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Edition 14

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Reportage

Bush vs Guardian: 1–0

IT STARTED AS "a quixotic idea dreamed up last month in a north London pub", wrote Ian Katz, feature editor at the Guardian newspaper and mastermind behind Operation Clark County. The idea was to reduce President George W. Bush's vote in the November 2004 election by persuading Americans in an important swing state not to vote for him. Introducing the operation, Katz wrote: "British political life may now be at least as heavily influenced by White House policy as by the choices of UK voters." His colleague Oliver Burkeman wrote that many described the 2004 presidential election as "the most important in living memory", and the British seemed keen to see Bush removed. This was certainly reflected in the newspaper's poll, which showed that only 22 per cent wanted him reelected. One can surmise that far fewer Guardianreaders wanted a second Bush term. The newspaper's Operation Clark County became a small part of a global campaign to unseat the president.

Instead of feeling powerless, the newspaper urged readers to write to registered independents in Clark County, Ohio (Americans have the choice of registering as a Republican, a Democrat or an independent), and set up a website where they could receive the name and address of a registered independent voter. Each reader was urged to write a personal plea and encourage a vote for John Kerry.

Although the operation was cheeky, the Guardian realised it had the potential to misfire. To avoid this, the newspaper continually stressed the need to be "diplomatic". It cautioned: "Keep in mind the real risk of alienating your reader by coming across as interfering or offensive" and "Please remember to be courteous and sensitive in what you say." The Guardian claimed that Bush's constant references to British Prime Minister Tony Blair when discussing Iraq – something of which the British were more aware than the average American – would give them "a certain leverage" in the United States. Realising that its "modest proposal" to change the course of history had its weaknesses, the newspaper launched the Operation Clark County website.

The judicious tone of the Guardian's introduction was undermined by the sample letters "from three prominent Britons" posted on the website – and presumably already en route par avion to Ohio. All three were high-handed and condescending. John Le Carré's missive was a tirade worthy of any anti-Bush conspiracy website. Instead of the polite and reasoned arguments urged by the Guardian, Le Carré offered abuse, calling the Iraq War a "hare-brained adventure". As Clark County is the site of a large Air National Guard base, his letter was likely to offend its recipient.

The next prominent Briton, Antonia Fraser, offered some praise of American history but called for a vote against "Bush and his gang" and their "savage militaristic foreign policy of pre-emptive killing". Professor Richard Dawkins opened his letter condescendingly: "Don't be ashamed of your president: the majority of you didn't vote for him. If Bush is finally elected properly, that will be the time for Americans travelling abroad to simulate a Canadian accent." A stream of abuse of the Bush administration followed: he called the pre-9/11 Bush "an amiable idiot" and Colin Powell "spineless". Dawkins exemplified one vein of Bush criticism – so confident of the righteousness of its cause that the basics of polite dialogue are forgotten, replaced instead by arrogance and vitriol.

In a few days, over 14,000 Guardian readers began writing to registered independents in Clark County. Fortunately the pleas dispatched by rank and file readers were much more even-handed and sensible than those sent by their prominent compatriots. Many had genuine connections with the United States and expressed this in a heart-felt manner.

The scheme quickly attracted attention around the world, reflecting a global interest in shaping the outcome of the election. Operation Clark County became a brief blimp in media coverage of the campaign. CNN and other networks descended on the newspaper's London offices.

The operation's lack of success became apparent as soon as the Guardian website began posting responses from Clark County. Arranged under the headline of "Dear Limey assholes", the responses ranged from "Real Americans aren't interested in your pansy-ass, tea-sipping opinions" to regular references to 1776 and Britons as "yellow-toothed snobs". Even the more positive responses were double-edged: "Your invitation to your readership and rationale for offering it are provocative at least, and laudable at best."

The general tone was that the rest of the world should mind its own business and leave voting to the American people. This was even advocated by anti-Bush Americans who knew the campaign would backfire. The Guardian's hope that telling Ohioans how to vote would not be seen as inflammatory reflected the alcohol-fuelled origins of the quixotic idea.

 

THE ULTIMATE RESULTS of course were not in the tea-leaves but in the voting records on November 2, 2004. Al Gore won Clark County in 2000 by 324 votes; Ralph Nader garnered 1,347 votes. In 2004, Bush won the county by 1,620 votes. Of the fifteen Ohio counties Gore won, Clark was the only one Kerry lost. Of the 3,142 American counties, Clark County was one of only thirty-four that switched from Democrat in 2000 to Republican in 2004. It is difficult to judge precisely how much influence the Guardianletter-writing campaign had, but it certainly failed to help Kerry preserve the Democratic majority won by his predecessor.

Some may feel Americans have become particularly inoculated against outside criticisms since September 11, 2001, but a similar campaign launched by concerned Americans to unseat Tony Blair (or by Britons to unseat John Howard) would surely also have backfired. In a world of nation states, citizens from any country rarely appreciate outside criticism, no matter how well intentioned it may be.

In defending the scheme, Ian Katz wrote: "Somewhere along the line, though, the good-humoured spirit of the enterprise got lost in translation." The urge to satirise and laugh at politicians is alive and well in Britain. It is hard not to laugh at "Two Jags" John Prescott being recently called "Two Shags" by the tabloids. This desire to laugh at the powerful is partially fulfilled for many when they watch President Bush on the nightly news, though humour has its limitations. If you are going to write a personal letter calling someone's president an "idiot" or suggesting that they pretend to be Canadian when travelling abroad, this may not be interpreted as clever or amusing.

A Pew poll after the 2004 election showed Bush's victory had worsened the attitudes of most foreigners towards the United States. This feeling was expressed bluntly by the front page of the Daily Mirror on November 4: "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?" However, the same Pew survey showed the US tsunami relief efforts had engendered favourable responses across the globe to the way people viewed America, reminding us that policies make a difference.

There are those who believe that the Democrats "were robbed" again in 2004. Claims of electoral malfeasance generally centre on Ohio and the behaviour of the aggressively partisan Republican Ohioan Secretary of State, Kenneth Blackwell. In the weeks leading up to the 2004 presidential election, theGuardian and other newspapers did a good job reporting on Blackwell's efforts to reduce the number of Democrats on the electoral rolls and make the voting process as tedious and lengthy as possible in Democrat strongholds. Blackwell used an obscure electoral law that allowed self-appointed challengers to question anyone in the voting queue. Blackwell's preferred tactic was to bus in young Republicans to target booths and question anyone who looked different. This tactic, which aims to have voters either declared ineligible or intimidate them so that they don't vote, was successfully used earlier in America's history to prevent blacks from voting. In Ohio, it was prohibited at the last moment by a state judge.

Blackwell's efforts, and state-and county-based electoral rules and registration which were seen in action in Florida in 2000, have led many to ask whether America can be called a democracy. My response tends to be that this style of electoral politics is an example of the excesses of majoritarianism. This is what can happen when elected politicians, rather than impartial administrators, decide how elections are conducted and administered. Blackwell's actions in Ohio, although unsavoury, may not have been crucial in the 2004 election, though they have left a tainted odour. Bush won the state by 118,775 votes. This view was recently challenged in Rolling Stone magazine by Robert Kennedy Jr, one of the eleven progeny of Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy. His claim that the election was stolen raises important concerns about Ohioan officials, electronic voting and exit polling, but it exaggerates the case for fraud and fails to deal adequately with contradictory evidence.

Kennedy's article or Le Carré's sounding off at American voters are just two is a string of examples of what I have call the "anti-American cop-out". Instead of carefully critiquing America for its many failings and suggesting alternative policies and procedures that would possibly win popular support, many prefer conspiracy theories, pouring scorn on America and damning it. This is often driven by a dislike – even hatred – not just of what America or Bush is doing, but what America apparently is. Paradise is seen as poisoned. This view tars all American actions with the same brush, and fixates on the worst of the present. As bad as the Bush presidency has been, much recent commentary on America will soon look histrionic and tiresome. Over the remaining years of this decade, American society and foreign policy are likely to lurch into a variety of new directions, some as worrying as the worst of the present, but many others much more commendable.


From Griffith Review Edition 14: The Trouble with Paradise © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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