Monday, 3 November 2008

The Obama Game

Listen: this is probably a waste of time, but not so long ago I used to be a journalist who counted for something. So I post this as a valedictory to the man who, in November 1989, predicted the end of Communism in former Czechoslovakia; who, the following year, sat in the office all night writing Margaret Thatcher's political obituary - against the-then editor's advice - a fortnight before she fell from power; and who, in March this year, wrote a newspaper blog declaring that Barack Obama would defeat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party primaries although, at the time, she was strongly fancied to see him off.

I felt then that Americans were unlikely to endorse a Democratic Party dynasty of Clintons having taken a chance with a dynasty of Bushes, with Iraq as the price they were paying. And if Senator Obama came through victorious in the primaries what elemental force would be strong enough to withstand the wind of history blowing him towards the White House as the first black American President of the United States?

Since then, a lot of dire predictions have been aired. He would win the presidency but be assassinated before he lived long enough to take the Oath of Office in January. Or else he would survive to become the 44th and worst President since George Washington dusted off his wooden false teeth for his first presidential public engagement. I have no idea what President Obama will be like in office; I suspect that idealism will be tempered by pragmatism as the messy imperatives of the real world impinge upon paper policies. If I harbour hope for any particular thing, it is that he wriggles off the hook of the Green lobby and takes a cooler look at global warming whose apocalyptic apostles are the 21st century version of The Weathermen of the 1960s.

But I'm an Englishman who, unlike Sting, has never been to New York or any other town or city west of Donegal. And like the majority of my countrymen I am easily impressed by clean-cut looks, sharp suits and, above all, a big calm confident smile. Why? Because in the collective consciousness of the English these are all post-war attributes of abundance and success, and my generation is still marked by memories of post-war austerity, disillusionment and sense of loss. When Bill Clinton presented himself to a Labour Party conference as though he was a constituency party delegate from America, he had hard-faced arsy party delegates whooping with delight. He put them in good heart and cheered their sectarian spirits simply by looking so full of health and vitality. As a boy, I saw an American military marching band play a jazzed up version of the St Louis Blues as they swaggered and swanked along Brettenham Road in Walthamstow, East London. I had never seen or heard anything like it. The bands I saw at football matches were Metropolitan Police bands and they soberly stood in one spot, often in pouring rain, valiantly playing a medley of light operatta numbers. This was different. Here was life, here was hope, here were pride and magnificence swinging trombones from side to side in the backwater of E17. Americans were like fizzed up bottles of Coca-Cola. They seemed larger than life, fuller of life, than anyone else. Here, we grew up being told what we couldn't do. Our reflex was defensive. In America, it seemed, 'no' was not even a consideration.

So no matter what mistakes President Obama makes - short of World War Three - my feeling is that his election will give the world a much-needed boost of confidence and encouragement. If he turns out to be brave as well, we can only hope that fortune favours the in-coming President longer than it favoured the out-going one.