Between Louse and Double Louse




Watching clips [though not the live telecast] of last Thursday’s first presidential debate between US President Joseph Biden of the Democratic Party and his rival and predecessor in office Donald Trump, who has clinched the ticket of the Republican Party, reminded me of the legendary American labour leader George Meany. He was for three years President of the powerful American Federation of Labour [AFL] and for 24 years was President of AFL-CIO, after its merger with Congress of Industrial Organisations [CIO] in 1955. George Meany was a  labour union official for 57 years from 1923 until his death in 1980. That was more than the tenures of NLC Presidents/Interim Administrators Hassan Sunmonu, Ali Ciroma, Paschal Bafyau, Ahmed Mohammed, Adams Oshiomhole, Abdulwahid Umar, Ayuba Wabba and Joe Ajero combined from 1978 to 2024.

As the 1972 American presidential race was shaping up, just like its 2024 race is now shaping up, President Richard Nixon was virtually unchallenged in his Republican party and liberal Senator George McGovern of South Dakota seemed set to clinch the Democratic Party’s ticket. For different reasons, George Meany was known to dislike both men. When it became clear that the choice before American voters in 1972 was going to be between Nixon and McGovern, reporters rushed to AFL-CIO headquarters and asked Meany who he will vote for.

In truth, it was more than that. In those days, Big Labour’s support was a major factor in American politics. It was a major financial contributor; it often distributed millions of leaflets and bought quality TV time for the candidates it supported, most often Democrats. Especially in the industrial states of the Midwest and Great Lakes region, Big Labour also deployed tens of thousands of Union footmen to knock at doors on Election Day and urge supporters to go out and vote. So, Meany’s support wasn’t just about his personal vote. When reporters popped the question, Meany gave the appalling choice a minute’s thought. Then, with a dark frown on his scraggy face, he said, “McGovern is a louse.” President Nixon’s campaign strategists, who were intently listening in, were briefly elated. But Meany had not finished. His face darkened even more, and with a very dark frown on his face, he added, “But Nixon is a double louse.”

That remark alone was thought to have earned Meany a pride of place in the Nixon Administration’s Enemies List. American newspapers discovered that year that the Nixon White House had compiled what became known as “The Enemies List.” A White House official said in a memo that the purpose of the list was “how to use the available Federal machinery to screw our political enemies.” It included all the top Democratic Party leaders and senators, many prominent writers and academics, left-leaning Hollywood film stars, musicians, labour leaders, journalists and even sportsmen. The notoriously apolitical football legend Joe Namath featured on the list, and when reporters rushed to him and asked him why his name was on the list, he said, “I have no idea.”

Also on the Nixon Enemies List was his former Interior Secretary Walter J Hickel. A small book I read in the 1970s described Hickel as “winner of the 1938 Kansas Golden Gloves boxing championship who went on to strongarm his way to a fortune in the construction industry and to political prominence as Governor of Alaska.” It also said, “In Nixon White House meetings, Hickel could be entrusted to enliven proceedings. He would laugh raucously, bang the table and proceed to lace his points with lurid profanities.” I have been trying to figure out who is his equivalent in the Tinubu cabinet. Walter Hickel however ended up in the Nixon Enemies List because, though politically conservative, he turned out to be a liberal on environmental issues and was booted out of the Administration after what he himself described as a strange meeting with Nixon, where the president described him as an “adversary.”

I have deviated. Returning to the role of Big Labour in American presidential elections, I was watching a live CNN report of the 2000AD elections, before the dimple chads in Florida issue came up and the networks couldn’t call a winner. [Unlike here in Nigeria, it is television networks, not the INEC Chairman, that calls a winner in US elections and the losing candidate immediately phones his rival to concede.] In 2000AD though, when the networks initially called Florida for Bush and declared him winner, Al Gore phoned George Bush Junior to concede but when CNN withdrew the call shortly after, Gore called Bush and withdrew the concession.

Before all that happened, CNN’s live election commentator Bill Snyder analysed how the influence of Big Labour enabled Democratic candidate Al Gore to win the key industrial Great Lakes states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin. He then said, “Labour has delivered to Al Gore” [he paused, nodded his head three times and added], “big time!”

Two brief thoughts here. One is, I can imagine many Americans, and many other leaders and people in other parts of the world, will be appalled by the choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Which one is the louse and which one is the double louse, depends on who is doing the evaluation. Within the US, polls indicate that a plurality of potential voters think Biden is the double louse, especially after his near-disastrous performance in last Thursday’s debate. A big factor in this matter is Biden’s age. In truth, the combined age of Biden and Trump, 159, puts African leaders in good light. Only last year, I saw social media posts complaining that the average age of African leaders is 80, but here come Biden, 81 and Trump, 78. Their combined age goes back to the mid-19th century, three decades before the Kano civil war, Yakin Basasa.

If many Americans think Biden is a double louse, imagine what the people of Gaza, Lebanese, Arabs, progressives, liberals, humanists, anti-imperialists and left-wingers around the world will think of him, continuing to ship arms to Israel in the midst of the worst genocide in human history since Cambodia under Pol Pot in the early 1970s. The US and NATO under President Clinton twice went to war in the Balkans to stop much lesser genocides in Bosnia Herzegovina and in Kosovo. Forget for a moment that they did not raise a finger to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, but when a British Defence Secretary was asked in a live BBC radio program why NATO should intervene in Kosovo when it did not intervene in Rwanda, he said, “The fact that you cannot help everybody does not mean you should not help somebody.”

If so many people around the world think of Biden as the Meany-described double louse, imagine how many people think of Donald Trump in similar terms. Within the US alone there are legalists who think of him as a convicted felon; there are feminists and moralists who think of his philandering record; there are many well educated folks who are appalled by his uncouth language and methods; there are journalistic fact-checkers who found out that he told many lies last Thursday; and there are those who think of him as a 21st century Robin Hood, whose economic policies will rob the poor and give to the rich.

Mexicans, Latin Americans and illegal immigrants within the US must think of Trump’s immigration policies and his promise to build a wall on the US’ southern border and make Mexico to pay for it. If Gazans think of Biden as a double louse, they must think of Trump as a triple louse, notably because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be dragging his feet on a Biden endorsed ceasefire plan in hopes that Trump will win the election in November and discard it. As for Ukrainians, who expect Trump to end all support to them and leave them to the tender mercies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump must be a quadruple louse. All Europeans also fear that Trump could rip up the NATO charter and end the continent’s smug feeling of safety under the US nuclear umbrella, all of them within striking distance of Russian tactical nukes under Putin’s itchy fingers.

Iranians, Cubans, South Koreans, Afghans, Lebanese and Black Africans all might not be fond of Joseph Biden but, with the possible exception of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, might not be elated by Trump’s likely return to the White House.

Ok, let’s leave the Biden-Trump louses. The second issue is, here at home, instead of waiting until elections are over and then start endless rounds of negotiations with the winners over minimum wage and intermittent strikes, why won’t NLC and TUC do like American Big Labour, deliver to a certain candidate “big time” as Bill Snyder said, and wait to reap the benefits when he wins? Quite aright, there is a Labour Party [Elu Pi] in Nigeria but it is doubtful if Labour has any influence in even that. The party’s presidential candidate in the 2023 election was a right-winger, as far as anyone could deduce from his political career and his many speeches during the long campaign. Of course there are hazards in Labour playing a more active role in Nigerian election campaigns. On the other hand, Labour cannot, like clerics or traditional rulers, be morally bound to sit on the political fence because they don’t have the same role in society requiring political detachment.

Anyway, everyone and every part of the world should figure out for themselves who is the louse and who is the double louse in this American contest. In Nigeria however, Labour should think hard, between itself and government, who is the louse and who is the double louse. If any investigative journalist ever finds out that the Tinubu State House has a Nixon-style Enemies List, Joe Ajaero is likely to feature in it, just behind Atiku Abubakar, Peter Obi, Rabi’u Kwankwaso, Ayo Adebanjo and Olusegun Obasanjo.

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