Presidents, poker and a fear of fat

April 21, 2000

Did you hear the one about the US president, the fat king and the radio psychiatrist? selects the highlights from this year's British Association of American Studies conference at University of Wales, Swansea.

Twenty-five years on from a traumatic defeat, the Vietnam war still resonates across the collective memory, national policies and politics of the United States.

The continuing salience of Vietnam was reflected as the British Association for American Studies held its annual conference last week at the University of Wales, Swansea. One of the most positive aspects of the event was that many participants were too young to remember the last Americans fleeing Saigon in 1975.

But one moment that gripped participants of all ages was a short film clip, introduced in the symposium "Reporting War" by the veteran CBS correspondent Jack Laurence, of his 24-year-old self on the frontline with US troops as they fought house by house through the devastated city of Hue.

This footage sparked a pointed debate between Laurence, BBC veteran Charles Wheeler and Michael Mahar, air attache at the US embassy and a Gulf war pilot, over war reporting, which served to underline the all-but insuperable conflicts of interest involved.

Vietnam's impact on US policy was outlined in a paper by one of the association's younger researchers, Trevor McCrisken, who teaches at Sussex and Middlesex universities, on American Exceptionalism and the Vietnam Syndrome. He argued that while Vietnam had shaken the US's faith in its "exceptionalism" - by demonstrating that the US was not invincible and by involving the country in what many people saw as an unjust war - it had not destroyed that faith.

Post-Vietnam presidents had seen restoring America's sense of itself as one of their prime tasks - George Bush greeted victory in the Gulf war as burying Vietnam syndrome. But McCrisken argues: "Far from burying Vietnam syndrome, the way in which the Gulf war was conducted, in particular the decision not to go on to Baghdad once the objective of liberating Kuwait had been accomplished, showed how strong the syndrome's influence is." He added: "Going on to Baghdad could have involved a long-term commitment of the sort the US has been determined to avoid since Vietnam."

Since Vietnam, he argued, there have been three essential requirements for US military intervention: "A just cause must be demonstrated, the objectives must be compelling and obtainable, and there have to be sufficient resources available to attain the objectives with the minimum of casualties. Each intervention, from the Mayaguez in 1975 to Kosovo in 1999, has fulfilled these conditions, while Bosnia is a good example of where there was no intervention."

The war also furnished one of the most arresting hypotheses floated by any contributor - the suggestion by Jon Roper of the University of Wales, Swansea that the US might not have got so mired in Vietnam under the Kennedy presidency had JFK's leisure pursuit been poker rather than Marilyn Monroe.

Roper pointed out that Kennedy succeeded a line of poker players - Franklin Roosevelt (1932-45), an excellent player; Harry Truman (1945-52), whose doctor recorded that he used the game to size people up; and Dwight Eisenhower (1952-60), who made a profitable business of it. Richard Nixon apparently funded his early political career with his poker winnings.

Roper said: "There is little evidence that Kennedy was informed or guided by a pragmatic sense of limit (something poker might have provided) - what Stephen Ambrose has called 'the vital political lesson of knowing when to fold and withdraw'."

* THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KING

A new ballet commissioned by Sadlers Wells will mix the music of Richard Wagner and Elvis Presley (right). Meanwhile, author John Updike recently published a sonnet titled Jesus and Elvis.

These were just two among a multiplicity of examples cited by Ralph Willett of Hull University to demonstrate Presley's continuing cultural importance more than 20 years after his death.

Willett argues that, in many cases, remembering the singer took the form of religious observance: "His fans are disciples - a term Elvis used himself. They collect relics, display icons and images and make pilgrimages to Tupelo, Hawaii, Las Vegas and Graceland. 'Elvis Week' in August includes an all-night vigil at Graceland, which has echoes of a midnight mass."

Many fans also build shrines in their homes: "This is a throwback to the 19th-century concept of the home as a sanctuary, and also displays links to the Latino Roman Catholic tradition of domestic shrines or altars," Willett says.

Linking the cult to a strain in religions in the southern United States that emphasises the worship of the dead, Willett points out that Presley's stage act - "a secular conduit for evangelical forms" - owed a great deal to the revivalism and physicality of the pentecostal preachers of his youth.

At the same time, Willett argues, the singer probably had a stronger sense of proportion about his cult status than his followers: "A fan once presented him with a golden crown, saying, 'You're the king'. Elvis replied: 'Jesus is the king. I'm just a singer'."

* FAT AIN'T FUNNY, IT'S A SERIOUS BUSINESS

Americans - in particular, women - spend between $33 billion and $50 billion a year on diet-related products and services. Seventy-two per cent of American women will diet in any year, while 20 per cent of those who are actually underweight believe they are overweight.

Amy Farrell, a historian of US feminism based at the University of East Anglia, cited these figures to demonstrate the current importance of the dieting industry. Most accounts date the industry back to the 1920s and the fashion for the "flapper" look. But Farrell's research, using the cartoons and advertisements in the popular weekly magazine Life, suggests that the diet industry was in fact firmly established before the first world war.

While in the early 19th century, weight tended to be associated with wealth and health, there is a clear shift by the end of the century, particularly for women.

As early as 1887, the Lytton company of New York, under the heading "To Ladies: Are You Corpulent?" was advertising a diet promising a weight loss of 10lbs to 15lbs. Cartoons making fun of fat people also started to appear in the 1880s.

Farrell notes that the two grew alongside each other. "Fat began to be perceived as a form of deviance. There were more fat-related jokes in the early 1900s and more weight-reduction advertisements," she says.

* WHY THE BROTHERS KNOW NO BROTHERS

The sit-com Frasier (right) has been among the television phenomena of the past decade. Despite the hard-right politics of its star, Kelsey Grammer, it is particularly popular with Guardian readers and their US equivalents.

It is set in Seattle, a city where 10 per cent of the population is black and just under 12 per cent Asian, yet the cast is exclusively white.

"Ethnic diversity is represented by an English character," says James Lyons, a doctoral student in the Institute of Film Studies, Nottingham University, whose paper, I Don't Think I've ever Met a Brother from Seattle in My Life, Man, examined images of the city in popular culture.

The title was drawn from a line spoken by a black actor in The Larry Sanders Show, another successful comedy. Lyons points out that all-white representations of Seattle, a city given unprecedented prominence by the success of local companies such as Microsoft and Starbucks, are common in films such as Sleepless in Seattle and Singles.

In part, this reflects a general media under-representation of ethnic minorities - last year National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People president Kweisi Mfume pointed out that not one of 26 new shows scheduled by the main networks for the autumn had a minority actor in a leading role.

But Lyons argues that Seattle has a significance of its own: "It is a city free from association with violent ethnic conflict. Its whiteness is liberal and urbane, and its ethnic minority population, though substantial, has arrived relatively recently."

This whiteness, without the guilt associated with race relations in the south or cities such as New York and Chicago, gives Seattle the cultural position of "an oasis, particularly for the jittery middle-classes", Lyons says.

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