Jim reflects on John Kerry's win in New Hampshire, the Hutton Report as viewed from the United States, plus how our Listener's Law is going down stateside.
Saturday, January 31:
The New Hampshire Result, plus the Hutton Report viewed from the US.
Being in the United States this week was like having an out-of-body experience. While the copies of the Hutton report were dropping on desks in Whitehall and the BBC, I was somewhere in a snowdrift in New Hampshire wondering where General Wes Clark had gone.
I was trying to find him, and wondering about the vote in the Democratic primary that night. I confess that I had pushed Lord Hutton, for a few hours, to the back of my mind. He would soon return.
Unlike Wes Clark, who disappeared in a kind of rolling maul round a corner in Manchester, New Hampshire, surrounded by dozens of cameras and reporters, placard-waving supporters and hangers-on.
This was a candidate unused to the business of electioneering. Generals are supposed to give orders. Poor Wes was realising that not only was there not an order he could give if he did, no-one would listen. He looked as if he was beginning to wonder if this presidential business was a good idea after all, not least because the street campaigning that is obligatory in New Hampshire had to take place in temperatures that dipped to – 20 degrees. Ski long johns were obligatory. At one stage, my pen froze.
But there were diversions. I had an extraordinary encounter with Bob Shrum, one of Senator John Kerry’s main strategists, who used to write Teddy Kennedy’s speeches among other things, and who was happy to give us an interview on Sunday night while his candidate was performing in a fire station in front of hundreds of people at a “chilli feed” (the chilli was to keep the cold out). We did our interview, and then he turned to an interesting subject…..our Listeners’ Law.
My woolly hat almost fell off. He asked how the bill allowing householders to shoot burglars was getting on (admittedly he was roaring with laughter as he asked the question). I could hardly believe it. We prattle on about how far Today’s tentacles reach, but this seemed extraordinary. But here we were, shivering beside a fire engine, with a candidate laying happily into George Bush behind us, talking about the “Tony Martin bill”. It was weird.
It is a reminder, though, that the BBC is more listened to and watched (on cable and satellite) in the States than ever before and that meant, of course, that a couple of days later, when the Hutton storm broke, just before I left for home, there was intense interest, and a good deal of mystification.
Quite how a few words, uttered just after six o’clock one morning in May, could lead to all this, via the tragedy of Dr Kelly, could scarcely be comprehended: everyone wanted to know what was going on. So, I confess, did I.
At home, I needn’t tell you, everything quickly became clear. When I heard the Labour MP Sion Simon saying on this morning’s programme (Saturday) that there was a complacent and smug atmosphere at the BBC I could hardly believe my ears.
There are many different views about the Gilligan affair inside the BBC as well as outside it – how could it be otherwise? - but the tide of disbelief after the publication of the Hutton report was unmistakable. Far from being smug, the atmosphere consisted of perplexity, anger and genuine nervousness about the future of the BBC’s independence.
This wasn’t a complacent response, ignoring the important questions that have been raised in the course of this argument, but a display of shock at the nature of the report. In many respects, it was felt to be deeply unfair.
Anyone who thinks that this was treated lightly inside the BBC, or that the response was complacent, hasn’t talked to any BBC staff. It’s been a horrible week, sad and worrying. No-one is smug, I hope. Everyone is taking this very seriously indeed.
The response of listeners, of course, has been extraordinary. Some are very critical of us others are not. We’re aware of how important all this is seen to be to those who care about the programme. That’s important. It means that the debate which follows Hutton will be informed and will be understood to be important. Above all, that’s what matters.
Against that background, I suppose the doings of Howard Dean or Wes Clark on John Edwards don’t seem very important. But they are. I’ll return to the American fray on a future occasion, but let me just say that we may be on the verge of a vintage presidential campaign, one that will certainly be the most ideological for a generation.
The Democrats are finding a theme – an assault on “special interests” which they say have a grip on the Bush administration, a populist message on health care and poverty, and an assertion that a concern for national security doesn’t necessarily mean supporting the Bush foreign policy.
The president, of course, hasn’t got into his stride yet, and he is going to have the biggest war chest in American political history which will allow him to dominate the airwaves with his advertisements. He is also a formidable campaigner (a fact often underestimated here) and Senator John Kerry – he’s now a strong favourite for the Democratic nomination – will have to struggle long and hard (and shed some of his Al Gore-Bob Dole air of worthiness) if he’s to remove him from the White House.
Let me make one prediction, however. When it comes to selecting a vice-presidential candidate, if Kerry does prevail at the convention, his eye will settle on Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.
Edwards has a smile which suggests that he may be a plastic politician, but don’t be fooled. This is a remarkable performer, with a fluent Southern populism, which may yet play an important part in this year’s election. It’s not inconceivable that he could beat Kerry, though I doubt it. Not that I would bet on it. I gave up political wagers after a spread bet went badly wrong in 1983….don’t ask.
But watch Edwards. A class act.
All that reminds me of some remarkable scenes in New Hampshire. The New England tradition of town hall meetings is alive and well. They packed into every meeting – fifteen hundred for Edwards here, a thousand for Clark there, three thousand for Kerry at his climactic rally, and so on.
This was real politics, with candidates having to answer questions at four or five meetings a day. Sadly, in the later primaries it will be more a matter of the advertisements and TV performances, but there is still life in the system, and it can be celebrated.
Unfortunately, it all seems a long time ago, though it’s only a couple of days since I got back. I felt I was coming back to an upside-down world. Some American friends have been emailing me to ask what Hutton is all about. I expect to be hunched over a computer for quite a long time before I can come up with a reasonable précis. Where to begin? And where will it end?
Monday, January 26:
Ahead of the primary.
I’m writing this in a 1920s theatre in Manchester, New Hampshire, waiting for Howard Dean. We’re also waiting for Martin Sheen, the President in The West Wing on television. Reality and artifice: they’re both late.
Despite all the paraphernalia of a modern campaign, planned to the minute for months on end, this election still retains the feeling of politics in the raw, of unplanned outcomes.
How especially true that is for Howard Dean, whose name stares out at me from the stage as it does from thousands of lampposts and trees and front gardens across the state.
The man who ran the first true internet campaign and created a new activist army is fighting here to retain anything of the aura of front runner. The week since his giant stumble in the Iowa caucuses has been an effort to retain the buoyancy of his campaign, to persuade everyone that he’s not about to sink.
This seems fickle, and even unfair. But the spectacular ups and downs of these primaries and this process shouldn’t be the only measure of their significance. In the last few days this contest has throbbed with the pulse of real, serious politics.
Town halls have been bulging with voters asking questions of the candidates all the contenders have been required to perform at debates and round tables they’ve been faced with thousands of voters who asked them, with an almost naïve belief in the importance of the face-to-face encounter, precisely what their views are on this issue or that. No-one who has watched this could dismiss the primary as a media event alone.
It says something important … that this presidential year promises a tumultuous campaign.
The crowds are bigger than at any primary in recent memory. Senator John Kerry got two and half thousand for a rally with Ted Kennedy yesterday. Not far away Senator John Edwards was speaking to a thousand, and General Wes Clark to a college hall with at least as many. Meanwhile Dean was packing them in somewhere up-state.
The theatre where I sit is going to be full Wes Clark is taking a bus across the state to a dozen meetings today Kerry was on the eastern seashore at dawn. And it will continue until the polls close tomorrow night.
It is, of course, a sort of leadership election. From this primary, in which Democrat-registered voters and independents can cast their votes, a winner will emerge who will go to a string of southern primaries next week, where the others will try to win back the advantage, and so it will go until “Super Tuesday” on March 2 and more than a dozen primaries including New York and California when, in all probability, we will know who will have the votes to win the nomination at the convention in Boston at the end of July. These New Hampshire votes will set the course for that contest.
If Kerry prevails, which is today’s conventional wisdom, Dean must get a good second place to revive his campaign. Edwards and Clark are vying for the spot of challenger who challenge Kerry (or Dean) in the south and take the fight through to Super Tuesday. The line-up tomorrow night, which we’ll be bringing you on Wednesday morning’s programme, will give some shape to that fight.
The most arresting quality of these last days in this campaign is the ideological temper of the candidates. Their stump speeches all focus on the rage of Democrats at an administration which they believe has moved far to the Right.
They talk again and again about the number of Americans without healthcare, about jobs, about the “special interests” represented by big corporations and their lobbyists who, they argue, have the White House in their grip. The campaign that beckons in the autumn is going to be fierce, the most starkly ideological for many a long year.
No-one is going to be able to say (though Ralph Nader, if he launches a third-party campaign, may well try) that Democrats and Republicans are indistinguishable and that the votes in November will make no difference. This campaign, on the Democrat side, is driven by rage.
Edwards, the first term senator from North Carolina who has been a revelation in this contest is a good example of the power of this anger. He is the most fluent of the candidates, a trial lawyer with a silver southern tongue and an argument which cuts deep. He persuades crowds with his talk of “two Americas” – in health, wealth and happiness – and bangs a familiar populist drum with admirable gusto.
Across the south he may turn out to be as potent a force as the young Clinton was more than a decade ago, and it’s in that territory that the Democrats desperately need to find a way of challenging George W. Bush’s popularity. If they don’t, they wont win back the White House.
Kerry and Clark, the former NATO supreme commander, argue that they can neutralise Bush on the war and national security by being impossible to caricature as irresponsible liberals Dean can say he is the original anti-war candidate Edwards can say he is the candidate who promises the clearest populist agenda for the Americans who’re losing their jobs and their prosperity.
We shall see. This campaign started with the familiar complaint that the candidates all seemed a little dull and a little uninspiring, which gave the odd ball Dean, a remarkable performer, the chance to emerge as the fresh face who might give the Democrats a lift. As it has become more serious, and now on the eve of the traditional opening of hostilities, that picture has changed.
Dean, who will be on this stage in a moment, is still a formidable force (with enough campaign money to keep him on the road whatever happens here) and the others have begun to engage in a serious and impressive debate.
With assistance of that traditional New England sense of direct democracy – this is the land of the town meeting where there’s a self-conscious absorption in local democracy – we’re watching the start of what I suspect will be a vintage election. Kerry may not be FDR, Dean no JFK, Edwards no Clinton yet, Clark no Democrat Eisenhower but you sense in the snow-draped towns and hamlets of this state a political argument that will be richer than perhaps we had expected.
If it is true, as all the pollsters tell us, that the United States is deeply politically divided – a 50-50 nation as the current buzz phrase has it – then we will have a campaign to savour.
So even if I am waiting for a film star, and even if John Edwards did have Glenn Close at his side yesterday and Wes Clark appeared with Ted Danson of Friends, New Hampshire matters.
In the newsletter at the end of the week I’ll pull back the curtain of some of the oddities of this strange campaign, and some of its unexpected moment, but for now, on the eve, of the vote it’s worth remembering that for one of these candidates, as for the President himself, this year promises a gargantuan struggle, whose outcome will affect us all.
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