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John Walsh

John Walsh: Obama's book is an exercise in vanity

Heroism is in the news, in the graceful person of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, released from house arrest and immediately calling, with virtually her first breath of freedom, for a peaceful revolution in Burma. It was as if her 20-odd years of incarceration had been a mere detail, a hiccup, a weekend mini-break.

The relentlessness of virtue has never been more eloquently demonstrated. Her reappearance on the world stage coincides with President Obama's new dispatch on the subject of heroism, following his two bestselling autobiographies. It's called Of Thee I Sing, and offers a tribute to 13 famous Americans who will, he hopes, inspire his children.

You may recall that Gordon Brown produced a broadly similar book in 2007, called Courage: Eight Portraits, which examined the lives of egregiously virtuous people: Edith Cavell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Raoul Wallenstein, Cicely Saunders (who started the hospice movement) and Aung San Suu Kyi herself.

Brown's approach was hagiographical but his purpose and was clear. He thinks heroism inheres in having a serious moral purpose, in devoting long stretches of your life to "principled causes." So courage isn't just about being brave enough to fight: it all depends what you're fighting for. Soldiers of fortune can be brave but not courageous, in the Gordonian sense.

Barack Obama has no truck with that Sunday-school dreaminess. His 13 heroes are all about achievement, in the arts, sport, politics or war. Washington and Lincoln are both in there, natch, and Neil Armstrong, despite his woeful handing of the one and only line history gave him to speak.

The anti-poverty campaigner Jane Addams is a shoo-in, as is that well-known American, Albert Einstein. You might wonder, though, about Obama's inclusion of Billie Holiday, who ruined her fabulously tremulous, child-woman voice with too many drugs, drinks and abusive men and ended her disordered and pitiful life at 44, and isn't a role model you'd recommend to many kids, except as a model of heroinism.

But as you wonder what qualifies the other figures to appear in this pantheon, it strikes you how crassly tokenist the President has been. He secures the Hispanic vote by including Cesar Chavez, the trades unionist, and solicits the black vote by including Jackie Robinson, the first black US baseball player. Asians are offered the Chinese-American Maya Lin, the Yanks' version of Rachel Whiteread, whose commission of the Vietnam Veterans Monument in Washington drew criticism from various dimwits who thought China and Vietnam were the same place.

It's absurd, isn't it? Mr Robinson and Ms Lin are hardly to be taken for heroes simply by dint of being outsiders who managed to join the establishment despite racist opposition – except that, of course, in doing so, they exactly mirror what Obama later did to American presidential politics. So, by his choice, the President is congratulating himself on his own heroism.

Obama also sucks up to native Americans by including Sitting Bull among his heroes. That's Sitting Bull who so admirably massacred every member of the 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn and later demonstrated his commitment to dignity and truth by poising on horseback as a novelty turn in Buffalo Bill's Circus after he surrendered to the US army. Proceeds from the book will go to "the families of injured military personnel." Will they include the Custers? I hope they're grateful.

My First Duchess

According to her job description, Carol Ann Duffy, our brilliant poet laureate, needn't write a poem to celebrate every Royal event. But it would be a shame if she didn't celebrate Britain's first middle-class Royal. Should she not fancy the commission, here's a contender.

Cambridge, Sussex, Connaught, Windsor -
How on earth does one decide?
Shall I leave it to the prince or
Will he leave it to his bride?

Sussex, Connaught, Windsor, Cambridge -
Which should I be Duchess of?
Middleton's a bourgeois name which
Longs to be Holstein-Romanov.

Connaught, Windsor, Cambridge, Sussex -
Places where I'm never found.
Raised 'mid Berkshire's bosky tussocks,
Chelsea's more my stamping-ground.

Jigsaw, Topshop, Party Pieces,
They're the names I really reign o'er.
Would I swap them for a palace?
Darling. That's a complete no-brainor.

Windsor, Cambridge, Sussex, Connaught -
Next the world. And I'll be queen.
Check out my LK Bennett bonnet.
Patience works. Know what I mean?