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Only in America

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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      Only in America
Matt Frei

Matt Frei, the BBC's former Washington correspondent, goes under the skin of the nation's capital to unravel the paradoxes of the world's last remaining superpower.The paperback has been fully updated to provide a unique view into the weird, wonderful and totally bizarre workings of America’s political world and the 2008 Presidential election.Imagine a city so powerful that the weapons commanded from its ministries could obliterate the globe many times over and yet so vulnerable that it cannot prevent a seventeen-year-old boy from killing half a dozen of its inhabitants in a shooting spree that lasts for a whole month. A city so rich that it spends 150 million dollars a year on corporate lunches, dinners and fundraisers and yet so poor that its streets are frequently as potholed as those of any forgotten backwater in the developing world. A city that deploys more armed officers per square mile than any other in the world but has earned the title of being its country's murder capital. A city where 565 elected Congressmen and Senators are chased, charmed, cajoled and sometimes bribed by 35,000 registered lobbyists; where the most illustrious resident travels with a fleet of planes and a small army of body guards but where the mayor for twelve years was a convicted crack addict who believed that every law in his own country was racist, 'including the law of gravity'. A city that plays host to seventeen different spying agencies, employing 23,000 agents, none of whom were able to discover a plot that involved flying civilian airliners into buildings, even though the plotters had littered their path with clues. Hard to imagine? Welcome to Washington DC: the Rome of the 21st century.Matt Frei was the BBC’s Washington correspondent from 2002, and now presents BBC World News America. Now fully updated to cover the longest, most expensive and most fascintating election campaign in US history, including the astonishing ascent of Barack Obama, the first election of the internet age, the rise and fall of John McCain and Sarah Palin and the new First Family. ‘Only in America’ is a surprising and brilliant dissection of the most powerful nation on earth from its capital out.


Only in America

DEDICATION (#ulink_1ad7da37-da1f-55a2-94b4-5ac9c2fd2b61)

For my familyGeorge, Amelia, Lottie, Alice and Penny


Cover (#ufa2eff0f-9e7c-542b-a726-f8787e334ebc)

Title Page (#u291feb82-93d1-5607-935f-f5262a849942)

Dedication (#u0c01739f-7461-5c49-aed3-d9859f552b8e)

Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job (#u483b7d18-e8e5-52d7-abfe-26a7a1126e83)

Arriving (#u6fc16a9e-5280-577b-885f-7835b160f544)

1 Beltway Blues (#u3581336d-44e6-5e06-9351-fdb5b1074445)

2 Tilden Street (#ubcf864bf-5d71-5845-acd0-fd2de0bcb484)

3 The Colour of Fear (#ubdcab885-2809-5114-8aef-bd3744c322f8)

4 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (#litres_trial_promo)

5 Grovelling for Votes (#litres_trial_promo)

6 Weather You Can Call Names (#litres_trial_promo)

7 God is Everywhere (#litres_trial_promo)

8 Defenders of the Constitution or Scum of the Earth? (#litres_trial_promo)

9 Think-Tank Alley (#litres_trial_promo)

10 The Tyranny of Comfort (#litres_trial_promo)

11 The Colour of Money (#litres_trial_promo)

12 Class Without War (#litres_trial_promo)

13 School Citizens (#litres_trial_promo)

14 Whose American Dream is it Anyway? (#litres_trial_promo)

Afterthoughts (#litres_trial_promo)

Index (#litres_trial_promo)

Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Author (#litres_trial_promo)

Praise (#litres_trial_promo)

By the Same Author (#litres_trial_promo)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

BLACK MAN GIVEN NATION’S WORST JOB (#ulink_fd7fa05e-9b62-58d5-9997-5d656a4546c0)

The National Mall is the Circus Maximus of Washington, DC. Instead of chariot races and gladiatorial battles, it plays benign host to rallies, concerts, charitable walks against breast cancer or armies of tourists shuffling dutifully past the war monuments, the shrines to the Founding Fathers and the museums that form the granite and marble core of a city that refers to itself, somewhat self-consciously, as ‘the Nation’s Capital’. The steps to the grandiose Lincoln Memorial, illuminated at night like a pop-up Parthenon, were glistening with early November drizzle. It was one in the morning and a small crowd had gathered at the foot of the lugubrious Abraham Lincoln, a giant sitting back in his huge throne, in brooding disapproval of the world around him.

It was a motley gathering of students, tourists and some interns from Capitol Hill, clutching a bottle of champagne. They were all huddled around a radio as if listening intently to football scores. But the mood was too intimate and reverential for sport. In any case this was the middle of the night. One of the women, an African American, was crying silently as she listened. The make-up on a young white woman’s face was smudged with tears or rain. I couldn’t tell. What seeped out of the small wireless wasn’t the excitable voice of a sports commentator. It was the brown-sugar baritone of a politician. The voice rose and fell as if delivering a sermon. And when the speaker said that ‘the true strength of our nation is not the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth but the enduring power of our ideas’ the small radio crackled and hissed to the sound of mass applause. The gathering at the Lincoln Memorial nodded silently in collective approval. In the distance someone was hollering with apparent joy. A car passed by blaring out the popular country song ‘Only in America’.

Half a mile away at the White House a much bigger crowd had assembled. Washington, DC doesn’t usually go in for spontaneous human gatherings, especially in the middle of the night. But something had brought the streets to life. The sound of car horns echoed off the inscrutable glass and steel towers on K Street, home to the city’s most powerful lobbying firms. Even the anti-nuclear protester who has been living in his tent outside the White House for as long as I can remember, forever threatening but thankfully never achieving self-immolation, had crept out of his lair and was now staring through the black wrought-iron gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There was nothing to see. George and Laura Bush, famous for retiring to bed early, were probably fast asleep by now. A lone sharpshooter was patrolling the roof.

But the crowd had not come to gawp. They had come to imagine. In a few months a family would reside here that descended from the slaves who had helped to build this replica of a Virginia tobacco planter’s mansion two centuries earlier. As an African American, Barack Obama could have been legally owned by America’s first sixteen Presidents. Now he and his wife Michelle and their daughters Sasha and Malia would move into the White House, not as cooks, cleaners or advisers, but as the First Family. Millions of Americans doubtlessly felt that such an event was horribly overdue. Millions more around the world had doubted it would ever come to pass. The airwaves, the internet, the newspapers had been filled for months with meticulous polling data, touch-screen electoral maps and convoluted conjecture about why an African American would be acceptable to a largely white electorate. Or why not. Entire days of broadcasting time had been spent discussing the so-called Bradley Effect, named after a former African American candidate for the governorship of California who was soaring in the opinion polls but lost in the privacy of the polling booth because too many voters were simply too racist. But that was 1982 and this was now 2008. And wherever you were on that night and whoever you wanted to win, you had to pinch yourself that on 4 November sixty-two million Americans had elected a forty-seven-year-old black Senator called Barack Hussein Obama to be the forty-fourth President of the most powerful nation on earth.

Call it the stomach-knot-forming sensation of history. And what formed that knot weren’t the returns from those crucial swing states of Ohio or Pennsylvania, or the moment that California and Washington state tipped him over the 270 electoral votes that a candidate needs to win. No, it was the simple image of seeing America’s first black First Family walk onto the stage at Grant Park in Chicago in front of half a million people. Jesse Jackson, the veteran civil rights campaigner who had stood next to Martin Luther King when he was shot forty years earlier in Memphis, was buried in the crowd, his face streaming with tears. He too had tried to make a run for the White House two decades earlier but failed. Jackson had been at times lukewarm, critical and downright obscene about Obama’s candidacy. Like many other leaders from the civil rights generation, Jackson at first thought that Obama, with his white mother and Kenyan father, wasn’t black enough. Obama was not the descendant of slaves. He had not been branded by history. His skin colour, like his candidacy, represented a compromise to purists in the civil rights movement. That compromise only became acceptable as they realized that the candidate had a real chance of becoming President.

The other famous face in the crowd belonged to Oprah Winfrey, the fabulously wealthy entertainer and talk-show hostess who had supported Obama from the start and had organized mass rallies on his behalf. ‘He is the one …’, she once declared, sounding more as if she was touting a Messiah than a candidate for public office. Oprah’s endorsement from the sofa pulpit of her television show dusted Obama with mainstream appeal and introduced him to legions of white housewives who were only dimly aware of the lanky politician with the exotic name. The rest of the vast crowd in Chicago was anonymous: a mixture of white, black, Hispanic, young and old. They were cheering, crying, laughing or just open-mouthed with astonishment. In our studio in Washington, DC I watched Trent Duffy, the young spokesman of the outgoing Bush White House, watch the pictures from Chicago. He too gulped. A McCain supporter, he couldn’t help but feel a moment of pride. Whatever you thought of Obama as a candidate or of his potential as a future President, this was a night to remember. America had reintroduced itself to the rest of the world.

Even the New York Times, which prides itself on its long-winded headlines, was lost for verbosity. One word bleated out from its front page: OBAMA. The New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch, who had been lukewarm about the candidacy of Senator Obama, splashed a reverential ‘Mr President’ on its front page. In Kenya, where relations of the President-elect still lived in a village of the Luo tribe, the government declared 4 November a national holiday. Elsewhere Obama’s election was greeted overwhelmingly as a symbol of America’s renewal, as proof that America could still inspire, as evidence that the tired cliché of the American dream was not yet dead. After almost a decade of mounting anti-Americanism, newspapers and politicians in Paris, Rome and London suddenly began to ask themselves: could we ever elect our own Obama? One dreads to think what they would have said if Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska had prevailed. It would surely have been: look at how racist America still is. The charge would have been levelled even though no European nation is close to electing a native-born Pakistani, Turk or Algerian as its head of government or state.

The morning after the election the weather was still grey and wet. Yellowed leaves were falling limply to the ground and yet the dogged regiment of Washington commuters seemed to have a spring in its step. Something had changed. I asked the African American woman at the hotel reception how she felt. She smiled, winked and said nothing. She didn’t need to. The capital, which had never failed to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate, had opted for Barack Obama by an unprecedented 92 per cent. Not even Saddam Hussein could rely on such results. African Americans, who make up almost two-thirds of the city’s population and who used to be famously absent at the polling booth on election day, turned out in record numbers. A similar picture was repeated elsewhere. Hispanic voters, who now represent the biggest minority in the United States, voted overwhelmingly for Obama. So did students. The Democrats had managed to mobilize millions of first-time voters in an aggressive and meticulous campaign that used the internet as a tool of fundraising and recruitment. Obama took his campaign to enemy territory and won states like Virginia which had not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964. It was an astonishing achievement, one that came about because of an uncanny combination of factors: a ground-breaking campaign, a great candidate, a weak opposition, revulsion with the incumbent Republican President, opposition to his war in Iraq, an economic crisis that had flawed America and undermined its self-confidence, and all of the above leavened with the deep desire for change. A majority of Americans had come to the conclusion that in the twenty-first century it was time to try something different. And so they went out to make some history.

The last time I felt the benign knot in my stomach was the day the Berlin Wall came down. This too was a symbolic moment. It was bloodless and it shifted the world’s political furniture. Of course the laughter and the tears of joy didn’t last for long. German unification was a bruising business. Running America will be, too. With two wars and a failing economy, Obama has his work cut out. As the satirical magazine The Onion put it in a banner headline: ‘Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job’. How he got the job and how it became so bad is the unlikely story of America in the last eight years, a story which we joined after our arrival in the summer of 2002.

November 2008

ARRIVING (#ulink_56ff1112-0b87-5e7c-8179-1b58609fabaa)

There are many reasons to feel queasy about starting a new job in a strange country. But fear of dying isn’t usually on the list. I was on my way to Washington DC. We had lived in Asia for almost six years and were preparing to take up a new posting in the United States. Penny, my wife had dispatched me early to find schools for our children George, Amelia and Lottie, a car and a house to live in. After a nomadic decade of moving from one post to the next I had learned that the secret to a happy foreign correspondent is a foreign correspondent’s happy spouse. My track record in scouting out good accommodation had been proven in Rome (a penthouse flat in a crumbling palazzo), Hong Kong (a crumbling flat with a fabulous view) and Singapore (an old British officer’s house with lazy fans and a large garden). Now it was Washington’s turn. The pressure was on. As I settled into my seat on the plane I could imagine us all lounging on one of those traditional American porches.

I hadn’t been back to DC since my first and only visit in 1988 as a young radio reporter. Then I had come to cover the election of President George (HW) Bush. If someone had told me I would be returning a decade and a half later to live in America and report on the presidency of another man called George (W) Bush I would have laughed. To have father and son elected to the same coveted job was odd enough. To have them share exactly the same name – but for one humble H – would have struck me as bizarrely unimaginative. At least they’d save money on the monogrammed napkins at the White House. The thought occurred to me as I surveyed the movie menu and looked forward to a long transpacific flight without young children and the torture that pits their restlessness against your nerves. The journey was going to be blissful.

It was for about six hours. Until we reached a point somewhere over the Pacific. I thought I could see the sunrise over San Francisco, having just witnessed the sunset over Japan. I had already drunk half a bottle of white wine, my sense of timing was clearly impaired and I was stuck into a soppy film that would have seen me walk out of the cinema on terra firma but almost had me in floods of tears at 30,000 feet. Tear ducts are suckers for high altitude and low pressure, apparently. Suddenly the narrative was interrupted and a completely different voice entered my head, mixed with static crackle. It was the captain, an American with a reassuring baritone and a slight Southern drawl. ‘I’m afraid to tell you, ladies and gentlemen’ – pilots, it occurred to me immediately, should never use emotive words like ‘afraid’ – ‘that we have to report an engine failure in engines two and four.’ There was a pause, which I didn’t much care for. I had suddenly lost interest in the film. The tear ducts got a grip on the unfolding situation. They shut down. I was hungry for more information about our plane. I wanted to know a lot about engines two and four, but also, come to think of it, about one and three. The captain cleared his throat. ‘We will be heading, ah, I mean, returning, to the nearest airport, which I am afraid to tell you is … Tokyo. It’s five hours from where we are now, but it’s a little closer than going on to San Francisco and … we may have to make an emergency landing. I will keep you posted, folks.’ You could feel and hear the collective sobering up of three-hundred-plus passengers. Seats that had been almost horizontal were suddenly ramrod-straight. A man and a woman in the row next to me held hands and starting praying. This was, I thought, a bit premature. But it changed the mood in my section of the plane as if the Grim Reaper himself had arrived with the drinks trolley. As it happened some wanted to order more drinks. Others regretted the ones they had already consumed. I seem to remember straddling both camps. The static resumed: it was the captain again. ‘I understand that some of you may be alarmed. But I jus’ wanna reassure you. This is a very, very big bird but she can fly on two engines real good.’ I remember reading something along those lines. But was the breakdown in grammar from the cockpit an indication of engine issues the captain wasn’t letting us in on? Or was it just vernacular? Turning the 747 into a ‘bird’ was both reassuringly colloquial, betraying the confidence of a veteran pilot, but also, perhaps, alarmingly flippant. It certainly struck me as very American. All around me guttural Cantonese and high-pitched Mandarin tones were flying around like swallows before a storm. My fellow passengers were desperate for a translation that I could not nor would have wanted to give and that took five minutes to come from a Chinese-speaking stewardess. After that a few more people started muttering silent prayers. I ditched the film and went to the sky map, a handy device in moments of impending emergency; handy, that is, for working out the geography of disaster. Where would we crash-land? Who lived nearby to save us? To recover our bodies? Would there be South Sea garlands for the survivors? It was the white wine that was thinking. The little dot that represented our plane had done an outrageous U-turn over a large area of blue that displayed not a single speck of land. I zoomed out. Why not land in Hawaii? I couldn’t think of any other islands in this part of the world. Hawaii, though, was a few thousand miles to the south. We were flying over the middle of the Pacific and now we were indeed heading back to the place I had come from. What a waste of flying hours. After all this time in Asia I had become mildly superstitious. Was this a signal? Should we be going to America after all? We had been so happy in Singapore. Washington, DC, had been attacked by terrorists. My brother Chris had had a narrowish escape in New York. His apartment was next to Ground Zero but he had been on business in Paris at the time. In Singapore the only danger came in the form of stray branches from tree pruning on the airport motorway, the occasional snake in our house or being struck by lightning on the golf course (if you were stupid enough to carry one of those large umbrellas). Had I made a terrible mistake?

In the end we were spared the emergency landing, although it was alarming to see scores of fire engines and ambulances racing down the runway next to our plane. Apparently we made the evening news in Tokyo and the morning news in San Francisco. A new plane was rustled up and after a five-hour delay we recommenced our crossing of the Pacific Ocean. I arrived in Washington thirty-five hours after I had left home. I should have missed two days of my life, but because of the thirteen-hour time difference I was only a day behind. The mental maths was doing my head in. My body clock had been fast-forwarded, then rewound and then binned. Even as a seasoned traveller I had never, ever experienced jet lag like this. I should have been asleep when everyone else was awake. My brain felt like a poached egg encased in pastry. My senses were numbed, my limbs ached and I was not in the least prepared to deal with three Washington estate agents from three rival agencies. All called Kathy.

In a moment of fitful enterprise before leaving Singapore I had contacted these agencies, hoping to see as many houses as possible in the short time I had available. Little did I realize that I had broken an unwritten but widely respected etiquette in the world of Washington property. You choose an agent and then you stick with him or her to the bitter end. It is easier to get a divorce in the United States than to change agents. So to start your hunt for the dream home as a polygamist was hardly a good idea. There was also a matter of verbal misunderstanding. I was happily using the term ‘estate agent’ until the concierge in my hotel informed me that this conjured up images of managing the properties of the dead more than the accommodation of the living. I should try ‘realtor’. But that was difficult to pronounce and, in any case, sounded like something out of Viking lore. We were indeed divided by the same language, I thought, and in my mental state such subtle points of translation actually caused physical pain.

I spent much of the first day of my new life in America wondering if, when and how I should tell one Kathy about the other two. Acute jet lag makes the mind obsess acutely about little things. Eventually the Kathies would find out, wouldn’t they? And how many other BBC correspondents could there be in Washington at that time looking for a place to live? At least two as it turned out. I rang the Kathy I designated as Kathy 1, cross-referencing her name with her phone number. She had seemed to be the most forthcoming when I had called her up earlier from Singapore. ‘I’m dying to meet you in the flesh!’ I now lied, perhaps crossing a red line of familiarity.

Kathy 1 shot back: ‘Well, Matt, there’s a lot of it!’


‘No, flesh.’

I liked Kathy 1. After Singapore I was taken aback by humour that didn’t come from friends, books, TV or films. We arranged to meet later that afternoon.

I put the phone down and rang Kathy 2.

‘I am so, so glad that you called, Matt. I have just been chatting to the most delightful gentleman, who happens to be a friend of mine, who has the most gorgeous house in Georgetown. It is superb for entertaining. You and your family will adore it. Meet me in one hour, if you can.’

I was sitting on the side of the hotel bed, looking like a forlorn character in an Edward Hopper painting. My shoulders were rounder than the dome of the Capitol. My eyes had gone AWOL. My skin felt like old cornflakes and looked so pale it was translucent. I was meeting a woman who had got it into her head that I was going to entertain like an ambassador and resemble a well-scrubbed anchorman.

I turned up at the allotted location. I was early. The house was wonderful, huge and looked at least four times my budget. I was clearly wasting my time. Then I noticed an elegant woman sitting in a Jaguar on the other side of the road. She was waiting and fiddling with her phone. She had clearly seen me, but made no attempt to communicate. So she can’t have been my date. I looked at her. She looked away. It was summer. The air was ablaze and I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, what everyone in Singapore would have worn. But not, it turns out, in ‘the Nation’s Capital’. Then my phone rang. It was Kathy 2.
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