Whatever | August 2008

Whatever | US Election ’08
Barack Obama is redrawing the map of US politics. Can you imagine any of our lot doing the same?

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I did a double-take the Chuckle Brothers would have been proud of in the first week of June, when I glimpsed the front-page headline of The London Paper, one of our great capital’s three appalling free newspapers. It read: AMERICA’S FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT. Already? I know the run-up to the US Presidential Elections drags on for years, but as a keen student of primaries and caucuses, I found it hard to believe that I’d missed the Big One. On closer inspection, the announcement turned out to have a weedy question mark on the end. (Can a query actually be a newspaper headline? FIRST MAN ON MOON? SHEEP SUCCESSFULLY CLONED? MADDY STILL MISSING?)

Never mind the tantalising possibility of Barack Obama becoming the first black president, it’s thrilling enough that the Kenyan goat-herder’s son is the first black presidential candidate. This is, after all, a country where some folk still proudly fly the Confederate flag and consider lynching to have been just a bit of fun. Even if he loses to the ancient John McCain, tautological “liberal republican” and Vietnam war hero, Obama has made history. (Not something you could say about Kerry or Dukakis or Mondale or any of the other great losing Democrats of our time.) It’s a mug’s game for foreigners to get too caught up in the faraway pomp and tickertape of American politics, for when the time comes on November 4, we’ll be the ones turning up at the church hall and asking why we don’t actually get a vote.

Since the outcome affects the lives of, hmmm, let me see, oh yes, everybody in the world, wouldn’t it be fairer if we all received a postal ballot? After all, even as a two-horse race it’s going to be a hundred times more exciting than the general election that waits around the corner for us in two years’ time. A black man versus a white man. A young man versus an old man. Hawaii versus Panama. African blood versus Scots-Irish and a dash of English. A man who opposes the war in Iraq versus one who declared in 2003 that it would be “one of the best things that’s happened to America in a long time.” (Still, I like his oven chips.)

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Barring a major upset, such as a gormless coup in the Court of Gordon Brown by any number of Millibands, or Liberal leader Nick Clegg admitting an affair with the other Cheeky Girl, our next national polling day will be untroubled by Sky One’s Gladiators: a 57-year old white Scot against a 42-year-old white Englishman and 41-year-old white Englishman. (Add two years to their ages if that’s how long it takes for the Scot to stabilise the economy using all his powers and all his skills.) The Scot thinks we would all be better off with ID cards. The Englishman doesn’t, or at least says he doesn’t. The other Englishman doesn’t, but won’t get in so it’s hypothetical. One of them claims to have enjoyed The Jam when he was at Eton (“I don’t see why the left should be the only ones to listen to protest songs”). One of them claimed to like Arctic Monkeys (they would “really wake you up in the morning”, he told New Woman, but the Number Ten rebuttal unit later repositioned the Chancellor’s statement as hypothetical, although he had heard Arctic Monkeys). One of them claims to like Johnny Cash, although when discussing him on Radio Four’s Music Group programme, he got the name of Folsom Prison and Walk The Line wrong.

I don’t want my politicians to be cool. I don’t even want them to be interesting. I certainly don’t want them admitting to “no more than 30” sexual partners in GQ. I want them to be passionate advocates and belligerent ideologues with their own hairstyles and unconventional tastes, ready with an unscripted riposte and a gift for oratory, rather than kids enrolled at the London Oratory. While I accept that only an American could get away with land-of-our-fathers schmaltz like, “Hope is the bedrock of this nation … in this moment, in this election, we are ready to believe again,” but I wouldn’t mind hearing a few words from Cameron or Brown that might unite a few more people than some delegates in braces at the Confederation of British Industry.

It’s amazing how quickly you become blasé about seismic socio-ethnic shifts in mainstream politics though, isn’t it? I’m bored of the idea of a black US president already. I demand a gay atheist. An unmarried Muslim. Someone who’s had more than 30 partners. Come on, it’s time for change.

Published in Word magazine, August 2008

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Republican party reptiles

I find myself unnaturally interested in American politics. I have been ever since Mad magazine introduced me, satirically, to President Carter in the 70s and I was forced to learn about his predecessors in order to understand the jokes. Clearly, around Presidential Election time, my interest swells. As a loyal and voracious subscriber to the New Yorker since 2005, I am fed information on a weekly basis about the comings and goings not just of the Democrats the left-leaning magazine explicitly supports, but also of the colourful Republicans and Tea Party luminaries who, since Obama’s election in 2008, have been jostling for position to take him down. (As you can see above, I attended the CNN Election Night party in November 2008, held in a church in London, and watched the early results come in with other political junkies – and some freeloaders – although we were, ironically I think, kicked out before the decisive states were called. They handed out partisan badges on the way in. )

I have been following the progress of this year’s Republican hopefuls with long-distance enthusiasm and bemusement, as they seem a particularly rum bunch. One of them will actually be challenging a frankly damaged Obama for his second term; it’s sometimes hard to believe that any of this shower could run a country, but then, look at George W. Bush, a man who wore his downhome ignorance on his sleeve and won two terms – or at least, got in twice.

We’ve lost Lutheran congresswoman and climate change denier Michelle Bachmann since the Iowa caucuses, which in terms of morbid entertainment value is a shame. (After all, she’s the Tea Party nutter of choice, post-Palin, accusing Obama of being “anti-American,” trying to get rid of energy-saving lightbulbs, gunning to get the minimum wage capped, and damning same-sex marriage from a pulpit where the Pope is considered the anti-Christ, if I’ve read the literature properly.)

Of the other column-inch-snaffling front runners, former restaurant tycoon, business lobbyist and Baptist talk radio show host Herman Cain also withdrew, before Christmas, after allegations of sexual misconduct, which is another blow for entertainment value, as he seemed not to have a clue what he would do if elected to office, other than cut tax to a basic 9% across the board. Doesn’t really matter, as he will never take office.

What’s frightening about these grinning, glad-handing, evangelical loons is that one of them could theoretically capitalise on the right-facing zeitgeist and beat Obama in November, taking office in 2013. After all, Republicans do get in. And the electorate does seem pretty disappointed with Obama, on both left and right, and especially in the middle, which is where elections are won and lost. Last week’s New Yorker provided profiles of both Ron Paul – the gurning 76-year-old Texan obstetrician and “white-haired, wide-eyed prophet” who seriously wants to ban Income Tax and end all foreign aid – and Newt Gingrich – “Mr Speaker”, political veteran, “swashbuckling geostrategist” and inveterate debate winner who shut down the federal government during the Cinton era over Medicare premiums, earned $1.6 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage lender, and recently made reference to the “invented Palestinian people.” Of this loopy pair, it’s Gingrich who was seen as the biggest threat to Mitt Romney. (Good heavens, they have excellent names, the Republicans, you have to hand that to them.) But Rick Santorum almost caught up with Romney in Iowa. He’s the Fox News-friendly ex-senator and attorney with the goofy grin who was just eight votes behind Romeny in Iowa, and is an intelligent design fan, considers sodomy to be “antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family” and seems to think that liberal values are to blame for the Catholic child abuse scandal.

Mitt Romney is a Massachusetts Mormon and CEO of management buyout merchants Bain, who “kept a well-groomed appearance” at university during the campus upheavals of the 60s, according to a Boston Globe profile, seems to have built his reputation as a can-do kinda guy on his miraculous turnouaround of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 1988 and is not to the tastes of the more evangelical wing of his party because a) he’s a Mormom, and b) he used to be pro-choice, but switched to being pro-life in 2005. This reputation for u-turns dogs him; he certainly upped his far-right views during his 2008 run for Presidential nomination. He seems like a slick wheeler-dealer and kind of looks like a President.

Post-Bachmann, they’re all men of a certain age, which is boring, and they all seem to conform to the image of an American politician, from the relatively youthful John Huntsman, 51, to the 76-year-old Paul. In other words, they either look like James Brolin or John Mahoney, and all points inbetween. Rick Perry is the most Bush-like of the current crop, the grinning Governor of Texas, former Eagle Scout, USAF pilot and “hyper-masculine cowboy” who sets out his stall in a YouTube video, saying “there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, and your kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas”; Gingrich is the most experienced in the ways of Washington, and Romney still seems fresh from his failed attempt to run in 2008. They would all strip the financial industry of what little in the way of regulation remains and “shrink” government, which is the Republican creed. If any of these reptiles gets in, taxes will be lowered, or scrapped, and Iran will either be ignored (if Ron Paul gets in: “no more foreign wars; no more foreign aid; not even very much foreign policy”, according to Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker), or nuked (if any of the others get in).

I will continue to follow this dangerous soap opera closely. They’re in New Hampshire right now for tomorrow’s vote, with Huntsman – another Mormon, also a former Reagan staffer, Utah Governor and ambassador to China under Obama whose “moderate” views play well to more liberal-minded Republicans – endorsed by a number of key local publications. There’s still everything to play for.

For anyone not in the least bit interested in US politics – I fear we ignore these God-fearing, gun-toting, gay-bashing, healthcare-hating, people at our peril.