Six years ago I took my son, Milo, to Bucharest for his birthday. In the baking July sun, seeking shade, we crouched on the kerb in front of the presidential palace. And I played him the footage of the crowds on that bitter December morning of 1989 as Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena emerged on to the balcony. The speech Ceausescu gave, or tried to give, on 21 December was his last. And it was extraordinary. Ceausescu used his balcony address to reassure, cajole, bribe the crowd. But it turned against him as he stood there. This footage — state TV rolling live at the time — became the physical, televisual embodiment of power seeping away from a president. The leaders and their bodyguards are above them, removed. But it is those on the ground who now control the narrative that will end his days. We watch Ceausescu’s face as it begins to understand that. He and his wife tried to flee the next morning but they were caught, ‘tried’ for genocide and subversion of state power and executed by firing squad four days later on Christmas Day. It is mesmerising for a political journalist to see how easily and how quickly power can be lost.
I suppose the pandemic of 1918 is the first thing that comes to mind. However, the period of history that I’m most focused on now is the Depression from 1929-1939. I believe that decade taught us what it was like for Americans to fail to recognise their priorities and to believe in an economic growth that largely benefits Wall Street and ignores Main Street. An America that does not recognise a healthy middle class and working class is doomed to repeat the lessons we might have learned from the 1930s.