The British Election

The British Election

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 21 1997 3:30 AM

The British Election

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Tonight we were flying from London to Manchester when Tony Blair came back into coach class. A British campaign plane is a miniature version of an American one. As there are few staff, and no secret service, the only thing between the party leaders and the hacks is the thin curtain between first class and coach. When Blair burst through it, I expected the usual frantic American-style rush for boom mikes and tape recorders and notebooks. When a presidential candidate deigns to come calling, the journalists rise up like peasants in a potato famine. We are all so eager to get a little glimpse of the big shot--and so grateful that he has come to us--that those unfortunate enough to stand in the way wind up crushed and alone.

Blair passes my seat in the front row and, as I dive both for cover and my notebook, he stops to chat with a journalist in the row behind me. A symbolic casual chat between candidate and journalist. A mere three feet away! Instinctively I enter my usual crouch position, like Rodman going for a rebound: Elbows and tail out, body cantilevered Gumbylike over the back of the seat, ears straining to catch every word. There's no telling where the conversation might lead. Significant rumors abound: Blair has been sneaking into a tanning booth between rallies; Blair has changed his hairstyle once again to appeal to female voters; Blair has been phoning Dick Morris for advice. But instead of digging for any of this, the journalist merely compliments Blair on his recent performance.

He does this without Blair's full attention, however, for Blair is distracted. The leader of the Labor Party and probable future prime minister of Great Britain keeps glancing back at me in exactly the same way he might at some kook who had planted himself on the floor beside his restaurant table. Finally he turns and, in a tone reserved for madmen and idiots, inquires:

"You all right there?"

It's only then that I look around and notice that I'm the only guy in the plane who has dropped in for a visit. The three cameramen across the aisle barely glance up from their porno. The 20-odd journalists toward the back of the plane keep on pounding down the free Chablis. I mumble something about how I've just come from America, where it is the custom, in these circumstances, to treat politicians as piranhas treat fresh meat. To which Blair responds with one of those little nods and smiles that the British have always used to let Americans know that they exist but are not welcome. With that, he strolls down the aisle to chat privately with other journalists and, from the tone of it all, you'd never guess the fate of the nation was at stake. (Politics leads Americans to tighten up and withdraw like constipated English aristocrats. It leads the English to relax and extend like American car salesmen.)

I lean across the aisle to the cameramen and hiss, "This is incredible. Why doesn't everyone get up and listen to what he's saying?"

One of them looks up from the photo he's been studying (two naked woman above a headline that says "Billy Bonks Both Barbies") and says, "We've been doing this for twoweeks, mate."

Two weeks? Twoweeks??!!! In nine months of Dole speeches, the ardor of American journalism remained undimmed. The merest glimpse of the man himself precipitated a crisis in the sky. But there's no explaining this here and now. I understand who I am: the drip with the notepad. The pallid little troll known as The American Journalist.

A few days ago on the Major campaign I met a gloriously brassy lady from one of the tabloid newspapers who has covered the last two U.S. presidential elections. When she discovered I was American, she gave me a little lecture about American campaign journalists. They were no longer charming and whoring and boozing and alive, she explained, but humorless drones who seem surgically attached to their ThinkPads. "I used to think they'd go up to their hotel rooms and plug themselves into the wall," she said. She had a point but failed to stick it in as far as it can go: The reason American campaign journalists are more boring than they used to be is that they no longer matter very much. American politicians communicate with the people not through journalists but through court liars and television ads. The journalists respond to their fading relevance, as people often do, by taking themselves and their jobs more seriously than ever. "If the electric failed on their machines," the tabloid lady croaked, "would they all collapse?"

By contrast, the British journalist tends to avoid conspicuous displays of effort. In the rare moments he applies himself, he shuns the personal computer; for that matter, he tends to avoid writing at all. Walk into a British press filing center after a speech, and you see two dozen white men stumbling around the room barking out neat little paragraphs into their cell phones. A bottle and a half into the day, they can still think in perfectly formed newspaper articles.

In spite of his seeming indifference the British journalist, unlike the American one, has an important and interesting job. His politicians still feel a need to talk to him--nay, to treat him very nearly as an equal. He takes for granted that he will see more of the leading candidates in a week than his American counterpart expects to see of a long-shot American presidential candidate in a year. One reason for this proximity is the lingering British suspicion of the television. (Laws restrict the parties to a handful of political broadcasts; custom prevents the candidates from pushing up against the law. When asked a few days ago whether she thought the candidates should stage a TV debate, Lady Thatcher said, "Television trivializes the issues." Next question.) Another is the difference in what must be done to protect a British politician from being killed. The people who guard American politicians fear the lunatic with a pistol seeking revenge for his miserable childhood, and so the politician is surrounded wherever he goes, and prevented from bumping into anyone. The people who guard the British politician fear a politically motivated terrorist with a bomb. A great deal of effort goes into sweeping sites for bombs, but once the site is swept, life returns to normal. Anyone who turns up at Tony Blair's rallies can get close enough to spit on his shoe.

This has gone on for so long now that the British journalist is not fully aware how good he has it. Just about everything in Britain is rapidly becoming American, and the politics is not far behind. The man leading the charge to Americanize British politics is Tony Blair. But that is another subject, for another day.

Michael Lewis is the author Trail Fever, about the 1996 U.S. presidential campaign, among other books.