BBC BLOGS - Justin Webb's America

Archives for December 2007

Crystal-ball gazing

Justin Webb | 20:40 UK time, Monday, 31 December 2007

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My New Year predictions have been almost entirely wrong for as long as I can remember. Two years ago, I suggested on the BBC Correspondents' Lookahead that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the blogger and Iranian leader, would kiss the cheek of George W Bush on the tarmac at Tehran airport; a year ago, I said Dick Cheney would resign and be replaced by John McCain.

But, like a gambler, I feel the need to press on in the hope of hitting the jackpot.

John McCain on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, 30 Dec 2007This year in the lookahead programme, I predicted that John McCain would be elected president in 2008 and that the American brand would be back in vogue, or at least would no longer be so widely regarded as poisonous. The first prediction could, of course, be dead by the end of the first month of 2008 - which would be a record even by my dismal standards - but the second will take all year and maybe leach into 2009 as well.

I predict an improvement in America's worldwide reputation with only moderate confidence (to borrow from the argot of the National Intelligence Estimates) but, if it is to happen at all, I believe it should begin in Iowa this week, where groups of essentially decent, mild, kindly people will begin the process of choosing the 2008 winner.

Iowa is flawed, of course. The candidates are a rum bunch on both sides and the voters (too white, too religious, too old, too extreme, you take your pick) are similarly open to attack, but it is nonetheless worth pausing, I reckon, before it all kicks off, to reflect that in a nation of 300 million people, bristling with military power and at war around the world, managing an orderly transition of power is a majestic enterprise, worthy of ongoing wonderment.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, suggested recently that Western society was itself flawed. "There is something about Western modernity which really does eat away at the soul," he said. Those who agree with him will be tut-tutting as the American election process gets going in all its meretricious glory but, along with the self-doubt, a little bit of self-confidence might be no bad thing among Western democrats in 2008.

However much the souls of Iowans are eaten away (according to the archbishop's view), I would prefer to be ruled by them than any other group on earth...

Nation at war?

Justin Webb | 17:51 UK time, Saturday, 29 December 2007

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Mike Huckabee campaigns in Ottumwa, Iowa, 28 Dec 2007The row in full swing here over whether Mike Huckabee messed up when asked his initial reaction to the news from Pakistan is part of a wider, so far unanswerable, question.

It is this: will the election of 2008 be a "post-war" election? Obviously as a matter of fact it will not be: but, will Americans, hungry for the pleasures of peace, turn it into one?

Plainly the Democrats would benefit from that - and I know some conservatives (James Pinkerton is one) who fear it may be the case. Does Pakistan help the cause of keeping the US focused on the task at hand?

McCain's mini-surge

Justin Webb | 10:14 UK time, Thursday, 27 December 2007

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No better example of the importance of momentum in presidential politics than the news (news!) that John McCain is on the ground in Iowa, having spotted sudden opportunities there that did not exist a few weeks ago. Hats off to the slimmed-down McCain team for managing this mini-surge so well.

McCain in Iowa in NovemberI have long thought McCain would win the nomination as the other candidates imploded, and the "Huckaboom" plays wonderfully into this; a win for Huckabee in Iowa might well lead Republicans to panic and search for someone who is, well, better capable of winning in 2008 - and a decent showing for the war hero may do the trick.

I wonder if the media's previous love affairs with McCain might be the reason why so many are so unwilling to see the obvious truth now: that he is very much capable of winning. If Barack Obama does badly in Iowa - if the balloon bursts - independents in New Hampshire will flock to McCain (for those outside the US: the New Hampshire rules allow independent voters to choose which party primary to vote in), having no great desire to go for Hillary Clinton, and the nomination will be his.

How odd that the choice of Republican candidate might depend so heavily on the votes of Democrats in Iowa and independents in New Hampshire - but that is one of the wonders of the way things are panning out this season.

We keep talking

Justin Webb | 08:37 UK time, Monday, 24 December 2007

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The differences between American and British English still confound me even after many years living in the US.

The latest, in a piece I wrote about Kansas evangelicals, is the misuse of the term "Bible basher", which in British English means what "Bible thumper" means in American English.

reginald perrinSome kind correspondents have pointed out that this rather damaged the sense of the piece, at least for US readers!

Hey ho... We keep talking, at least, even if we do not always understand each other.

I am particularly sorry to have messed that one up though, as I like American English. For instance, my children talk about "turning eight" instead of having their eighth birthday: which to me sounds both odd and cute. Or does "cute" mean clever?

Talking of which - Roger Federer for man of the year? Did not see that coming... and intend to Google the chap right away...

Presidential hair

Justin Webb | 18:24 UK time, Friday, 21 December 2007

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Further to those thoughts about Mitt Romney, I have an insight, I think, into why Congressman Tom Tancredo, the anti-illegal-immigration Republican, has dropped out of the race and endorsed the faltering Romney campaign.

Mr Tancredo gets a haircutYears ago, chatting to the congressman (who is a charming and warm man, one-to-one), he told me he would probably stand in 2008 but that, as he put it, "The job will go to someone with better hair!"

Well, his actions are consistent with that belief...

Mitt Romney's hair is among his most presidential attributes, surely?

Person of the year

Justin Webb | 20:09 UK time, Thursday, 20 December 2007

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Mitt Romney seemed ludicrously upset by Time Magazine's Person of the Year choice. The celebration of the nice, or the celebration of success itself (David Petraeus was Mitt's choice), is best left to political ads - Time was marking achievement, albeit of a horrible, tarnished variety.

clegg_pa203b.jpg
I would love to ask the Big Faith candidate about Nick Clegg, the newly elected leader of the British political party the Liberal Democrats, who told the BBC he does not believe in God! Talk show host Glenn Beck could lead the charge and the most Christian Mormon in the world would doubtless follow.

The BBC has had some trouble with People of the Year in the past (rigged polls and eccentric results) so I am going to stay properly silent - but you?

Boost for Biden?

Justin Webb | 00:02 UK time, Wednesday, 19 December 2007

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Is the big winner on the Democratic side in Iowa going to be Joe Biden? In a few days here, I have seen the snows melt a little and the senator's prospects warm up - many conversations with people who really are going to caucus suggest that he is not necessarily an also-ran.

A politics professor at Drake University confirms that a Biden surge is the cutest outside bet in town at the moment. The logic is that Hillary bombs and he comes in third.

He has been an impressive debater.

More importantly for Iowans, he has been impressively switched on to Iowa's brand of retail politics; keeping his famously big mouth closed and his ears open. Sure, he once stole a speech from the British politician Neil Kinnock - but redemption, in the snow, may be at hand.

The old-fashioned way

Justin Webb | 04:32 UK time, Tuesday, 18 December 2007

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Taking account of everything contributed after my first thoughts from here and having spent a fabulous day in the lovely town of Corning, Iowa (south of Des Moines by about 90 miles), I have a proposal: that every state in the Union share the honour of kicking off presidential elections, thus getting their moment in the sun every 200 years.

This is cumbersome, I know, but might address the fairness issues. What it would surely be a mistake to do is have some kind of national primary early on that keeps the candidates away from individual voters. Sure, all the voters I met today in Corning were greying and white (like me) but boy, were they involved; most had met candidates and several had still not made up their minds about whom to support.

Typical of them were Richard and Marilyn Shellenberg, who are going to have 20 people round for their Democratic caucus on 3 January: all of them are enthused and keen. Incidentally, I pick up a HUGE dislike of robotic campaigning, to the extent that you have to wonder whether some candidates are impersonating others to do them down.

America is at its strongest when it is viewed from the bottom up. Corning is full of decent people trying to do a serious job selecting the next president. The candidates they like best tend to be those who have taken the trouble to speak seriously to them, not recorded down a phone, but face to face, the old-fashioned way.

Minus a thousand

Justin Webb | 04:54 UK time, Monday, 17 December 2007

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Iowa - where I have just arrived - is a reminder of the clash in US politics between the homespun and the horribly over-sophisticated.

Our plane waits for half an hour on the tarmac because Des Moines airport is, in spite of being a glamorous destination every four years, pretty low key. So when two aircraft arrive at the same time there is a delay while enough ground staff are found to cope.

Snowy street in Des Moines, IAAnd yet the entire political nation and half the political world is arriving or about to arrive - my flight alone contained a man from the Daily Telegraph, another from Fox and the admirable Howard Kurtz from the Washington Post and CNN. At the hotel serious looking people are holding suit carriers full of TV anchor clothes to be stuck on top-halves at the last minute in order to stay warm.

A friend tells me the weather - it's minus a thousand, there is a freezing fog, and everything is covered in snow as hard as steel - is particularly bad at the moment but I suspect the locals have arranged it.

They love their caucuses, do not get me wrong, but it seems they like the old-fashioned variety not the hard-driven modern type where campaigns arrange "robo-calls" to drum up support, forcing many people here simply to refuse to answer their phones till 4th January.

A telephone pollster tells me his company noticed that Iowa had a reported death rate 20 times the national average: apparently when they called and asked for a husband or wife the spouse would say, "Oh they died!" in the hope of getting off the lists …...

A momentary encounter

Justin Webb | 00:19 UK time, Friday, 14 December 2007

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Arrived back from chilly Kansas in time to shake hands with the president and the first lady at the annual White House holiday party.

Justin at the partyWhat does one do on these occasions?

We are not close, Mr Bush and I, because as you know he is busy and when he does give interviews they tend, understandably, to be with American networks.

And yet there are a million things I would like to ask him: after all I write about him a lot. In the end the moment comes (it really is a moment) and I play safe: we talk about a mutual friend and our encounter is done.

Sadly, my friend Tim Reid, who writes for the London Times, was not there. I wonder if that has anything to do with the following misunderstanding.

President and Mrs Bush and the White House Christmas treeAt a previous Christmas party, Tim was introduced to Mr Bush as "Tim Reid from the Times". Unfortunately, the president had recently been interviewed by one of Tim's colleagues, not by Tim, but hearing the words "The Times" Mr Bush said, not unreasonably, "Hey Tim - didn't we meet just a few days ago?"

As Tim describes it, the terrible curse of English good manners kicked in and he felt unable to contradict the commander-in-chief. Instead he heard himself mutter, "Umm, well, yes Mr President we might have met..."

"Might have met!" Mr Bush looked surprised, and turning to Tim's wife, raised an eyebrow and said, "You'd have thought he'd have remembered!"

America's 43rd president has suffered all manner of indignities in recent years; but surely none so searing...

America's generals

Justin Webb | 23:49 UK time, Monday, 10 December 2007

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What is Fort Leavenworth for? Here in frozen Kansas, it stands on what was once the United States's western border, now the centre of the nation, far removed from the outside world, far from any possible conflict, far from the centres of political power (sorry Kansas City) and far from the kind of influence it once had, you might think.

Major General William Caldwell in Baghdad, April 2007You would be wrong though - just as important as the efforts of General Petraeus on the front line are the efforts of another general with Iraq experience, William Caldwell.

He wants the US military to succeed in the 21st Century not just by fighting, but by thinking. Leavenworth hums with brainy soldiers - and (oddly for Kansas?) an interest in evidence-based knowledge. Fox News is still on the TVs but nobody is watching: they are too busy thinking about cultural issues in modern soldiering, thinking about soft power, thinking about things from the Iranian perspective.

Say what? Look at the summer issue of Military Review with a piece entitled Surrounded: Seeing the World from Iran's Point Of View. Two thoughts: first the US military is already streets ahead of the politicians, Republican and Democrat, when it comes to learning the lessons of Iraq.

Second, if David Petraeus, and a few brother officers, ever thought about standing for president, the outside world might see it as evidence of American militarism - but the reverse would be the case. America's senior soldiers are oddly unmilitaristic in outlook.

Well gritty

Justin Webb | 02:14 UK time, Monday, 10 December 2007

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Coming back to the Iraq war and its potential effect on the election, I am still interested in the amazing fact that - rightly or wrongly - there are some Republicans who see it as a positive issue for them.

In Kansas, braving freezing rain to bring you the news (I am talking to Evangelicals in Wichita but I sense that you are bored with this topic for the moment), I meet a very charming Republican pastor who is convinced that his flock, once depressed about the war, are now back on board.

He makes an interesting suggestion for the Republican dream ticket: Huckabee and McCain, provided they can find a tough, credible position on illegal immigration.

Crashed vehicle in ice-hit Mid WestIn the smart salons of Washington DC, all the brightest chatter is about the near certainty that the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, will enter the race if the two existing New Yorkers are knocked out. It takes a trip to Kansas to focus on grittier realities.

And Kansas in an ice storm (I am writing this on Interstate 35) is well gritty, as we English say...

No endorsement

Justin Webb | 17:21 UK time, Friday, 7 December 2007

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romney_getty_203.jpgWe are all homing in - quite rightly - on what Mitt Romney said in his speech and whether he needed to say it, could have said it differently, etc etc. But it is interesting to note as well what the Mormons themselves make of it all.

The Church contacted me to point out this intervention (just posted on their website) which I think is quite helpful to Romney.

It stresses the fact, and it is a fact, that Mormons are really rather loosey-goosey when it comes to telling those among them who are politicians what to do or think...

Unchristian behaviour

Justin Webb | 14:40 UK time, Thursday, 6 December 2007

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If you are coming afresh to the Mitt Romney Mormon controversy (he made a big speech today at President Bush's father's library in Texas) and you wonder what all the fuss is about, take a look at this little message aimed at his wife Ann, whose father was from Wales, and was presumably not a Mormon.

I remember meeting her more than a year ago, when the campaign was getting going, and talking about the travails in store. I wonder, though, whether she could have imagined some evangelical Christians would be so, well, un-Christian.

Two things though. Are we over-hyping the wild fringes here to get a story, or are Americans genuinely worried about the Garden of Eden being in Missouri (the Mormons apparently believe it was ) - and why deliver the speech in Texas?

Seriously, of all the places Mitt Romney might go to appeal to conservative Republicans I reckon the Bush Library would be about the worst choice, except, perhaps, Salt Lake City itself...

In need of a lawyer

Justin Webb | 14:35 UK time, Wednesday, 5 December 2007

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A day spent at the Pentagon - I lined up to go through security with folks on a Bible study mission - focuses the mind once again on war.

I had a very interesting conversation with a senior soldier about blogging. He is encouraging his mid-rank officers to do it; be open about who you are, they are told, but do not be afraid to take part in the conversation. I intend to get them on this site before long.

Meanwhile, I agree with Huw Spanner, who points out the potential circularity of international law when it comes to the justification for acting in self defence. It was my friend Owen Bennett Jones, of BBC World Service radio, who inveigled Kofi Annan - then UN Secretary General - to come out and say plainly that the Iraq war was illegal.

But what does it really mean? Is John Warner right? (Senator, is that you?) We need a lawyer. I never thought I would say that while living this side of the pond.

Undermined on Iran?

Justin Webb | 04:06 UK time, Tuesday, 4 December 2007

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John Bolton - the former US ambassador to the UN - told me over the weekend that an attack on Iran would be justified under international law because it would be an act of self-defence. That is the case that appears to be damaged by the latest National Intelligence Estimate, with its suggestion that so far there is no bomb to be concerned about and no evidence of an existing effort to make one.

Anti-American mural on the side of a building in Tehran, IranCan you legitimately defend yourself against something that does not exist and might never exist? But at the same time, if anyone doubted Iran's potential to be a threat - well, the intelligence agencies seem almost certain that there was a nuclear weapons programme in Iran until 2003. The document also makes plain that although that weapons effort has probably not been restarted, it could be one day. The option, according to the report, is being kept open.

Still, the problem for the Bush administration is that this is not the headline. The headline is that the spies are holding up their hands and saying they want to change their story - as they put it in this document: "Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005." As the Huffington Post put it, rather cutely I thought: "Plans for World War Three have been stymied."

And that is not just the view of the left here: I talked to a former senior advisor to the White House who feels sick at the way in which all of this stuff has to be discussed openly, and fears that the Bush team has been fatally undermined on Iran by its own intelligence agencies. Revenge, perhaps, for the flak they took over Iraq?

Small change

Justin Webb | 09:18 UK time, Monday, 3 December 2007

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Thanks to those who contributed amusingly to my post on the subject of the plane trip back to the UK - now I have two further thoughts as I arrive back in DC. First the immigration officer asks me my job title (North America Editor) and mutters, "sounds expensive," when I tell him. Not so, of course: UK broadcasters are paid small change in comparison to our US friends. I probably earn less than Katie Couric's driver, which actually I think is a good thing. Keeps us honest, as Anderson Cooper didn’t say.

But here is a more serious cultural divide issue: I read in the English paper on the way home that a new compulsory curriculum is to be introduced for all British preschoolers - yes compulsory even for private schools. Introduce that here in the US and it would send all Americans into the arms of Ron Paul - but even left-wing Democrats would be worried about the idea of the government mandating an entire curriculum surely?

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