Mark Mardell... Our man in Washington

Mark Mardell in Florida Mark Mardell in Florida after the final presidential debate

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Mark Mardell is standing on his deck enjoying a bright autumnal day in Washington DC. The BBC's North America editor has a rare morning off after hitting the American presidential campaign trail - but he has spent it checking his emails, trawling through a range of news websites and, now, graciously doing a phone interview. He admits it's difficult to switch off from his job, but he is presiding over a moment in history, so his preoccupation with all things political is understandable.

In just over a week the United States will elect a president, and Mardell has spent a year intensely focused on this event, much of it on the road talking to ordinary Americans. He calls this 'the great joy of the job' and precisely what he expected from his appointment just over three years ago.

Start Quote

There is a lack of variety in the American media which as a political animal I find horrific”

End Quote Mark Mardell North America Editor

'My pitch for this job - and it wasn't exactly a unique or surprising one - is that you can't do American politics by sitting in Washington,' he declares.

True to his word, he has toured small-town America, watched presidential nominee Mitt Romney give a speech in someone's garage - surrounded by snow chains and engines - and visited a provincial fire station on the day of the American primaries. 'Twenty people turned out for that,' he says.

American disillusionment

Millions more will turn out for the general election, but Mardell senses a great disillusionment in America and believes that this could be crucial to President Obama's chances for reelection. Asked for a prediction, he replies that it will come down to turnout. 'I think if he's defeated he will be defeated by people who quite like him, don't like Romney that much, but decide to stay at home [on election day].'

President Obama and Mitt Romney at presidential debate in Colorado The race for president will probably go down to the wire (Obama and Romney during Colorado debate)

It makes for a nail-biting end to a dramatic campaign so far - but why should this country care about what happens on November 6? Mardell doesn't hesitate for one moment: 'You only have to say three words - Afghanistan, Iraq and the economy.' He admits that problems with the economy perhaps stem from American policies rather than presidential decisions, but believes that foreign policy will certainly take a different 'tone' under a Romney term, with 'implications' for the UK.

While America's foreign policy may be a critical issue on this side of the Atlantic, the senior journalist has noticed that most Americans don't bother to mention it at all during his canvassing of voters' opinions. 'That's a sort of negative,' he ponders, 'the thing that people aren't mentioning.'

'Endless fascination'

But America hasn't always disappointed, although it hardly sounds like a resounding endorsement when he states simply that 'it's just a very easy place to live' and has warmer weather. If it sounds lukewarm, it's certainly not meant to, Mardell assures me. 'Brits always think they understand America but, actually, it's so different. I find that an endless fascination as I go round the States, trying to understand what drives that difference.'

Who is ... Mark Mardell?

  • Apart from his friends and family, he would miss Marmite if he couldn't get it in America
  • On American supermarkets: 'I am surprised they don't have as much scope… You can't get olives stuffed with anchovies. Oh god, what a hardship posting!'
  • On the job: 'I don't mind the hard work and the occasional exhaustion and when I do start to feel a bit grumpy about it, I think Ian Pannell is over in Syria risking getting killed and he's not sleeping in a nice bed every night…'
  • On not driving to work: 'I think it makes me a communist in America - taking the tube and the bus.'
  • Likes … swimming but doesn't do it often

It's not just the use of language either, although that took some adjustment. Mardell still can't bear deplaning and hospitalization (two Americanisms) but he has got used to saying restroom, 'toh-may-toe' and expressions such as 'reach out to someone'. 'In British English that sounds a little bit risqué, but here it's just a way of saying 'contact somebody', and I found myself using that.'

Barbecue and Halloween

As the BBC's first Europe editor, who spent four years covering politics on the continent, it's also a little surprising to learn that he likes barbecue sauce, Thanksgiving and has totally embraced Halloween. 'I haven't been persuaded about the powers of pumpkin as a vegetable,' he hastens to add, but does admit that his children love the concept of trick-or-treat.

As his tastes have evolved, so, too, has his perception of the country that is his temporary home. He argues that he is now more sympathetic to things that previously he might have perceived as arrogance, including the belief that America is exceptional. 'There are people who are bombastic about it, but there are also people who point to America's influence in the world.

'The world would be a very different place and would it be a better or worse place? I won't get into the politics of that, but they do have a point.'

While Mardell is cautious with his language at times, worried about how it might be interpreted, there are hints that he is a passionate man with strong beliefs. Certain subjects, such as the demise of the local press in America, get him more riled. 'It's dying, dying,' he says emphatically. 'There's a lack of variety in the American media, which as a political animal I find horrific.'

For instance, he postulates, very few American journalists would think to walk down to an unemployment line when covering a story on the stalled economy. Instead, they rely on press releases, academics and fancy graphics, with most exercising a pack mentality. 'They don't get out and talk to the people. It's a huge problem for journalism here.' This, however, is not something you could accuse Mardell of failing to do.

Nor is he likely to rest after the election is finished. After this interview he is planning to read an article about how the brain works. It's not what most people would consider light reading material, but at least it's not political.

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