can be in charge of their own fates.. I myself have pulled a rifle on a number of intruders who came onto a lonely farm i was living on in Ohio and held them there against a barn wall UNTIL the police arrived.. and not had a word said by the police.. well they said thank you,unlike British police who would of arrested me.. ALL police are a purely reaction force.. once the crime has been committed it is to late in American eyes.. it is the CITIZEN who runs the country not the government .. The Second Amendment never could of foreseen the invention of repeating, let alone Semi Auto rifles and high power pistols,it was written in the days of flintlock and powder muskets,and in a country that had recently risen up against us British.. Its as if the founding fathers had written a amendment about not being bothered by your neighbors in a carriage and not foreseen the invention of the mobile phone.. Your Gun owner interviewee from Florida WAS correct ,the mind of the shooter is the problem with American gun crime.”normal” gun owners will NEVER hand in the weapons they truly believe they need and require to protect themselves and their families. and the guys that commit these crimes will ALWAYS get hold of weapons,ban or no ban.. and the case of Anders Breivik is a case in point,Norway having very strong gun controls as with our own country.
    My point perhaps can be easily seen on comments made by SOME Americans on sites such as You-Tube and other social media sites.. Hate,paranoia,vicious spiteful bile spew out from angry Americans about others around the world who they hate, Gays,Muslims,abortionists..Atheists, you name it and someone will hate you…. ive even had Americans hate and despise me for Being English and supporting the Queen.. nearly 250 years AFTER King George III It really is the mindset which needs changing and altering not any tinkering with gun laws.. There are way to many of them who think and believe Rambo is a training film… having guns to hand would not of stopped this horrible incident happening ,just delayed it a week or so… the old adage its not the firing pins that kills its the nut behind it that does…Basically there are many many Americans with deep deep mental problems. but MOST gun owners are not ..but some are.. Obama will talk tough, but nothing will happen due to Fear of disarming American citizens and leaving them “defenseless”.. sad but true.

    1. Martin Kay says:

      I don’t like guns- in the hands of others, they make me nervous. However it seems obvious to me that the American government would love to disarm America, but for what reason? Is it to stop these school type massacres or is it to facilitate more ‘control’ over the populace? No right minded person likes or condones killing, but some would say that America might be advised to keep their guns, which I’m pretty sure there will be disastrous ‘us or them’ conflicts sooner or later.

  9. Ken Bryan says:

    Hi Jon

    Like you I have a love hate relationship with America. I’ve just returned from Port St. Lucie in Florida where my sister has lived for the past 10 years after having moved from New York City after 9/11. Port St. Lucie is a lovely quiet part of Florida’s Treasure Coast, but on a shopping trip to her local Walmart, I saw weapons and ammunition for sale next to the DIY department. I commented to her that I found this very disturbing, and tried to image my local Tesco or Asda stocking the same lethal combination.

    Also, this evening I watched an episode of Suburgatory on E4 and there was a scene where there showed a babies nursery with rifles decorating the walls. Obviously, this has to be taken in context, as it’s a US sitcom and not a very funny one, I must add.

    But, for the life of me, as a Londoner born and brought up in North West London, I will never understand America’s fascination with Guns. I’ve never seen a gun, heard a gun being fired or touched a gun, and I used to think I lived in a tough neighbourhood of London. This is something people living in England should be grateful for. Yes, there is gun crime here, but nothing on the same scale as in the US.

    I hope and pray that this will be a wake up call for all those gun enthusiast and members of America’s National Rifle Association. I hope President Obama will take this opportunity to finally put an end to America’s love affair with guns.

  10. Sam says:

    I have been exploring the notion that if we begin to understand the cold war that was faught culturally in America as a manifestation of subconscious patriarchy rather than a fight for freedom against communism, we may be able to understand the motivation of those with such an illogical aversion to gun control.

    In the prevalent traditional structure of the American family there is an all controlling patriarch who gets his legitimacy from the state and from religious institutions. But this flawed legitimacy is obviously contradicted by widely exhibited social values of nurturing and empathy which gives rise to a cognitive dissonance between the subjectively perceived autonomy/authority of the father and the conflicting motivations of those of greater authority in the heigherarchy. ie the state. (Although Yung would describe it as the emotional schism caused by resisting the integration of a ‘female’ identy or “anima” intoto the male psyche.) I believe Carl Jung had the answers to this debate in his work “The undiscovered Self” that I am now re-reading. He posited that only through a process of empathic individuation can the individual transcend the control of the state and achieve true psychological freedom, which in reality is the only kind of freedom an individual can ever attain.

    This debate really seems to have stired up the latent paranoia that has always been just under the surface due to the precariousness of the American state which in my mind justifies the call for greater federalism in the US.

    I often look towards hollywood propaganda to support my point but I couldn’t have asked for a better example than the recent release of the film red dawn which disturbingly revels in a fantasy scenario that Colorado (where I live now) has been invaded by Chinese forces. In the original film from 1984 (orwell would turn in his grave) it was an invasion by the Russians. The heros of the film are a small band of young individuals who fight back against communist occupation reinforcing the premise of individual responsibility for national defense. If you follow the logic of this point to its antithesis its not difficult so see how the gun has become totemic for the rugged individualist who can’t acknowledge that they can only be free in the context of a wider identity (ie society).

  11. HarrDeeHarrHarr says:

    What a bunch of self-absorbed liberal journalistic hooey:
    Let’s review: Jon Snow has a “tangled” and “unhappy” “love affair” with America. His peak earning days occurred when he lived here and he “shall never live so well again.”
    Then he digresses into utter nonsense. He was watching the film “Lincoln”. Barack Obama is not equal to Lincoln. Both had Congresses not entirely under his control. Health care is a right according to “many of us beyond America’s shores” (no mention of food, clothing, shelter, nor the unsustainability of “ObamaCares” in every nation that has tried.) Then he mentions “the abroad” – by which he apparently means non-European nations.
    What is his point? Does anyone know? Does Jon Snow himself even know?
    I think the point is that to be a liberal journalist you don’t need a point at all – just a point of view, that of one with a “tangled” and “unhappy” regard of America.

  12. David Ellis says:

    The influence of American youth gang culture in UK schools is something that causes me great concern.

    What I do regard as real leadership in the UK is the recent speech by the Commissioner of the Metopolitan Police Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe stating his support for random drug-testing in the workplace – such a measure is very welcome indeed not least because of the association between drugs and firearms.

    Drug-testing teachers in schools would allow teachers to demonstrate a practical moral discipline to their pupils on drugs and crime generally, it will help them challenge the gang culture that lies hidden in their students and even their parents.

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