US Election 2004

Tuesday, November 2, 2004 by

Befitting an occasion that somehow felt far more exciting than any recent polls this side of the Atlantic, the BBC unfurled its coverage of the American Presidential election results with the kind of swaggering, bombastic signature tune that’s been sorely absent from homegrown hustings for far too long. Crashing chords, blaring guitars, preposterously over-long drum rolls – this was what you wanted, the perfect tonic to prime the nerves and quicken the senses ahead of a prolonged session in front of the small screen.

Hunkered down in a cavernous studio floating high above the Washington skyline, David Dimbleby sprawled behind a huge desk, pale blue light flickering across his reassuringly alert features. Such an understated choice of location handed our host the perfect motif for the night: that of being both symbolically and literally way up above all the pell-mell and hoi polloi of the election, and thereby able to kick back and reflect upon events with a sly, sophisticated detachment. Hence this was a poll that had been “the most fiercely contested in a generation”, but if that meant a decisive outcome in the next couple of hours we could forget it. On the horizon David could already spy “armies of lawyers jetting in”. He shuddered as if somehow repulsed by his ability to conjure up such a menacing metaphor.

He wasn’t alone in his treehouse, of course. Well, not quite. “Peter Snow is here,” David fibbed, promptly handing over to London where the titular troubadour was loitering waiting to welcome viewers to a virtual White House lawn, bedecked with a huge map of the United States. As Peter cantered off across the country, nimble footwork carrying him with one bound from the Eastern Seaboard to the Deep South, he promised “an electrifying few hours”. A giant simulated graphic of the Presidential helicopter promptly descended upon him to the sound of roaring engines, forcing him to yell a farewell and David to hastily observe he was “in danger of being crushed”. Somewhat impressively the banter between David and Peter would stay slick and well-polished all night, despite the pair being separated by thousands of miles, and in ironic contrast to their often somewhat clumsy bi-play a mere dozen yards apart inside Television Centre.

Just as much fun was to be had, however, courtesy of David’s permanent guest and lieutenant, Professor Allan Lichtman from the American University in Washington. Seated to the anchor’s right, Allan initially projected an air of rustic lethargy, blithely sporting a pale blue shirt with white collars and resting underneath the trademark floppy side-parted hair of academia. But then he opened his mouth, and in an instant you were gripped. “Politicians are like generals,” he burst forth, “they’re always fighting the last war!” His hands and arms flailed wildly. His eyes sparkled. “The parties have lined up, get this, 17,000 lawyers!” He instinctively addressed his comments as much to the camera as to David. Ohio was “covered by the fog of war”. Virginia was “rock ribbed Republican!”

It was impossible not to see the spirit of the late great Bob McKenzie back on our telly once more. “If it ain’t got the swing,” Alan proclaimed, “it don’t mean a thing!” This was rare and classic stuff indeed: the ability to find the very bare bones of the election process uniquely fascinating, and then to project and pass on that fascination to the viewer through a mix of non-patronising sincerity and infectious enthusiasm. Between them, Alan, David and Peter would ensure the unusually protracted stalemate that lay ahead never once threatened to become abortively boring.

Given it was already after 12am, this was self-evidently a good thing. But the very nature of a Presidential election, as compared to a British General Election, meant proceedings were always going to be far removed from that familiar rush of forecasts, breathless declarations and pompous testimony from humbled losers and gallant champions. Indeed, as it turned out none of these would make even the slightest appearance the entire night. With individual States scheduled to be “called” either Republican or Democrat at half-hourly intervals, the pace of the coverage was a world away from the breathless, manic, sometimes brilliantly hysterical results programmes of this country. Instead, news trickled in incredibly slowly, and as it became clear many States were simply not daring to announce a verdict for fear of getting it wrong, because the contest was so close, or even because people were still standing in queues waiting to vote, it began to feel like the affair wasn’t even going to be settled this side of tomorrow.

David was clearly prepared for this, having marshalled a battery of decidedly esteemed and high flying guests to help him and Alan while away the hours. Economists, statesmen, diplomats and those doyennes of US election coverage, the ex-speechwriters, drifted in and out of the studio to engage in endlessly rambling, if learned, debates on minutiae of American political culture. It was all somewhat heavy going, and needed regular interjections from Peter (“It really is nail biting stuff!”) and Alan (“It’s unfolding like one of Ibsen’s well made plays!”) to restore much-needed momentum. Saying that, a quick hop over to ITV1′s coverage revealed a much more low-key affair, resolutely based in London, and boasting guests such as that well known US expert Iain Duncan Smith. Even though they appeared to be cheating and “calling” States before some of the American TV networks, it was a relief to switch back to the infinitely more convincing BBC service.

Ohio was the problem, in more ways than one. “I’m standing on it now,” explained Peter, “though it could be Nevada.” “Could be Nevada?” queried David. “I thought for a minute you were saying ‘it could be nirvana’, such was the pleasure you were taking in it all!” A visiting pollster struggled with David’s references to “Ohio turnout”. “No, a higher turnout,” he fretted, “excuse me – it’s my English.” Fellow correspondents from ABC looked in from places the Beeb couldn’t reach, a lady in Arkansas treating us to some fine stereotyped trans-Atlanticisisms (“She’s a Democratic in-CUM-bent … Bill Clinton DID come to campaign FOR Kerry … not too LONG ago”), and a gentleman in Philadelphia momentarily being replaced by a shot of John Simpson struggling with his earpiece. “A brief glimpse of John Simpson there,” noted David superfluously. “Ah well, it’s the luck of the draw.”

There was heavy emphasis on the possibility of John Kerry being victorious during the first few hours, fuelled by regular clips of people forming mammoth lines outside voting booths. “If John Kerry wins,” cried Alan, “he’s gonna win with the MTV generation, and he’ll have to abandon all those old folk songs and learn rap.” A sombre John Simpson made a more dignified entrance on screen to announce he could hear “pre-MTV sounds” at Bush’s HQ in Washington. Jane Hughes outside Kerry’s base of operations found two supporters who testified rather half-heartedly they’d been “thinking about Kerry … nervous but hopeful … he’s done the best he can.” Simon Schama loomed into view from New York loose of tongue and rosy-faced, roaring of how New Hampshire would go to the Democrats “because my daughter was there this afternoon taking people to the polls – she can deliver thousands of votes with a blow of her nose.” David promised to consult the distinguished historian again later in the programme, but never did – even though Schama’s prediction ultimately turned out to be about the only correct forecast of the entire night.

The tension was agonizing. “What is going on in these places?” David moaned, reeling off the list of States who were being tardy in their declarations. “Democracy is going on!” shouted Alan. “It’s been an honour to do this blah blah blah with you while waiting for results,” a stroppy senior politician drawled across the studio rather unnecessarily, but even that was better than watching the hapless Daisy Sampson attempt to vox pop guests at a party in the US Embassy in London. Daisy, if you recall, had treated us to an unforgettable turn back in June during coverage of the council elections results, hailing drinkers in a Northern wine bar with the claim “Have these people turned their backs on Tony Blair, and if so who to?” and ending a conversation with two Conservative supporters with the sign-off “We’ve heard from two disaffected Tories and a Conservative hopeful.” Here she was back on the beat and back on form, calling MPs by their first names, forgetting to hold her stick microphone to her own mouth when asking other people questions, and introducing a cringing Loyd Grossman with: “Guess who I caught snooping in the cupboards?” David hastily moved things on. “We’ll have some entertainment – the Black Eyed Peas!”

By now it was gone 3am and still nothing was clear. ABC correspondents had developed the curious affectation of removing their earpieces as soon as David asked them a question, thereby denying him the ability to interrupt even if he’d wanted to. “We’ve all become Mr Micawbers,” chuckled Alan, “waiting for something to turn up.” Carole King followed the Black Eyed Peas onto stage at the Democrats’ rally, while Peter resorted to running through statistics from the 1888 Presidential Election.

Slowly, however, indications that the Republicans were making progress seeped onto the studio computers. John noticed, “people coming out of the woodwork” at the Bush camp. “We’re on top of this math,” insisted Alan, checking the figures and proclaiming, “I’m willing to jump the networks” and call Florida for the incumbent. Don King was certainly convinced who’d won. “First I want to say thanks to Tony Blair!” Waving a giant cigar, he invoked Churchill and looked forward to four more years of “George Walker Bush – long live the Queen.” Amusingly the studio had been cleared of guests for King’s appearance, as if a cordon sanitaire follows the ex-boxing promoter wherever he goes.

When they were allowed back in, the panel included erstwhile White House advisor Richard Perle, who David regaled with a marvellous anecdote about the time they were both at the Reagan-Gorbachev disarmament talks in Reykjavik in the mid-1980s, and Perle had placed a large salami on the window sill of his hotel room to keep it fresh, but when he’d gone to fetch it the foodstuff had fallen off and security guards, panicking, had raked it with gunfire. The man was obviously stunned at David’s power of recall, but less so with his attempts to understand Colorado’s proposed proportional voting system (“I dunno – forget it!”)

Finally, down in Florida David Willetts held up a copy of the Miami Herald, confirming the state had gone Republican. “If you’re on tenter hooks, my heart has stopped beating,” divulged an indefatigable Peter. His map, sadly absent of any colossal helicopters waiting to disgorge the new tenant of the White House, remained pockmarked with patches of grey. It was nearly dawn, and still Ohio was too close to call. David handed over to Philippa Thomas in Columbus for an update – but then never returned. When we came back to the studio, he’d vanished, along with Alan and the rest, their place taken by Dermot Murnaghan for the start of BBC Breakfast.

And that was it. No last summing up, no parting punchlines, not even a goodbye. It was all rather unsatisfactory. Though frustrating at times, even interminable in places, the Beeb’s coverage had undoubtedly been fun while it lasted. Now it was suddenly over. There was nothing left but to switch off and walk away in roughly the same condition as, for the moment, the election result itself: gripped with a nagging sense of unfinished business.


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