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The View From London: "Anyone But Bush!"

London streets

A young reader of The Sunday Times, in London's Piccadilly.

ELECTION 2008

U.S. presidential races are something of a mystery to most British voters. Here a primary is a school for kids under 11 and McCain is a type of oven chip. We have no idea what a caucus is or why there isn't one simple first-past-the-post vote for the Republican and Democrat presidential nomination. So it's not surprising that much of the race for the White House coverage in the UK has focused on personalities.

In the UK, where the Iraq war is widely seen as a foreign policy disaster, we yearn for anyone but Bush. After Barack Obama's early surprise success against Hillary Clinton, the fact that he could become the first black U.S. president generated huge coverage here. It was as if this charismatic new voice reminded us of our ultimately doomed flirtation with the youthful Tony Blair. Last week, when Senator Edward Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy endorsed Obama, it pressed even more media buttons. The Guardian, house paper of Britain's liberal establishment, called the passing of the JFK mantle, "The Coronation."

It was as if this charismatic new voice reminded us of our ultimately doomed flirtation with the youthful Tony Blair.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has been subjected to a mauling, particularly from women. Her recent tears outside a New Hampshire cafe were gleefully shown on all the main UK TV channels. In The Guardian, they inspired a two-page feature about "the power of tears."

"Watching Hillary Clinton pretending to get teary-eyed is enough to make me give up shedding tears altogether," wrote Australian academic and feminist Germaine Greer.

The Daily Mail, a solidly middle-class paper often derided for being read "by the wives of the people who run the country," regularly targets illegal asylum seekers and political correctness -- and more recently, the Clintons. The paper, which has a large female following, normally angles its stories toward women; yet, The Mail is strikingly conservative in tone toward emancipated women. Much of the criticism against Hillary Clinton has been toxic, even by British press standards. One recent Mail feature ran under the headline, "The dangers for Britain if this poisonous pair triumph."

London newspaper stand.

Britain has one of the most fiercely competitive newspaper industries in the world.

The Mail's right-wing political commentator Peter Oborne criticized the Clinton camp for "loathsome" attacks on Obama's Muslim links and the candidate's youthful drug-taking. "Obama seems capable of restoring a desperately needed decency to U.S. politics ... It would be desperately sad if the moral squalor of the Clinton machine prevails," Oborne told his readers.

The British public is probably kinder to the Clintons than its best-selling mid-brow newspaper, but in an increasing celebrity-driven culture, as much coverage is given to the state of her marriage as to her policies for fixing America. Her association with Bill Clinton, seen here as the American version of Tony Blair, exposes her to resentment felt by many over the later Blair years. And yes, some of the criticism may just be old-fashioned sexism.

What About the Republicans?

Thus far, nearly all the media coverage has been around the race for the Democratic nomination. The Guardian devoted six pages recently to polling black Americans about their views on Obama. Perhaps this is because Britain's "special relationship" with America has soured since British troops joined the U.S. in invading Iraq and Afghanistan and the public has switched its attention to green issues. Even David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservative party, has rebranded himself as a committed environmentalist, and there is rancor at the U.S.'s refusal to sign up to the Kyoto protocol. Hence, the yearning for an independent U.S. leader of vision.

Virtually all we've heard about Republican front-runner John McCain is that he is a bit old, a Vietnam war veteran and prone to temper tantrums -- and frankly a little too gray to sell papers when there's Britney.

Virtually all we have heard about Republican front-runner John McCain is that he is a bit old, a Vietnam war veteran and prone to temper tantrums -- and frankly a little too gray to sell papers when there's Britney.

Perhaps self-consciously aware of the imbalance, the fair-minded Guardian asked in a recent headline, "Which Republican gets the liberal vote?" Alongside photos of each candidate, the captions read: "Mike Huckabee: anti-gun control, anti-abortion, creationist ... but cares about workers' rights. John McCain: pro-surge, anti-abortion, pro tax-cuts ... but opposes torture and fights global warming. Rudy Giuliani: authoritarian, anti-immigration, would bomb Iran ... but once slept on a gay friend's couch (he's now out of the race, of course). Mitt Romney: pro-war, anti-abortion, anti-immigration ... we couldn't find anything liberal, sorry."

Contact Sport

Much of the election coverage has come midway through the national TV news bulletins or buried on the international pages of the broadsheets. The notorious tabloids have been even more elusive in their reporting, at least until they found an angle to amuse the public -- football (that's spelled "soccer" in the United States). Lowbrow tabloid The Sun delighted in outing Obama as a fan of English Premier League side West Ham United.

Obama picture in the Sun newspaper.

The Sun published a doctored picture of Obama wearing a West Ham football shirt and waving a West Ham scarf above a parody of the team's club crest that read, "White House United."

The Sun's Page 3 (famed for its pictures of topless models) splashed the news, "West Ham may soon have a fan in the West Wing -- White House contender Barack Obama. U.S. presidential hopeful Mr. Obama, 46, has been following the Hammers ever since a visit to Britain five years ago."

The story was accompanied by a doctored picture of Obama wearing a West Ham football shirt and waving a West Ham scarf above a parody of the team's club crest that read, "White House United."

The Sun said that Obama's campaign team had "recently revealed that he is a massive soccer fan and was a nifty player himself while a student at Harvard." His sister had married an Englishman, and Obama's new relatives in Kent, in Southern England, were all West Ham fanatics.

This is all in good fun; there's nothing remotely political about Obama's alleged support for West Ham. But since most Brits understand even less about U.S. sports than the presidential elections -- even if an NFL game was recently played at the UK's national stadium -- having Obama become an English football fan was an entertaining diversion.

Last week's star-studded presidential debate at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles attracted a phalange of British reporters, most of them in attendance more for the Hollywood celebrity count and strategic endorsements than the sparring between candidates.

The Guardian noted that Americans are about to get a "welcome respite from the presidential race when the nation switches its attention to another form of violent contact sport -- American football" with the airing of the Super Bowl.

The commuter free-sheet The London Paper, read by thousands of London tube and bus commuters each day, described the Clinton/Obama debate as a "TV love-in," while The Guardian noted that Americans are about to get a "welcome respite from the presidential race when the nation switches its attention to another form of violent contact sport -- American football" with the airing of the Super Bowl. [Ed. Note: In the U.S., Hillary Clinton became an overnight super fan of the New York Giants after the team's upset victory over the New England Patriots. "Super Bowl, Super Tuesday. We've got one down; let's get the other," she told supporters.]

For Britain's radio listeners, the BBC's daily current affairs program "Today" on Radio 4 is the favored early morning listening of the chattering middle classes. Presenters used sound bites from the Hollywood debate to emphasize Clinton and Obama clashing over Iraq. The Daily Telegraph, while admitting that most of the debate was "cloyingly cordial," played up "Clinton's judgment questioned over Iraq." It claimed "Mr. Obama watched with silent pleasure as the former First Lady squirmed while she struggled to justify her Iraq vote."

Bush's Poodle

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is often ridiculed for being "Bush's poodle," and the public is looking for a new relationship with Washington that doesn't mean simply following the United States into ill-advised wars. Gordon Brown's decision last year to withdraw British troops out of Basra city was greeted with relief.

Obama is generating the most buzz and the most column inches -- and not just here but across Europe. It's as if we want to identify with the candidate who most differs from George W. Bush.

This recent history goes some way to explaining the extraordinary interest in Obama. British journalists are often more caustic and cynical than their U.S. counterparts, but across both the right- and left-leaning media here, Obama is generating the most buzz and the most column inches -- and not just here but across Europe. It's as if we want to identify with the candidate who most differs from George W. Bush.

"He is the anti-Bush: young, vibrant, idealistic, intelligent and -- there is no getting around it -- undeniably hip ... just the idea of Barack Obama is irresistible," wrote The Guardian.

In a two-page interview with Obama in The Daily Telegraph last weekend, the paper ran a large photo of Obama looking JFK-like on board his campaign plane "Obama One."

The young senator reassured the British, saying, "I'll see the world through your eyes," and citing the fact that he'd lived overseas in Indonesia as proof of his inclusiveness.

He also told the paper that his election would "signal a clear break" from the past, suggesting that Clinton did not.

"I would come to meetings with world leaders with the understanding that I was opposed to this war in Iraq from the start, that I had consistently described a U.S. foreign policy that puts diplomacy at the forefront."

Two days before Super Tuesday, The Observer, The Guardian's Sunday paper, asked, "Could the new dawn promised by Barack Obama survive the brutal politics of the two party machines?" An editorial in The Sunday Times disagreed, eulogizing the U.S. presidential campaign as "a lesson to democracy" that was "reinvigorating American politics."

The Times also contrasted the U.S. campaign with Gordon Brown's uncontested succession to Tony Blair, which it called "an insult to democracy.... Only by being tested in the cauldron of a campaign do we find the measure of the person."

Spectator Sport

There's been a certain welcome distraction in the U.S. election coverage from the indecision that has blighted the last few months of Brown's premiership. Brown might be slightly more detached from Bush than his predecessor, but he has not been able to get beyond the label of "ditherer" since considering and then failing to call a snap election last fall.

For many self-deprecating Brits, the U.S. presidential campaign can come off as a mass of rhetorical hooplah that feels scripted and contrived when set against the yahoo blood sport of Prime Minister's Question Time in Parliament.

Yet, the run up to Super "Duper" Tuesday still attracted less coverage than the Super Bowl Final, screened live on BBC on Sunday night. For many self-deprecating Brits, the U.S. presidential campaign can come off as staged -- a mass of rhetorical hooplah and flag waving that feels scripted and contrived when set against the yahoo blood sport of Prime Minister's Question Time in Parliament.

What we Brits do know is that we don't like the neocons who dragged us into Iraq, and Republican candidates like Mitt Romney remind us of the Radiohead song, "Paranoid Android."

Yet those here who are following the presidential race are beginning to find some genuine excitement. Obama seems to be our man, offering a welcome mix of diplomacy and, let's be honest, relatives in Kent. Reporting from Washington over the weekend, The Observer's political columnist Andrew Rawnsley told his readers, "[Obama] rouses crowds to a genuine exuberance that you so rarely see in contemporary politics."

The Brits still have trouble differentiating Super Tuesday from Shrove Tuesday, but as the campaign cauldron simmers we might just be starting to enjoy the spectacle. Even if we don't understand the math.

Pete May is an author and journalist living in London. He is an avid West Ham supporter.

From Our Files
Obama: The Kenya Connection
In this recent dispatch, Kenyan journalist and commentator Edwin Okong'o writes about his country's claims on the young Senator and the sometimes fraught relationship between African immigrants and African-Americans in the U.S.