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THE AMERICAN ELECTION: A SEASON OF SURPRISES
by Amir Taheri
Asharq Alawsat
February 8, 2008

When the current American presidential campaign started a year ago, my initial reaction was an unprecedented lack of interest.

I say unprecedented because I had been interested in the four-yearly US ritual since my adolescent years when I followed the Kennedy-Nixon duel with some fascination. Later, I covered several US presidential elections for various newspapers, including this one.

This time, however, I found no one in the field who would set my imagination ablaze.

I had met Senator John McCain, now the Republican Party front-runner during the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, and found him a straight-talking politician with a good grasp of international issues.

I met Senator Hillary Clinton, the Democrat party front-runner at her Senate office in Washington. We had a substantial conversation and I found her well informed and clear-headed.

I also met Mitt Romney at a dinner offered by a friend in New York. At the time, he appeared to me the best placed of the candidates if only because he spoke of healing the internal wounds of America and using his skills as a successful businessman to deal with the looming economic crisis.

I have not met Senator Barrack Obama.

I first heard of him in 2006, when attending a conference at Oxford University. One participant at the conference was a university professor from Illinois, Obama's state. With the enthusiasm reserved for youth, the professor told me that his state had produced "a young saviour for America".

I noted the name as I thought that Obama, a young black man with no fancy education, must be special to have captured the heart of an old, white and well-to-do professor with de luxe academic credentials.

All the same, as already noted, none of the main candidates captured my imagination. Other candidates were even less exciting. I had met Rudi Giuliani several times in the 1990s, and never thought he had the presidential stuff. Senator John Edwards I never liked if only because I have always been suspicious of claim lawyers.

In the past few weeks, however, I have had second thoughts about this year's race.

After all, the role the US plays in international affairs is of such magnitude that no one could ignore the fight for its leadership.

The US is militarily present in 66 of the 192 countries that form the United Nations. It is the guarantor of stability in dozens of nations and the principal source of funds for virtually all international organisations. Although its share of international trade has fallen in relative terms, the US is still the biggest engine of the global economy and the source of more than 80 per cent of innovations that shape the post-industrial world.

The American presidency is so important that I think people in all countries should have a say in who goes to the White House.

For the time being, however, those of us who have no vote in the US, could play the chorus.

I still find none of the candidates outstanding. If I had a vote, I would have to force myself to vote for any of them, and then only because I think one must vote when one has such an opportunity.

Nevertheless, the race as a whole is interesting.

To start with, it provides a dramatic portrayal of America's amazing diversity.

For the first time, a black politician, Barrack Obama, has reached the final stages of the race. Alongside him, there is Hillary Clinton, the first woman candidate to have a serious chance of winning her party's nomination and, perhaps, even the presidency.

Senator McCain is the oldest politician to be among the front-runners in a US presidential race at this late stage.

Romney is a Mormon, and thus the first follower of a made-in-US faith to fight for the presidency in the top division.

Giuliani is an Italian-American and Mike Huckabee, is the first Christian priest to emerge as a major contender for the US presidency.

Apart from highlighting diversity, the current campaign of primaries is notable for another American quality: tolerance.

When Obama first made the headlines, there were those who believed he would be jeered off the stage because he had Arabic first and middle names, Barrack and Hussein, and a Swahili family name. Professional Islamophobes started harping about the fact that Obama's father and stepfather had been Muslims and that he himself had attended a madrassah during his childhood in Indonesia. Some even started calling him "Osama" to make a link with Al Qaeda's fugitive mastermind.

Obama's blackness was also used as a weapon against him. Some said he was not black enough because his mother was a white lady from Kansas, and his father, a Kenyan had not come from a family of African slaves. (One reporter even established that Obama's paternal clan, part of the Luo tribe in Kenya, may have been slave-traders!)

Remarkably, none of those stories managed to find wings, as journalists say. Most Americans proved mature enough to judge a person by his deeds rather than his origins and beliefs his ancestors.

In a world hat has witnessed the reemergence of the worst kinds of tribalism, including in the Balkans in the heart of Europe, the fact that most Americans have refused to take the racial bate against Obama is marvelous news.

The same is true of attempts at making Romney's Mormon faith an issue. This may have been important to small and marginal groups of evangelical Christians. However, there is no evidence that most Americans judged Romney by his religious background.

Also remarkable is the fact that, despite efforts by some anti-Hillary circles, gender has not become a major issue.

Huckabee's experience is also interesting if only because his position as a priest did not prevent many non-believers from supporting him because of his views on political issues.

Another remarkable feature of this season of primaries is the busting of the myth that in major US elections money is the key. This time round, however, those who spent the most did not always scored the most.

The money myth's twin, the myth that television decides major elections, was also busted thanks to bloggers and grassroots volunteers.

Finally, the debates generated by this campaign have turned out to be more interesting than what we witnessed in 2000 and 2004 when the Democrats fielded weak and confused candidates.

By the time this piece appears, we may well know who the final candidates are. What we already know is that pluralism works- at least in America.

 

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