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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

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Letters from the Frontline: On the Campaign Trail 2008

Copeland MP Jamie Reed is on the campaign trail in this year's US Presidential elections. He is keeping a diary for the News & Star of his time in America as Barack Obama bids to defeat John McCain and become the US's first black President.

Jamie Reed photo
Jamie Reed attends a political rally

So much has been said and written about this contest for so long that it doesn’t seem as if there is anything left to add. Certainly, no political account from me will ever be able to match the unsurpassable Hunter S. Thompson’s account of the epic 1972 US Presidential Election in ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72’ – and my respect for American laws and customs makes it impossible to even try – but this election represents the most important democratic contest of my life and given its likely consequences for my constituents, Britain and the world it’s a privilege to hold a ring side seat. In any event, I lay claim to being the first US Correspondent in the history of the Cumbrian Newspaper Group.

I have personal as well as political reasons for being here. Politically, I want to see Obama prevail in this contest. The Democrats are the US mirror of the Labour Party and a Democrat in the White House will make it more likely for Britain to enable clear and achievable international climate change policies, prosecute peace in the middle east through progressive foreign policies and achieve financial stability through economic policy.

Energy policy features as a key component of all these policy areas and I’ll return to these themes over the next two weeks. From the outset, let me be clear; there is a clear convention in the UK of remaining neutral during political contest in other countries. There are good reasons for this, but I can’t adhere to them this time around. Prime Minister; I apologise in advance…

The trip is entirely funded by the US State Department (our Foreign Office equivalent) and is designed to further understanding of the machinery of US government among ‘young leaders’ from around the world. I am fortunate enough to be Britain’s only participant on this programme as the sole nominee of the US Ambassador to Great Britain.

The personal reasons are perhaps equally important. As a son of Whitehaven, America is in my blood.

As a young boy, my father would take me to Whitehaven harbour – in the days before the marina existed - and impart the historic American connections of our town. By the Marchon Enterprise, fetching phosphorous rock from South Africa, by the listing, abandoned fishing boats and by the up-turned canons acting as bollards, by the black sands; I learned about the founder of the US Navy and the lineage of George Washington.

Even as a boy of seven or eight, I knew that ours was a unique history and that my town was a special town. These feelings have never left me; in many ways they are what have driven me into politics, and they are the reason I am here today, writing this diary in a Washington hotel.

October 25: The Journey Starts Here
It’s 3am when I leave Whitehaven for Newcastle airport. I have to catch the 0650 to Heathrow before catching the 1200 from Heathrow to Washington Dulles. The weather is fine, the rain has passed, the drive proves to be fine and the flights all leave on time.

The flight to Washington is delayed by over an hour due to strong headwinds which gives me more time to re-read ‘The Last Campaign’, Thurston Clarkes’s superb account of Robert Kennedy’s 82 day bid for the Presidency. In an idle moment, I consider the similarities between Barack Obama and Robert Kennedy. The comparison is not yet either deserved or credible; but, on scanning the pages certain quotes jump off the page. Clyde Tolan, J.Edgar Hoover’s deputy at the FBI, upon hearing of Kennedy’s intention to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination: “I hope somebody shoots and kills the son of the bitch.”

Little wonder then, that many people harbour genuine fears with regard to certain forces within America and whether or not they will tolerate the election of a black President and with it the final and certain emancipation of black Americans.

Before leaving Dulles for the Washington Wardman Park Hotel, I buy the Washington Post and Rolling Stone. An older looking Obama holds the front cover of RS and it’s clear to anyone who cares to understand by now that this election is not about the medium term fortunes of either the Republican or Democratic Party, but the future of the world’s only super power and its place in this turbulent world. More than this, this election is a battle for this country’s very soul.

October 26 : Meeting Uncle Sam
6am and I’m awakened by a television advert for John McCain. It’s clear that positive messages have no part in this campaign. Today’s polls mostly put Obama 11 percentage points ahead of McCain with nine days left to go. Is this proof that negative campaigning doesn’t work? We’ll see.

8.30am and I’m going over the programme for the next two weeks with the US State Department. The programme is fierce - more on this later – but the assembled delegates from all over the world reveal sympathies which divide along the same lines as those I have found in Britain. Those in the centre and on the left are desperate for an Obama victory. Those on the right are pulling hard for a John McCain win.

2.00pm and I’m discussing Iraq with an official from the State Department by the reflecting pool below the Washington monument, with Abraham Lincoln’s monument at my back. Washington is a European city at the heart of the United States. Low buildings, wide streets, magnificent architecture. This is not the pre-fab American city sterotype of the European imagination and I’m reminded again, of the power of design, of architecture and of the ability of architects and engineers to inspire. Whitehaven again is brought to mind, and the need for us to better commemorate – through civic and public works - our part in this unfinished story.

The group is quickly driven to the Capitol building and the White House where I meet an energetic Obamaniac. White, middle aged and dressed as Uncle Sam – he’s (seemingly) delighted to meet a British Member of Parliament. Uncle Sam will be there until election day with his Obama placard. Washington is a liberal city, nonetheless, the McCain campaign is hard to find on the ground.

October 27: The Tragedy of John McCain
Senator McCain’s campaign organisers have repeatedly complained about what they believe is a lack of attention from the media. From what I have seen of McCain and Palin over the past few days – and the media coverage has been plentiful – the organisers should be careful what they wish for.

Something tragic has happened to John McCain. For a long time, for people across the political spectrum (including me) the war hero Senator has held an important and impressive position in US politics. He has repeatedly stood up to the extremist elements which sadly appear to hold such sway within the Republican Party.

McCain had the courage to accept the science of climate change and understand the need for stem-cell research when those in his party would not. He also - alongside Ted Kennedy - led on efforts to construct bi-partisan immigration policies and upon the incredibly difficulty issue of cleaning up political party and campaign funding in the US. As a legislator, he has a distinguished record. For many years, John McCain has stood out as a man of logic, decency, humility, courage and honesty.

This John McCain commands and deserves respect; which is why the John McCain currently running for President cuts such a tragic and uncomfortable figure.

McCain’s campaign, at this point, seems utterly pointless. It has no focus, no narrative and no momentum. In television interviews, he cannot conceal his anger and irritation at the wreckage which now surrounds him. He has made huge mistakes. Suspending his campaign as Wall Street began its collapse was misguided. His response to the crisis was ponderous, clumsy and ultimately ridiculed and his choice of Vice Presidential running mate has become not only a national, but an international joke. The John McCain which is touring the television studios today is in the words of Dylan Thomas, raging against “…the dying of the light.”

John McCain knows that he is a better man and a better politician than the campaign being undertaken in his name – but this is unmistakeably his own fault. As McCain scowls and grimaces through every question of every interview he appears unable to control his despair at the tsunami bearing down upon him. McCain appears angry at his own shortcomings – he is neither a good nor comfortable media performer. He struggles to articulate his key messages, his programme and his values and he appears to know this. At times, McCain gives the impression of a man who neither believes he can win this contest, or who actually believes what he is saying. Often, this conveys the impression of a man who is a captive of his party rather than its leader. A man of intelligence and decency imprisoned by a wretched campaign over which he appears to have little control.

This frustration is causing McCain to lash out in dangerous and counterproductive ways. Latterly, he has labelled Obama “a socialist”. The description – a key feature of the past week’s campaigning – is based upon Obama’s desire to, in his own words, “spread the wealth around”. The most difficult part of this attack for John McCain is that at this moment in time, the overwhelming majority of seem to want that which Obama is offering.

To look at his face, it isn’t clear if John McCain will even vote for himself – he deserves better than this.

October 30: God, Guns and Old Glory
Denver, Colorado, is in the heart of the old west. Built by prospectors and ranchers, the mile high city is a monument to the enterprising spirit of the western pioneers. A formerly Republican stronghold, the state of Colorado is now in play as a key swing state in this election.

Local polls give Obama a lead of anywhere between seven and 12 points and both sides believe that victory is within their grasp.

Bob Schaffer is the Republican Senate candidate in Colorado, behind in the polls to the Democrats’ Mark Udall and tonight he is holding a rally for the faithful in a Denver hotel.

As a politician of the left I attend tonight’s rally with an open mind. I think I understand Republicans of a particular type and want to see how moderate, mainstream conservatism is reflected at tonight’s event. Nonetheless, I’m anxious.

The event is crowded and the people I meet are welcoming and interested in the curiosity of a British Member of Parliament. On learning of what I do for a living, the first question always asked is “which party?” I always answer honestly but the mood of the questioner always changes. This is not an inclusive event and the common attitude of these Republicans is clear – ‘you’re either one of us or you aren’t.’

The rally begins and is hosted by a local talk radio anchor. “I’ve just spoken with John McCain,” says the host to the cheers of the crowd, “and he tells me that we can’t win the White House without Colorado!” The crowd of about 800 whoops and a local boy scout troop presents the stars and stripes to the podium. The oath of allegiance is uttered, the national anthem sang, and the McCain campaign video shown. The crowd is – as far as I can see (and I’ve looked carefully) – exclusively white.

I stand at the back of the hall taking notes and photographs. Quickly, I notice that I am the only person writing and I’m starting to attract curious glances. A succession of speakers rail against the ‘liberal media elite’ and I realise at this point that I probably look like a journalist. Having followed the campaign for some time now, I am well aware that the only people Republicans hate more than Democrats are journalists…

I expect the troops to be rallied tonight. I expect strong rhetoric and hyperbole, but I am surprised by the collective paranoia and the siege mentality on show. As successive speakers tell more and more lies to the audience (America is the only free country in the world, Europe is a socialist state, nowhere in Europe has a standard of living to compare to America and the Democrats seek to take away your freedoms). These delusions are dangerous. A Pastor takes to the stage to ask the crowd “How would God help us in our righteous cause?” and excitement takes hold.

The loudest cheer of the night is reserved for any mention of Sarah Palin and the continued invocations of God, Guns and Old Glory (the American flag). As someone who cares about America, its role in the world and its ability to affect the lives of the people I represent, I have never in my life felt more European than tonight.

After two hours Bob Schaffer has still not arrived and I leave

October 31: An American Halloween
Halloween in America is a national institution.

In Denver today, men and women left work early to prepare for their celebrations and I was fortunate to spend Halloween evening with the Walkers; an ordinary American family from Greenwood village on the outskirts of Denver.

Todd and Baret Walker have three children; Bo, Isley and Brielle – all of whom are trick and treating in their neighbourhood tonight. As a small token of thanks for opening their home I present Bo with a Whitehaven Rugby League shirt; accompanied with the essential George Washington/John Paul Jones 60 second history of Whitehaven. The Walker kids are bright, friendly and a credit to their parents.

Before we sit down for dinner, Todd, a trial lawyer, and Baret, a former journalist, warn us that interruptions are de rigueur tonight, and a stack of chocolate bars in a basket by the door are soon being shared with a procession of children in fancy dress.

Todd and Baret’s hospitality is exemplary; they are warm, generous, accommodating and very, very Republican. Today’s Denver Post reports that this election campaign is so bitterly fought, that friends and families with divided loyalties are struggling to get along.

Todd has already cast his ballot for John McCain and he is fully aware that I am a Labour Member of Parliament and a likely Obama supporter, but neither fact is an issue here. Our likely political differences make no difference whatsoever to the warmth of the welcome extended to me and the Walker’s basement-cum-pub is an unlikely but welcome place in which to discuss House of Lords reform. Only in America…

There are millions of Republicans like Todd in America, but for whatever reason, the McCain campaign either isn’t able or isn’t allowed to project this side of the ordinary Republican. Instead, the McCain campaign is allowing itself to be caricatured by the evolution denying, ultra right wing peculiarly religious zealots who believe that Barack Obama and the Democrats are socialists. Sadly, this attitude is encouraged by the new John McCain and fostered by the increasingly absurd figure of Sarah Palin.

I’ll always remember this evening with the Walkers and I’ll always be grateful to them for their genuine warmth and kindness; it would be a pleasure to return it one day.

Earlier today at the Democrat’s ‘Campaign for Change’ headquarters, state democratic chairman Pat Waak gave a masterclass in professionalism and focus. Yet again, the stand out feature of the Democrats in this campaign is their military discipline. With the finishing line in sight, there is no shred of complacency, just an incredible determination.

Pat’s Toyota Prius has done 100,000 miles this year visiting each of Colorado’s 64 counties. Of the approximate three million voters in the state, 1.2m have already voted by post. Registration drives are still ongoing despite the Democrats having added 140,000 voters to the roll since 2004 and as dirty tricks are afoot, 3,000 lawyers are on stand by to ensure that the voice of the people is heard in Colorado at least. After 35 years in poilitics Pat tells me that this campaign is the nastiest she has ever seen and that she expects it to worsen over the coming days. The campaign office is untidy, chaotic and filled with young people and computers. They are intrigued by this outside interest in their campaign, but we let them get on with their work.

The Republican ‘Victory Centre’ is an entirely different affair. On average, the campaign volunteers appear at least 50 years older than their Democrat counterparts. The atmosphere is different, momentum is hard to find and anxiety fills the air. Campaign manager Dick Wadham is a warm and engaging figure and after patiently answering questions he has struggled to find time for, we leave and pass hundreds of unused Republican campaign t-shirts. In Denver, McCain memorabilia is now only half the price of Obama memorabilia. Draw your own conclusions.

Tomorrow I’ll be driving two hours to Pueblo to see Obama up close at a political rally, The end is in sight.

November 1: Closing the Deal
The drive to Pueblo from Denver snakes past the foot of the Rockies; past trailer parks, past the NORAD airbase and through the military town of Colorado Springs.

Pueblo has seen better days and the downtown of this small town mainstreet is tired, though still attractive. In the winter snow, Pueblo could pass for Bedford Falls, the setting for Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life. Those familiar with the film will know that a suicidal George Bailey (James Stewart) is rescued from certain death brought about by the collapse of his Building and Loan business when the people of Bedford Falls give what money they can to rescue his business.

One week into this journey across the battlegrounds of this election campaign and its clear that ‘sharing the wealth’ is an idea which strikes a chord with the people of Pueblo and other small towns across America, already struggling with the economic effects of decades of unchecked globalisation and now the international banking crisis.

By 1pm the sun is beating down upon a crowd of thousands waiting to hear the man they would have as their King. Police marksmen survey the crowd from the nearest tall buildings.

In stark contrast to the crowd at the Republican rally in Denver, today’s crowd is a cross section of almost every American social group. Young and old, black and white, grandparents and parents. soldiers, veterans and peace protestors, able-bodied and the disabled. This is the modern day equivalent of the crowds which lined the railway tracks when Robert Kennedy’s body was taken from his funeral in New York to Washington DC in the summer of 1968 – when the factories stopped, when the police assigned to control the crowds cried, when children saluted and when grown men of all political persuasions and none shuddered with grief. Two million people lined the route to mourn the death of America’s hope in 1968, but today this grand coalition of the thwarted and the dispossessed has been reassembled; 40 years later, this is Robert Kennedy’s crowd.

The crowd of 40,000 gives a tense welcome to Gen. Wesley Clark and Michelle Obama. Signs of tiredness in the possibly future First Lady spreads anxiety amongst the crowd but only adds to the explosive welcome given to Obama as he takes to the stage.

The speech is familiar by now – the closing speech in the court room of public opinion – and deals with the economy, with asking the rich to pay higher taxes to help the poorest, with outlining the capacity for government to act as a liberating force and a power for good, with ending the war in Iraq and with transforming America’s punitive, selective and inadequate system of health care.

These are traditional left of centre sentiments. Thomas Frank, an American journalist and author wrote this week that the economic crisis has forced Democrats “…back onto their own, almost forgotten working-class instincts” but in truth, Obama has immersed himself in the traditional language of social democracy for two years now.

The crowd roars its approval and the goodbyes are short. On the streets adjacent to the dispersing crowd, the Obama business is brisk. T-shirts, buttons, badges and more ensure that these market stalls enjoy a profitable afternoon.

Earlier this week, Frank Fahrenkopf, a former and long standing Chairman of the Republican National Committee appointed by Ronald Reagan told me that he expected Obama to secure an “overwhelming victory” adding “I’ve ever seen anything like it…when he walks into a room there’s a magic; a presence…”

Gov. James Blanchard, Bill Clinton’s former Ambassador to Canada and a former Democratic Congressman, followed this gracious Republican praise with an analysis which is hard to dispute. “This isn’t a political campaign – it’s a movement.” Worryingly for McCain, Fahrenkopf believes that Obama, although already well ahead, is significantly under-polling…

This is a movement, but the result is not yet a foregone conclusion. The McCain campaign goes from bad to worse, incoherent and insulting, it is doing something which even George Bush couldn’t do: it is ensuring that many moderate Republicans leave the Republican fold.

For McCain, it is probably impossible to run against not only a movement but a zeitgeist and he is doing both. In politics, as in life, there are times when carefully laid plans are put to one side in favour of seizing opportunities which present themselves. Obama has as much been the beneficiary of this popular movement for change as the movement has benefited from his leadership, but it was the movement which chose Obama as its leader. Obama, for all his brilliance, has not created this movement, nor has it created him. Whether serendipity, chance or fate, the combination of the movement and the man has resulted in the political equivalent of an event horizon.

Today in Pueblo, I learned an important lesson. Politics as we know it is over, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Have your say

Jamie might have gained a more sympathetic response if he had put his efforts into re- opening Copeland's much needed public toilets! Commenting about the world stage is all very well my young Jedi but how about fixing the basics at home first? John H

Posted by John Huddart on 13 August 2013 at 21:48

That will teach you all for voting for Jamie Reed at the elections.

Posted by Mickey on 17 November 2008 at 12:53

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