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Being an Expat Yank Journalist in a Sizzling Political Scene
Carol Gould spoke at Benjamin Franklin House about covering Transatlantic politics as an American in the UK. Here's an edited version of her talk.
Who would have imagined in January 2019 when the Benjamin Franklin House suggested I deliver a ‘US 2020’ talk in the historic London home of that Founding Father that in June I would be there during an unprecedented leadership crisis in the United Kingdom? You may ask, so what words of wisdom does Carol Gould have to offer that differ from the tsunami of news on Twitter, Facebook, newspapers, television and radio? I suppose my thirty years in broadcasting as an expatriate American have given me perspective.
Where do I start? In mid-June 2019 a clutch of nineteen Democratic presidential hopefuls converged on Iowa along with President Trump, Iowa being the lynchpin of the protracted primary and caucus process that will precede the 2020 Democratic party convention. The crowd of Democratic hopefuls spoke to Iowans with their hopes and dreams for the country. One candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana played blues on an electric keyboard and former Representative John Delaney brought bagpipers. Iowa is 90% white, with a rural tradition that is waking up to the dangers of tariffs that could seriously hurt their livelihood. The president let rip against former Vice President Biden, calling him mentally deficient. In turn he said of the president ‘He is an existential threat to this country and his behaviour is beneath the office of the presidency.’ Trump replied with ‘Biden was some place in Iowa today and he said my name so many times that people couldn’t stand it.’
In 2008 and 2012 the state supported Barack Obama in the presidential election and in 2016 Donald Trump. If because of tariffs farmers begin to struggle to the point of disaster, will they go back to supporting a Democrat in 2020? As filmmaker Michael Moore said on Election Day, November 2016 reporting from his hometown, Flint, Michigan, ‘There are people here, Democrats, who ten years ago had a working automobile, a house and a job, but are now living out of their rusting cars and wondering what happened.’ He correctly observed that they would vote Trump because they thought he would work some sort of magic on their lives.
Iowa holds caucuses around the state - this unique form of democracy, which I think Benjamin Franklin would have loved, affords citizens the opportunity to sit down to a meal or drink with a candidate and then assemble to decide for whom they will send delegates to the national convention. In 2014 the Iowa Democratic Party brought in new rules allowing satellite caucuses for the disabled and homebound and inclusion of military personnel; efforts are in progress to include legislation to allow employees time off to attend caucuses in the state’s 1,681 precincts.
The primaries are like the British Grand National horse race. In the non-politician field is millionaire Andrew Yang, 41, who has pledged to give $1000 to every American over 18. Also in the field is spiritual advisor Marianne Williamson. Let me explain about Pete Buttigieg. He is not from outer space. Like the unknown Barack Obama, whom I saw speak in Philadelphia in the summer of 2004 and said to my sister, ‘one day he is going to be president’, Mayor Pete’s popularity is rising. His name derives from ‘Abu Hijaj,’ a family with origins in the Levant but also with roots in Malta. Such is the legacy of the wonderful melting pot that is America ...
Writing and broadcasting as a Yank in the UK all these decades has been an ever-changing phenomenon. I had already learned in the 1990s that as soon as there was a shooting in the United States it was open season on American expatriate commentators. There are not a lot of us here: Bonnie Greer, Charlie Wolf, Janet Daley, Lionel Shriver, Sarah Churchwell, Sir Bob Worcester, Michael Goldfarb, Henry Chu and Jan Halper-Hayes. In the past three years young Kate Andrews of the conservative Institute of Economic Affairs has joined the small contingent of American commentators. My book, Don’t Tread on me - anti-Americanism Abroad, came about after observing for many years the evolution of resentment of the USA: from British World War 2 veterans I interviewed in Portsmouth who were still angry that Franklin Roosevelt did not intervene sooner to help Britain, to the fury at President Eisenhower for not supporting Britain during the Suez Crisis, to burgeoning support by the United States for Israel and its powerful UN veto, to military force in Vietnam and of course Iraq.
After the Sandy Hook elementary school mass shooting in 2012 I was invited onto Victoria Derbyshire’s BBC Radio programme. Before going on air the other guest, an Observer journalist, stormed in and paced the room, shouting at me ‘So where is your six-shooter?’ He grabbed my ID and asked me what qualifications I had for being on BBC radio and before I could answer began pacing the room again, ranting about ‘where do you keep your gun collection, Miss whatever-your-name is?’ and so on. It was the first time I felt I ought to leave the building but decided to tough it out. Once on air I made the point as devil’s advocate that had Alan Senitt, the young British charity worker on an exchange programme from Lord Janner’s London office, who was stabbed to death in Washington DC in July, 2006 had had a gun he might have survived. I was there at the time and Mayor Williams had banned guns but within a few hours knife crime was going through the roof throughout the District. Alan’s female companion was being assaulted by a gang of youths and when he screamed to them to stop one of them fatally stabbed him. I said that had he had a gun he could have scared them off. The rude journalist from the Observer stayed silent through this and to my astonishment was immensely polite after the broadcast.
The major theme I promised to tackle for the Benjamin Franklin House lecture was freedom of the press. Never, ever did I anticipate Donald Trump turning on the press and virtually every day shouting to crowds or in small gatherings ‘The press are the enemy of the people.’ When President Trump was in Britain in 2018, at a press conference at Chequers he called on CNN’s Jim Acosta as ‘Fake News,’ and turned to Prime Minister Theresa May and said ‘I call him fake news.’ She giggled nervously but should have reprimanded him immediately and pointed out that in Brtiain we have a tradition of a robust press.
In May 2019 the White House revoked the press credentials of a significant cohort of journalists including all six Washington Post reporters. This is unprecedented. Benjamin Franklin and the Founding Fathers are revolving in their graves. Many senators, congressmen and a wide range of other Americans expressed anger, comparing such behaviour to that of a dictatorship. I do not set out to Trump-bash but to me his condemnation of the press is frightening. I am old enough to remember Richard Nixon’s hostility to the media and never thought we would see another leader so determined to stop the open discourse that underpins a true democracy.
In President Trump’s first few months in office the stock market boomed and still does. Unemployment is dropping. But the core issue that terrifies Americans most is health care.
Had the Senate flipped to Democrat it is possible that Obamacare, or a more British-style NHS, would have become available to millions of Americans. Although it was fifteen years ago I came up against fierce opposition when I travelled to the USA at the behest of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s sister Diana to promote universal health care, which she and I had enjoyed as expatriates living in Europe. Lamentably the head of the Kerry campaign, Jim Brenner, rang me and told me that if I so much as dared mention what he called ‘socialised medicine’ to voters I would not only be thrown off the campaign but out of the Democratic party. Hopefully this attitude will change as more and more Americans see the misery of the present health care system.
Here in the UK Lord Heseltine noted in June that support from the 18-24 age group for the conservatives has plunged to an all-time, catastrophic low of 5%. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, as much to the left as his friend Bernie Sanders, also enjoys massive support from the young. All of the Democratic 2020 hopefuls have a decent to excellent rating from the influential ACLU - the American Civil Liberties Union. Finance for Democrats has always come from George Soros but in recent years passionate support has also been coming from billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer. (If you can get BBC iPlayer his June interview on Hardtalk is compulsive viewing.) There is great concern amongst world Jewry about the two new members of congress, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, both outspoken in their criticisms of Israel and of what they perceive as the ‘Jewish lobby;’ then again 2020 hopefuls Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigeig have also been unhappy about Israeli policies.
In conclusion to me the issues that will be most crucial to the destiny of Americans and most particularly of women will be the makeup of the Supreme Court and the disastrous situation regarding health care. Whenever I have been on radio and television I have always said that had FDR not died of a sudden stroke in April 1945 he would have seen what Clement Attlee was doing in Britain and established an NHS for Americans. It was not meant to be but perhaps this will be a miracle that will soon become reality in an ever-changing America.
Philadelphia-born Carol Gould is the author of Don’t Tread on me - anti-Americanism Abroad and Spitfire Girls. She was Commissioning Editor for Anglia TV Drama/ITV UK network for PBS for eleven years before becoming a print journalist and BBC political commentator.