I happened to be reading Goldfinger at half-term, and chuckling to myself at all the things that Bond says and does that would be completely unthinkable today.
He smokes 60 a day, he threatens to bend female secretaries over his knee and spank them – not something you could easily get away with in Whitehall these days – and he concludes his amorous escapades by triumphantly seducing the lesbian ice-queen Pussy Galore and winning her back for red-blooded heterosexuality.
It is a performance of ludicrous chauvinism and machismo; and yet the most important point about the climax of the novel is that in spite of all his marksmanship, his driving skill and his general derring-do, James Bond does not quite pull it off on his own.
Oh no. In fact, he spends a long time as the humiliated captive of Oddjob, watching helplessly as the evil golf-cheat Goldfinger prepares to launch an attack on Fort Knox. There is someone else who comes to Bond’s rescue, someone else who represents the cavalry coming tootling over the brow of the hill, and that someone is one of my favourite characters in all literature.
It is the laughing, gun-wielding, straw-haired CIA man, Felix Leiter. He rescues Bond in Goldfinger, and as far as I can remember he helps to rescue him in Thunderball, in Dr No, and he goes on to provide invaluable assistance at critical moments throughout the series, in spite of having his arm eaten by a shark in Live and Let Die.
As a child growing up in the Cold War, it was always obvious to me that Felix Leiter was more than just a prop, a plot device. By the sheer regularity with which he rescues the British agent he is clearly intended to stand for the whole relationship between America and Britain as it has been played out over the last 100 years.
He is a symbol of that great guarantee offered by America – with all her power and her can-do spirit – to the rest of the world. He reminds us of the historic role of the United States: the rich, friendly relative who, having exhausted all the other options, can generally be relied upon to do the right thing.
When Felix Leiter pulls Bond’s chestnuts out of the fire, as he so often does, he stands for the America that came to our aid at last in the First World War, the America that stormed Omaha beach, the America that faced down the Russians in the Cold War and defeated what Ronald Reagan was right to call an Evil Empire.
That’s what Felix Leiter means to me; that’s roughly what I imagine he meant to Ian Fleming; and so it was of course fascinating to see how he has evolved in the latest Bond film, Quantum of Solace. There are two important differences. First, in what can only be seen as a sad comment on the Bush years, the other Americans (apart from Leiter) are no longer good guys. Absolutely not.
Leiter saves Bond’s life, as usual, but the other Americans are up to all sorts of mischief, trying to destabilise Bolivia and even trying to assassinate Bond. And the second notable divergence from the Fleming canon is that Felix Leiter is now a black man, in recognition of the way that America is changing.
Well, folks, I guess you can see by now where this piece is leading. By this time tomorrow, unless the polls are wildly wrong, Barack Obama will incarnate that change, and as I said in this space a couple of weeks ago, there are all sorts of reasons for hoping that he makes it to the White House.
For those who have become disenchanted with America – including many Americans – he offers the hope of re-igniting the love affair. With a combination of the audacity of hope and the urgency of now and the supremacy of together (OK, I made that one up) he is going to mark a break with Bush, and give a new language and a new style to America’s identity as the world’s top nation.
Which will be great, provided he doesn’t forget that he is about to become, symbolically, Felix Leiter: he is still the guy upon whom depends British security and the security of the rest of the world. It is still a fact that we rely 100 per cent on US technology and generosity to operate our so-called independent nuclear deterrent.
The Bush presidency may have produced its share of foreign policy disasters, but that is not an argument for America to become isolationist. John McCain may have been unfortunate in his suggestion that the way to deal with Iran was “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb-bomb Iran”. But that is no reason to want any American weakness when it comes to regimes that may be threatening, whether they are in Iran or Korea or Russia.
We need the Obama presidency to continue to take a very keen interest in the Middle East – and we are not alone. It is not only Israel that appears to be reliant on America’s support. It is Israel’s enemies.
What was the most fascinating news story of the last two days? It was the revelation that the American bombing of a Syrian village – which provoked angry public protest from Damascus – was in fact conducted with what appears to have been the connivance of the Syrian military intelligence. The reason? The village near the Iraqi border was the refuge of a notorious al?Qaeda chief.
It was politically difficult for the Syrians to eliminate this nuisance themselves. So they allowed the Americans to do their dirty work, and the al-Qaeda chief was killed from the air by American might.
It was one of the very greatest American presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, who said the duty of America abroad was to “speak softly but carry a big stick”. George Bush forgot the “speak softly” bit. But Obama needs to remember the vital importance of continuing to carry a big stick. That is because the job of America is still pretty much what it was when Fleming wrote Goldfinger in 1959 – to take on the bad guys in a way that no other country is able or willing to do.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph on 04 November 2008 under the heading: “US election: Like us, James Bond needed America’s help to beat the bad guys.”]