On The Road

6 minute read

For many weary but interesting months in 1996, I followed Bill Clinton around the U.S as he ran for re-election. Now I cover Britain, and in preparation for the general election on June 7, I’ve followed Tony Blair as he campaigns for his own re-election.

Some obvious differences: the British campaign is only a month’s sprint, thank God. Running for President is a marathon. On the fifty-state Clinton trail, flying on Air Force One or a chartered press plane, I finally took to propping the phone book on my bedside table so I would know where I was when I woke up in yet another hotel room. Blair mostly goes by bus. It ends up back in London almost every night, so the candidate and staff and reporters can all sleep in their own beds, at least for a little while. Very civilized.

Another difference is the relative absence of Hollywood razzmatazz. The Brits complain that Blair is presidential, and they are right. Labour focuses maximum attention on him as the party’s brand image. That has shrunk the power and visibility of cabinet members who traditionally had great sway. But the Queen remains head of state, the P.M. head of government, while the President is both and supposed to “embody the nation.”

Many British people haven’t taken to the idea that their Prime Minister should even begin to imitate the grandeur of his Yankee cousin, which Blair does more than any predecessor. During this campaign, unease about presidentialism was most obvious after Blair’s kickoff event, held at an assembly in a girls’ school where people sang hymns. Clinton would do this sort of thing three times a day and people ate it up. Here, all the commentary was about how craven and tacky it was for Blair to “exploit children” and for a preachy PM to sing hymns.

When Clinton took a train to the Chicago convention that nominated him, the crowds for the pre-planned events would be 30,000-50,000, and people waited by the rails on their own for hours to get a glimpse of him or hold up a sign or wave a flag. At their largest, Blair’s rallies were a few thousand (though like Clinton’s, they have TV stars, and good sound systems playing a bland campaign theme song, and nice visual backdrops). Blair does have a cool charisma; it’s not Clinton’s let-me-absorb-you exuberance, more a supercomputer with a smile whose skill you must admire — but there are no thronging masses waiting to touch him. The whole enterprise of British campaigning is more decorous, in fact more substantive, less of a spectacle, less fun.

But it’s the similarities between the two systems that are most striking, both on the ground and on their higher planes. This is partly explained by transatlantic cross-fertilization: Blair’s pollster Philip Gould worked for Clinton, and Clinton image guru Bob Shrum and pollster Stan Greenberg are beavering away today at Labour’s headquarters, in the campaign nerve center that mimics the Clinton Little Rock “war room.” (The Tories have exchanged staff with the Republicans too.)

On the daily-grind level, I spent a lot of time traveling with Clinton and having drinks with his aides, but the President himself was remote: the less he saw us, the less chance of committing a gaffe. That’s basically true of Blair (though he gives more press conferences than Clinton), whose handlers control the traveling press pack with ruthless efficiency. We aren’t even told our destination when we climb aboard the bus. This is partly for security, partly to keep word from leaking to protesters who might sandbag Blair at the next stop, but to me it feels a little like being five years old again, wondering where the heck Mom and Dad are carting us. “When are we gonna BE there?”

The Labour high command is often heavy-handed towards reporters. They denied Rory Bremner, the devastating Blair impersonator, a seat on the bus, though he had assignments from major newspapers. They also took a Clinton idea — naming the train that took him to the Chicago convention the “21st Century Express” — and gave it a Mussolini twist, naming the three buses of Blair’s roadshow “Strong Leadership,” “Strong Economy” and “Strong Britain.” They are trying too hard. The press aides on the bus, who have the hard task of keeping us in line but not too obviously, can sometimes see the absurdity of it all. We asked one whether we would be seeing any “real people” at the Prime Minister’s next stop rather than a hand-picked audience; she said, “Well, I wouldn’t want to prejudge that. You really must decide. If they ask harsh questions, they are real; if they ask nice questions, they are not.”

Blair doesn’t have Clinton’s omnivorous love of the trail, but he’s a good campaigner. I watched him handle schoolkids, stroppy doctors and nurses at a hospital, a big audience of health workers at a town meeting, a thousand-person rally. He’s fast on his feet, knows his material, and also appears to believe deeply in what he’s doing. Mostly we watch him talking to others. One of the innovations of this campaign has been to wire him with a microphone that allows the reporters to listen on headphones to his chats with “normal” folks. Alastair Campbell, Blair’s spokesman, who has a highly intimate, in-your-face, often belligerent attitude towards the hacks he herds, turned around at one event to find a bunch of my colleagues standing on tables so they could see Blair better, scribbling away, earphones on their heads. It was a funny sight. “We do this to make them feel ridiculous,” he joked. After a while on the trail, “ridiculous” is too weak a word to describe how we feel. Some reporters switch off regularly with colleagues covering the other campaigns to avoid “Stockholm Syndrome” — feeling grateful to your captors.

Even on a historical level, the Clinton-Dole fight has similarities to Blair-Hague. Clinton achieved a ten-point poll lead over Dole in March, eight months before voting day, and nothing Dole did could budge it. Dole moved to the right, promised to cut taxes, and gave dark speeches about the dangers of a Clinton second term (“Where’s the outrage?” he fulminated famously). But the country basically decided it knew and liked Clinton well enough and that he deserved a second term to finish what he had started. Hague moved to the right, promised to cut taxes, and has given dark speeches warning that a second Blair term would turn Britain into a “foreign land.” He too is stuck with polls that all year have had his party down more than 10%, recently 20%.

It took 18 years to replace the Tories with Labour. The long wave of politics is not ready for Downing St. to switch back. And every journalist, every politician, has known this since the start of the campaign.

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