10 Nov 2020

Reporting US Presidents

It was in 1978. I’d never met, let alone interviewed, a US President before. But this one, my first, was Jimmy Carter – wearing overalls, and down on his hands and knees, wielding a trowel.

Carter was toiling for an afternoon on a housing project for the charity Habitat for Humanity – something he still works for today at the age of 96. He was a down-to-earth guy: no overweening self-importance and perhaps consequently – in the larger than life entity that is America – never regarded as a great president. But he is, at least, a great human being, as I discovered when I interviewed him for an hour onstage at London’s Festival Hall.

Sadly, one aspect of his humanity is that he remains desperately scarred by the Iran hostage crisis in which 52 US diplomats were held for 440 days by Iranian radicals. Worse, the rescue mission he sent came to grief, when a refuelling aircraft crashed into the rescue helicopters in the desert still many miles from Tehran. I was the first journalist to reach the site some three weeks later – it was a shattering scene of crushed humanity and twisted wreckage.

When Reagan followed Carter as president, many of us under-estimated him. Despite having used the governorship of California as a spring-board to his run for the presidency, many of us regarded him more as the ‘B’ Movie star that he had been for many years before. He knew how to “strut his stuff,” and was ably supported by his wife Nancy, who seemed to want him to become president even more than he did.

His campaign to unseat Carter as president, was blessed both by the Iran crisis and by the reality that his campaign was quite simply more visual, more exciting, than Carter’s. His panache and simplicity appealed to the electorate and he won a second term with ease. Indeed, his opponent, Walter Mondale, had been Carter’s vice president. He effectively wrote his own epitaph: “I lost because of my inability to appear compelling on television.”

When I interviewed Reagan in his second term in the ‘White Room’ of the White House, we had been requested to cover the carpets with canvas, in case one of our lights exploded (as they could) and damaged the carpets. Reagan came bounding in and to our alarm tripped over the canvas. “God darn it!” he declared, “you’d have thought I’d been in enough ‘B’ Movies not to have done that!”

In retrospect, was there ever a moment in my presidential election experiences, when any of us imagined that the process would throw up a Donald Trump? There were certainly those who, early on Reagan’s first run for the White House, ridiculed his Hollywood past as a qualification for the presidency. But they were soon chastened by the fact that he had been a successful governor of California before that run. And, in the end, his balletic peace negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev testified to both his charm and persistence.

George H Bush, who followed Reagan, had a good record and was most definitely no Donald Trump. As for Bill Clinton, he was charming to interview. But then so was Monica Lewinski, the young White House intern with whom he had a serious dalliance.

Barack Obama’s election, for many, was a matter of contrasting joy entwined with history. An African American in the Whitest House in Washington. He deployed charm, integrity, and commitment in ways that his successor never embraced. The crowds at his inauguration were to dwarf Trump’s eight years later.

It never seemed possible that Hilary Clinton could, or would, stop him. He proved an unsavoury liar, whilst she proved disappointingly dull on the campaign trail. Fabulously grumpy and bad tempered, I followed Trump in that contest with Hilary, but never got close to him. I can’t say I lie in bed wishing I had.

Thus it fell to Joe Biden to beat Trump. And it could well turn out that he is the man to bring the country together again too. But you can’t help feeling that it might be time for America to reform the electoral system, hatched by the Founding Fathers – and maybe do away with it altogether.

This time round, however, it turned out that Biden not only won the popular vote, but the electoral college too.


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