Monday, 30 September 2019


My obit of Joseph C Wilson, the former US Ambassador who went to Niger to investigate whether Iraq was trying to buy uranium, and discovered that, contrary to the Bush administration's claims, they weren't, is online on the Guardian's website now. You can link to it here. It will appear in the paper paper soon.

It is pretty much as I wrote it. Having to condense the whole business and combine it with Wilson's life made for little excess to cut away! I was amazed at the relatively easy the road to entering governmental service seemed to be for both Plame and Wilson. It might have been nice to expand the whistleblower motif to today's situation, where the case for keeping secret the identity of the CIA whistleblower re Trump's Ukraine phone call  is reinforced by the Plame Affair. I also would have liked to have more detail about the Wilson/Clinton relationship; I wonder who would play Clinton in that movie. I've never seen Fair Game but I might have to now after seeing the still the Guardian printed: it's interesting how much less serious Sean Penn and Naomi Watts look than their real life counterparts, and how it's actually Plame who's flattered by the actor portraying her.

Thursday, 5 September 2019


There is an interesting moment in Big Game when author Mark Leibovich mentions he had been reading 'an old book about the NFL, The League, by David Harris. It's a throwaway (the book is not mentioned in the index) because he's identifying where he first heard the story of Mark Davis' bar-mitzvah (Davis, son of Al, is now the Raiders' owner). Big Game is a strange book, because it basically cannot do what it purports to want to do, which is examine the NFL in the 'dangerous times' of Donald Trump, but in essence that is exactly what David Harris' book did, in 1986, which hardly makes it an 'old' book. Harris already saw the NFL in decline, and wrote about the way the business functioned as it became a sort of corporate monopoly. The NFL has prospered exponentially since then but Harris was also prescient in the very sense that Leibovich wants to examine, the sense that the league is a mirror and a signpost for American society. In the end, however, his book turns out to be more a part of that mirror than a signpost toward a better future.
The book instead is a sort of corollary to Leibovich's main gig writing from Washington about life styles for the New York Times magazine, a Sunday colour supplement that celebrates celebrity at the same time it bemoans its pernicious influence. Given that the book was written at the time Donald Trump (himself a frustrated NFL owner) was attacking the NFL (which is heavily dependent on its exemption from government monopoly regulation) this created a perfect storm for Leibovich to investigate, if not exploit. Which is odd also in the sense that, to an American audience of football fans, there will be little here that is new, while to a British audience, much that needs to be explained is left unexplained because the American audience already knows the stories. Leibovich admits he doesn't always cover football, which makes him somewhat similar to his New York Times colleague who covers horse racing but is crdentialed next to him in the Super Bowl press box because, well, this is the New York Times.

Leibovich is a Patriots fan too, which puts him in the centre of the Ballghazi (aka Deflategate) scandal, which is not really the best way to approach the structural truths about the NFL. Instead he tries to draw a metaphoric connection between the Patriots, Bob Kraft, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Trump (not a difficult connection so far, as the three Pats are Trump 'friends', and Kraft at least was a major donor). It takes him until election night, watching future ambassador to the UK and New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, to make that connection, and he decides he has grown 'weary of the … moral agonizing that surrounded the game'. It was as if he had only just then discovered NFL owners, as he puts it, 'with few exceptions, lean Republican'. The way Gronk laying out for a pass may be said to be 'leaning' just before his body smashes against the turf. He concludes that 'for consumers of football, politics and life in America, this had been a brutal season.'  Before you say 'no shit Sherlock', you need to consider he never really explains whence that brutality comes.

So what you get is really Lifestyles Of The Rich And Football Famous, which is somewhat revealing and sometimes entertaining, but never really on message. Unless the message is that the NFL is, for its owners, a different sort of big game, which would contradict the book's subtitles, since the times don't seem that dangerous to them, especially as the money continues to roll in. Like F Scott Fitzgerald, Leibovich has discovered the rich are different from you and me, and he's sharp enough to realise that Commissioner Roger Goodell's selling of the NFL as a liberation for the boring workaday lives of average Joes, is a a sort of reality TV.

But he admits that he is also a fan, and he seems to be seeking solace of his own when he interviews Tom Brady for a NYTimes Magazine profile, and Brady, while seeming perfectly pleasant in a business-like way, misses the chance to befriend him. All of a sudden he's lost in a sort of limbo where the celebrity life-style of the marketing TB12, the sort of thing he normally celebrates, conflicts with his idea of the game. Who would have thought? That's WHY the Times sent him! 
It's also no fun to read about his difficulties with access—it reminded me of Richard Hoffer's book about Mike Tyson, where Don King is boycotting Sports Illustrated because they are part of the Time Warner empire alongside HBO, and Hoffer can't get any access, and all the best lines in his book are quotes from boxing beat writers. Then again, Leibovich can't fit that into the bigger picture: it's not easy, like when he deals with owners. But he does write very well and movingly about his own father, who was dying at the time, beyond trying to link the event to Brady's parents.

He's very funny about the owners as they parade around meetings with their latest trophy wives or girlfriends (and Kraft's deflations at a Florida massage parlor just down the road from Mar A Lago would have been more grist for that mill). They come off, so to speak, like richer proctologists at a proctologists convention, and the very best scene in the book comes when he spends some time interviewing Jerry Jones in his private bus, drinking Johnny Walker Blue from giant Cowboys 24 oz plastic stadium cups. Jones leaves him passed out in the trailer.  It's Jones who has the best line in the book: “Do you think the (TV) networks pay these rights fees to broke dicks? With their asses hanging out?” But sadly, he never talks to a network exec, or a former network exec without a skin in the game.

There is a constant irritation in the book when you realise it's been pieced together from various separate interviews (composted, too, meaning the use of off-cut material from earlier interviews) as characters get reintroduced, one, Indianapolis sportswriter Bob Kravitz, at the heart of Ballghazi (aka Deflategate) (see how irritating that is the second time?) twice within the space of five pages. And there are insights like 'pie is delicious' which seem less than revelatory. But perhaps the real problem is, as Leibovich says, “football is football, angst is for writers”. Perhaps a contrast of the real angst of football with the faux-angst of 'protecting the Shield' and keeping the cash flowing might have been more instructive.

BIG GAME: The NFL In Dangerous Times
by Mark Leibovich
Harper Collins £16.99 ISBN 9780008317614