The deputy prime minister punches a man after being pelted with an egg at a party rally. The voters, shaken from their campaign torpor, cheer along as the tussle is replayed on TV. That same day, the prime minister is harangued outside a hospital by an angry voter, and his political rival is forced to abandon canvassing after some protesters turn rowdy. Sound like an unlikely farce? Well, not actually. Just another day in the 2001 British general election campaign.
By contrast, the U.S. presidential campaign trail is a far more mundane affair, as seen through the eyes of a visiting journalist from the United Kingdom. With everything so carefully stage-managed and relentlessly on-message, very little is left to chance. At each rally, the candidates appear on stage, deliver the standard stump speech with a few local tweakings, punch the air and then exit stage left to be whisked away to the next city. So far, so formulaic.
Rarely do John F. Kerry and President Bush meet "real people" face to face, as opposed to crowds of supporters at meticulously organized rallies of the faithful. And the ever-present phalanx of burly Secret Service agents makes sure that anyone with a gripe or an awkward question is kept very much at arm's length. It is all about the flattering but bland TV shot or photo opportunity.
On the Kerry-Edwards campaign trail last week, I was struck by how little the candidates deviated from the same speeches and banalities they have been trundling out since the Democratic convention, give or take the odd, rather contrived nod to local tastes -- such as Kerry's dropping the name of the local pizza joint or ice-cream parlor. Unscripted, genuinely spontaneous moments are rare -- the only one that stands out is Kerry donning a cowboy hat and a guitar for an impromptu performance of "Johnny B. Goode" in Jefferson City, Mo. In the main, it is left to Teresa Heinz Kerry or the Bush twins to inject some color and sass to an otherwise lackluster campaign.
The lack of spontaneity fails to dampen the crowd's enthusiasm, however. Far from it. They laugh uproariously when Kerry gives his well-worn "John Edwards was voted Sexiest Politician by People magazine . . . I read People magazine" spiel, though they have probably heard it before.
Many of the people I spoke to at several rallies were simply grateful to bask in the reflected spotlight, to catch a glimpse of "someone who could be president someday," as one woman put it. It is a far cry from the skepticism and suspicion that you come across on the campaign trail in the United Kingdom. Anyone pitching a political candidate with the constant refrain "Hope is on the way" would go down like a lead balloon in Belfast.
Political journalists back home complain that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get access to politicians at election time, but compared with the United States it's a piece of cake.
Daily news conferences are the norm in Britain, and Prime Minister Tony Blair has been known to stroll through his campaign plane and have informal chats with the assembled journalists. No such access here. Take, for example, Edwards canvassing with Barack Obama at a Chicago diner the day after Alan Keyes announced that he was running for the Senate. Much to the chagrin of the reporters, they were told that neither Edwards nor Obama would take any questions on the Keyes-Obama race, despite it being one of the big political stories of the day. News conferences on the presidential campaign trail are rare and, with the Secret Service acting as a buffer zone between politicians and reporters, most interaction is reduced to listening to the stump speech delivered umpteen times by the candidates. That, and consuming the stale language of news releases.
Much has been made of the influence of American-style politics on political parties in Britain, particularly on Blair's Labor Party. Some commentators there lament the move away from good old-fashioned politicking in favor of slickly choreographed campaigns, spin doctors and focus groups. But as the antics of the 2001 election campaign proved, British politicians and voters can still be relied upon for some rough-and-tumble on the hustings. Heinz Kerry would feel right at home.
Mary Fitzgerald of the Belfast Telegraph in Northern Ireland is reporting for The Washington Post as a Laurence Stern Fellow.