I do not know much about gods, but I think that Paxman is a kind of god — crusty, untamed and truculent. When we moved to England he was all over the airwaves, hosting Newsnight and University Challenge on BBC television and Start the Week on Radio 4. His great virtue was not caring a tinker’s cuss about anyone, cabinet ministers or toffee-nosed Oxbridge swots or war criminals. His run-in with Henry Kissinger was a thing of beauty and a joy to hear: “Did you feel a fraud accepting the Nobel prize?” He famously asked an evasive Michael Howard the same question a dozen times.
Perhaps best of all, he’s credited as saying something like “the appropriate relation of journalist to politician is that of dog to fireplug.” Though I can’t find a citation. And though he did not first say it, you can tell he’s often asking himself, “‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’”
If we’re lucky, he’ll soon cover some of the American beat.
But Paxman’s real accomplishment is not aggression or tenacity per se, but the ability to cast a pox on everyone’s house without seeming a ranting loony or a milquetoast moderate. This is most evident in his book On Royalty, where he’s able to mock small-r republicans as well as the monarchy themselves without losing his own distinctive voice. How does he do that? and why can’t more historians do that?
I have an idea that this is what makes Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization so appealing; they love the idea of America and most actual Americans but they have no time for hero worship and exhibit a strong conviction that all politicians and businessmen are rascals through and through. Maybe more history should sound like that.