Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

Election Reflection
(This article forms part of the Journal that I am writing to describe my impressions of America since arrival in September, 2004. To begin reading this Journal from the beginning, click here.)

I cannot ignore the fact that I have been here during a Presidential election. Inevitably I have received impressions and formed opinions of the process and have pondered the necessity of setting them down in this journal. Not being a political animal (I voted precisely once in Britain and never in Africa), this is not easy for me, particularly as I have noticed that this is a subject that seems to animate and agitate many.

Naturally, I have political thoughts and could state immediately where my vote would have gone had I been eligible and wanted to vote. But I do not want to discuss my personal preferences here; rather would I set down what I have seen and heard without deciding upon right or wrong. If it becomes clear through this where my sympathies lie, then so be it.

America's election must be the most-watched in the world. We are treated to constant televized updates on the Presidential race wherever we live; yet who even knows who the Prime Minister of Australia is, let alone when their elections are held? Of course, the reason for this is that it matters to all of us who will next be in charge of the most powerful nation on earth. So we watch with interest, even developing our own preferences in the process.

When George Dubya (Texan for doubleyoo, I'm reliably informed) Bush was first elected, I was not impressed at first. He was halting and stilted in his public speaking and I was unsure of the reason for this. Was it a symptom of a good ole country boy, honest as the day is long? Or was it that even he had difficulty in believing what he said?

Then I began to notice the men standing behind him. There was Colin Powell, familiar to us all through his Gulf War broadcasts and a man respected and liked by everyone. Don Rumsfeld came to the fore after 9/11 and impressed me with his straight talking and toughness. John Ashcroft, too, seemed a man not to be trifled with.

I had never noticed Vice Presidents before but Kathy pointed out Dick Cheney and told me a little about him. Another highly intelligent and gifted man, it seemed.

The one that I loved to watch, however, was the White House Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer. What a mind that guy had - like a computer but with more humor. The press would try everything they could devise to get him to slip up, to contradict an earlier statement or say something they could run with. But he never made a false move. Without hesitation, he would answer each question or refer them to a previous answer.

It began to dawn on me that George Dubya's greatness lay in his ability to surround himself with intelligent, knowledgeable and effective advisors. Such an impressive team could hardly have been assembled by accident. And they all deferred to the man himself. Clearly, they knew something about him that I had not discerned as yet.

As time went on I began to notice that George had a rare courage to do things unpopular, a determination to see things through, even when others were backing down and getting cold feet. Kathy assured me that this was the Texan in him (Kathy is Texan through and through). I looked at the man, saw no ten gallon hat but presumed that she knew what she was talking about.

By the time I left England I was convinced that George Dubya was as good as unassailable as President. He was so obviously a sound leader that I could see no way for an opposing candidate to defeat him. It was as though he had come to represent all of America to the rest of the world - if you hated America, you hated Bush; if you believed that America's intentions in the world were basically for the good of the western world, you loved him.

Imagine my surprise, then, in finding that the view inside America was somewhat different. There were avid Bush supporters, of course, but there seemed to be just as many who despised him. The media, with the one exception of Fox, had nothing good to say about him. In chat (yes, I still chat occasionally) I saw people pour out pure vitriol when George's name was mentioned. I began to wonder if I had missed something somewhere.

Then the Democrat primaries began, those strange tribal rituals from which emerges (in a process that no foreigner understands) the agreed contender for the throne. And here was presented John Kerry, a man I'd never heard of before.

This happens to us poor foreigners in every American election. We all know the President and have our opinions on his performance. Then the opposition come out with their choice and he is always a complete unknown to us. We wonder what on earth this new guy has done to deserve nomination but, in the end, all we can do is sit on the sidelines, half-heartedly cheering on whichever party our political preferences dictate.

Being in a Republican household, the few facts of Mr Kerry's history that were offered me were unfavorable, but I retained my British sense of fair play and withheld judgement. Anyway, it mattered not in my view since I was still convinced that Bush would thrash whoever was put up against him.

And then the war of the polls began. At first it seemed that George Dubya had a clear lead, although not as overwhelmingly as I had expected. And then, with every passing day, the gap began to narrow. I was shaken from my complacency. I noticed that even the staunch Republicans around me were looking worried.

Yet I had seen nothing to create this waning in George's popularity. What was causing it? It remained a mystery to me. The first two Presidential debates occurred. I missed them but heard that Bush had not been impressive. The polls continued to predict a very close fight, perhaps even another Florida recount fiasco.

The third debate I did watch. It seemed a pretty tame affair to me, the whole occasion tightly regulated by a very inoffensive man who asked nothing seriously controversial. I imagined how such a thing would be done in Britain (probably with the antagonistic Jeremy Paxman asking the most brutal of questions) but accepted that here they conducted themselves in a more civilized way.

And I have to confess that I thought Bush did rather poorly. His style is so forced somehow, and Kerry was a slick operator, a man with a talent for speaking. I feared for the consensus of opinion on the debate.

To my amazement, most commentators were in agreement that Bush had "won" this round. As they pontificated on how they had come to this conclusion, I realized that they were seeing through style to the actual content of what had been said. I bowed humbly to their greater wisdom.

But the polls continued to draw the candidates closer. Immediately before the election some polls had Kerry in the lead and both camps were becoming desperate in their claims and counterclaims, furiously trying to garner the last few undecided votes.

Election day came and we all know what happened. There was some discussion on how the exit polls had been so wrong but the fact remained - Bush had won with a crushing majority. Suddenly I was free to sneer at the polls and the doomsayers while secretly regretting how my innocence had allowed me to be deceived so easily.

I was free, also, to reflect upon the whole process. The structure of American elections is a little clearer to me now, although I would hesitate to attempt an explanation for anyone else. I understand too how it is possible for a President to be elected without a majority of actual votes; but this is just as common in Britain. What I became interested in were the differences in the way the two countries handle their politics.

The Americans are passionate about politics. They believe that they are the most democratic country in the world and that democracy is the finest and best of all political systems. The very thought of refraining from voting is anathema to them, but they seem unsurprised when only 65% of the electorate turn up at the polls. They expect their politicians to be great men of untouchable moral fiber, yet are undismayed when their expectations are disappointed (of course that's a comment on Bill Clinton - did you expect me to ignore him totally?).

How different we are in Britain. We do not believe, we know that our system is as democratic as anyone else's, yet we have no confidence in it returning any better a government than the previous one. We are easy in our attitudes to voting, caring not whether the next man uses his vote or not, but we have turnouts for elections that far exceed 65%. And, to a man, we are deeply cynical about all politicians, presuming them to be unscrupulous liars and cheats. But let a man in office suffer a scandal and he is out of that office before he knows what hit him.

None of which is intended to be partisan for either side. I merely note differences and apparent contradictions. And where I have appeared to take sides, as in suggesting that the American approach to Presidential debates is more civilized than any British equivalent, this is in full awareness that there are other areas where the reverse is true.

Take, for instance, the repeated Democrat claims that Bush was aware of the planned attack on the Twin Towers before it happened yet did nothing to prevent it happening. Any similar claim leveled against a British politician would very quickly find itself with a slander case to answer. It sometimes amazes me what ridiculous accusations American politicians are allowed to throw at each other without fear of having to provide proof. And this, in the land of litigation? I shake my head in wonder.

So which system is the more civilized, the more efficient, the better? I would guess that it all depends upon where you're standing. To the Americans, their rough and tumble elections and passionate support of parties is clearly the way to go. And for the British, their cynical, dispassionate and understated approach is as comfortable as an old sweater. You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

I am sure of one thing, however. The American way is a helluva lot more fun...

(to go directly to the next entry in the Journal, click here)


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