Michael Appleton - in transit, Auckland/Papeete/Los Angeles/London

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The debate

Friday, October 1, 1pm
Auckland, New Zealand
Even if I think the result of an election isn't all that important, because the differences between the two (or more) candidates are largely superficial, I still follow it with relish. Why? Because election campaigns at their best can be very much like test cricket at its best: enthralling, the fortunes of the two sides waxing and waning, commentators providing amusing and faux-intellectual analysis, etc. Politics can be fun to follow in the way sport is. As a media junkie, I am also rather fond of big stories, over which pundits get themselves into a lather. It's a largely unspoken truism, but all journalists feel some sense of buzz when terrible things happen - September 11, 2001 was a journalistic godsend. But elections provide the buzz without the terrible misery - the feeling that something historic, but virtuous, is happening: the wheels of the democratic machine are turning.

Anyway, New Zealand's largest international airport really ought to get some TV screens showing rolling news channels. The first Presidential debate is about to start, and these things are much better watched live; digesting all the post-game analysis is so much more interesting if you've actually watched what everyone is talking about. So, Auckland International Airport's failure to lay on CNN or Sky News, instead offering some lame reality show on TV One, sends me on to the outrageously priced internet portals. I know I'll have to start boarding about thirty minutes into the ninety-minute affair, but some of the live blogs of the action offer a few preliminary insights. Like, Kerry sounds more eloquent and commanding than Bush. Well, thanks.

Thursday, September 30, 9.30pm
Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia
We're in Papeete for only half an hour, but I hope to find an internet portal so that I can at least see the post-debate headlines. I'm rooting for a big Kerry win, if only because one-sided election campaigns are, well, like one-sided sporting contests: not all that interesting to follow. Alas, there are no computers in sight, though some even more perplexing developments confront me during my short stay on French soil. For one: Air Tahiti Nui (ATN) really likes to lay on thick the stereotype of the bumptious, friendly Polynesian. The air hostess clutches my shoulders upon entering and leaving the aircraft so as to give me a peck on each cheek; all the stewards are wearing bright, floral shirts that look much too big for them. When we leave the plane in Papeete, the ATN staff have the fun job of trying to pick whether each passenger is French-speaking or English-speaking, so they can give the appropriate, personalised greeting. For some reason, they pick me as French-speaking. This has happened in the past: on a couple of train journeys within England over the past year, French couples have just started speaking to me in French. Do they have a radar or something? Everyone is given a freshly cut flower upon entering the plane in Auckland, leaving it in Papeete, and re-entering it in Papeete. The flowers are meant to go behind each ear, so when I am handed my third, I'm not really sure what to do with it. I fix on the two-left, one-right combo.

Friday, October 1, 9am
Los Angeles, United States of America
I had heard horror stories about getting through security at LAX, especially since 9/11. While I sail through, the quick interrogation by the immigration officer (who had just taken my fingerprints and my photo) is a little unnerving. It feels like he's trying to catch me in a lie, so I can be carted off into an office and roughed up a bit. I think: Jeez, I wonder if they know that I ordered the Muslim meal on my flight to LA? Will they believe me when I tell them I did so to avoid smelly, slimy ham, and not because I am Muslim?
Why are you in the US?
I'm in transit for nine hours, because I'm flying to London this afternoon.
Have you been to the US before?
Where have you come from?
Auckland, New Zealand. We flew via Tahiti.
Do you have friends and family in the US?
Umm, I know some people who live here, yes.
How did you get from London to New Zealand? Didn't you have to pass through the US?
No, I went via Singapore.
Singapore, in Asia.
Okay, very well then, thank you.
So, the last part, about Singapore being in Asia, was facetious and unnecessary. Though, when I said it I felt I was being helpful - and didn't realise that it was probably my accent and my tendency to mumble that had baffled him, not his sense of geography.

As the provision of entertainment is concerned, LAX is perhaps the most inept international airport in the world. I can't get through security till I get my boarding pass from Virgin Atlantic, and its desk doesn't open till 2pm - i.e. for another five hours. After wandering around aimlessly for a while, listening to an "alternative" radio station, offering snippets of the debate, followed by commentary by Robert Fisk, I fail to find an internet portal anywhere, and happen instead on a newsagency and a Starbucks.

The former is a delight: I imagine nowhere else in the English-speaking world rivals the United States for cheap, good-quality, well-written political magazines. So, with eight hours to burn, I purchase Harper's Magazine, the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. I strain under the sheer weight of all this paper, stumbling across to the Starbucks, buy a small cup of tea from one of its four employees (who are nattering away in Spanish, of which Samuel Huntington would surely not approve), and install myself for a morning and then afternoon of reading pleasure.

It's only when you see a newspaper in hard copy that you can get its number. The NYT, when compared to its supposed British political equivalent (the Guardian), is a lot more staid, self-important, serious, and clearly places a much lower importance on design. Which is to say that, like with the New Yorker, words are clearly of utmost importance to the NYT, and flashy graphics, huge pictures and whoppingly big headlines are avoided to a much greater extent. There is a much more potent sense of the NYT and the LA Times being newspapers of record - that is to say, taking more seriously (or being better at keeping up the pretence, depending on your viewpoint) their roles as providers of information rather than analysis - all the news (not all the opinion) that's fit to print. They still felt like newspapers, rather than the commentpapers that most of the British papers seem to have become.

Neither paper was willing to call a winner in the debate on their front page: NYT went with "Bush and Kerry Clash Over Iraq in Debate" and LAT went with "Bush, Kerry Trade Barbs on Iraq War". Their front pages were much more cluttered than an equivalent broadsheet front page elsewhere in the English-speaking world: the debate competed for space on the NYT's shopwindow with stories about arthritis, Iraq, Tom DeLay's antics, and the Kyoto Protocol; the LAT's front page was similarly composed. I took until lunchtime to wade through the coverage of the debate in these papers, and the more perfunctory USA Today - including reading a full transcript of the exchanges - and a sense of a clear Kerry victory emerged.

Though, as I declared in these pages months ago, I expect Bush to win, and much more comfortably than last time. A political scientist whose judgement I trust told me over lunch a few weeks ago that the only thing that might change the dynamic of the race enough for Kerry to have a chance would be a successful terrorist attack on the mainland United States between now and the election. I tend to agree; though, at least a couple more debate victories for Kerry might give the media the opportunity to pretend for a little while longer that this thing might be close. I've entered a sweepstake in which entrants pick the winner and margin of the election: I've gone for Bush by 38 electoral votes - i.e. 288 versus 250.

Saturday, October 2, 11am
London, United Kingdom
The Belgian couple sitting next to me on the flight from LA clearly assumed that none of their fellow travellers would be able to speak French. They piled on the deprecation of the passengers around them (rude, smelly, inarticulate, overweight, etc.). I was poised to offer a witty comeback when they said something nasty about me but, alas, they held back. Maybe they, too, assumed I was French.

Back on "home" soil, there are no pesky questions from immigration officials about where I have been. You flash the maroon passport and you're through. The coach I'd planned on catching is all sold out, so it's the tube then the train down to Alverstoke, where my British family awaits. The Guardian - oh, how I have missed you these past few months of reading the Dominion Post instead - seemed largely uninterested in the debate, and much more concerned with the ongoing rumblings about Tony Blair's leadership. Another year, another election campaign to look forward to.