Least said, soonest elected to high office

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WITH only 12 months to go before the next presidential election, Americans are once again displaying a dangerous predilection for candidates who know little or nothing about politics. It's the same distrust of politicians that turned the absurd Ross Perot into a contender three years ago; for an alarming moment, it seemed that people were prepared to vote for a man whose best-known policy was a disinclination to employ men with beards.

I'm not fond of facial hair myself but it doesn't strike me as the germ of a coherent political programme. Yet the practice of courting popularity by saying as little as possible strikes deep chords on both sides of the Atlantic, as evidenced by the dismay that greeted the announcement that General Colin Powell had decided not to run for president.

A leader in the Times regretted Powell's choice: "The notion of a black Eisenhower, riding back to save the political establishment from itself, had resonance beyond nostalgia." Yet the general's politics are so opaque that it only recently became clear that he would have been a contender for the Republican nomination, rather than an independent candidate.

We know he's pro-choice on abortion and in favour of affirmative action to promote black people, positions that would endear him to more Democrats than Republicans. But what he thinks on major issues, such as the economy, is an unknown quantity. Indeed his dignified admission that he lacked "a commitment and a passion to run the race" could be read as a coded acknowledgement that he hasn't got any policies; there isn't much point fighting your way into the White House if you haven't a clue what to do when you get there.

"THE future is the future," Powell remarked gnomically when asked whether he was ruling himself out of presidential contests after 1996. What's amazing about the adulation he inspires is that it's all too obvious what happens when you pick a leader for negative reasons. There was widespread relief in Britain when the relatively unknown John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1990, largely on the grounds that he was not perceived as an ideologue, but it didn't last long.

We've now been saddled for five years with a man whose one Big Idea is an increase in the number of motorway toilets. He's also turned out to be vulnerable to any barmy scheme pressed upon him, from railway privatisation to supporting President Chirac's undeclared nuclear war on harmless Pacific atolls. Millions of Americans are distraught about General Powell's decision not to enter politics but they may have had a narrow escape.

I DON'T have a television so I missed the moment on Sunday evening when the actress Isla Blair, in her own words, took her "kit off on screen" in The Final Cut. But I couldn't avoid the excited discussion that followed including a detailed description in one newspaper of the state of her nipples. Blair has tried to distance herself from the episode, declaring that it wasn't really her on screen - she meant she was playing a role, not that she used a body double - and insisting that her family is more important than her career.

The excitement is, naturally, all to do with Blair's age. "It is difficult to believe she has a 26-year-old son," the Times prattled, a polite way of saying she's in very good shape for a woman in her 40s. It's hardly surprising Blair feels uncomfortable with such backhanded compliments but they make me wonder when we're going to wake up to the fact that women over 35 are grown-ups. Around that age you suddenly realise you've entered a wilderness between the infantilised twenty-something sex objects ("girls") and the respectable grannies.

I could be charitable and argue that, hundreds of years ago, girls were catapulted from youth to age by repeated pregnancies; middle age didn't exist for women in the Middle Ages. Now it does, but we're still expected to behave as if the only categories available to us are babe or crone.

ON Monday evening I went to see the new movie Farinelli: Il Castrato, which is the more-or-less true story of two brothers, an opera singer and a composer. I've been enthusing all week about its Caravaggesque shadows and dark eroticism but the men I've spoken to have been interested in only one thing - the precise nature and consequences of the operation that prevents the singer developing a normal tenor voice.

In the film, he's shown seducing a number of women but at the crucial point, so to speak, his brother takes over. A couple of nights later, over dinner with a doctor friend at the Royal Society of Medicine, I asked the obvious question. They removed the testicles, my friend said bluntly, although there is a grey area about the effect of the procedure on sexual performance.

In the 18th century, when 70 per cent of Italian opera singers are reckoned to have been castrati, it was not unknown for them to take wives. "The castrato Tenducci surprised me by introducing me to his wife, by whom he had two children," wrote Casanova after a visit to Covent Garden. "He laughed at people who said that a castrato could not procreate."

I assumed that the castrati came into existence because composers preferred male soprano voices but, according to Professor Marjorie Garber, the explanation is more sinister. In her book Vested Interests, she says it was a solution "offered by the medieval church to get around the regulation that women were not to sing in churches" - a literal interpretation of St Paul's admonition, "Let your women keep silent in the churches". Castration may seem a drastic way of getting round the problem but it proves that misogyny, about which I once wrote a book, damages men as well as women.