LONDON - I didn't plan my trip to London to overlap with President Bush's, but that's how it worked out. (I'm actually here to speak at a women's conference sponsored by Deutsche Bank, and to meet with the editors of The Guardian and The Times to see what they are up to online.)
My reception has been decidedly less chilly than the one afforded Bush.
It is true that the British press gave style points to Bush compared to Gordon Brown during their joint press conference on Monday -- Bush described as "spry," "tanned," and "full of beans"; Brown derided as "grey and exhausted," "blotchy," and "thuggish." But that's where the kind words ended.
In America, Obama and the Democrats are the party of youth, dynamism, and forward thinking. In England, it's the Conservatives who lay claim to youth and the future -- led by David Cameron, who is 41 and looks 15, and who wears his web savviness on his sleeve, referring to Brown as "an analogue politician in a digital age." This week he declared that the UK has to "go green" in the face of rising oil prices.
I met many members of the Conservatives' "government in waiting" (as my old friend Simon Jenkins described them) at a cocktail reception held by the Policy Exchange, a conservative think tank. George Osborne, the 37 year old Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, promised to blog on HuffPost, very interested as he is in the power of the Internet to recast politics for the digital age: "We need to harness the Internet to help us become more accountable, more transparent and more accessible," he said.
Of course, it's not like the Conservatives are problem free. The party's chairman, Caroline Spelman, is currently embroiled in Nannygate, accused of using public funds to pay her nanny to look after her children.
I got all the details on the scandal in the green room waiting to go on Newsnight, the influential BBC show that broke the story. Michael Crick, Newsnight's political editor predicted that Spelman wouldn't survive the controversy. "She's claiming the nanny handled administrative duties for her," he told me. "Can she type?" I asked. (Here's a clip from the Newsnight appearance.)
The next morning, I was picked up at my hotel in a hybrid Lexus by James Harding, the editor of the London Times -- at 39, only 2 years older than the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. As we drove to his office for a breakfast meeting with a great group of Times editors and columnists, he told me that when the paper puts Obama on its cover they see a significant jump in newsstand sales.
Among those I met over breakfast was Anne Spackman, editor-in-chief of Times Online, who has played a major role in schooling many of the paper's writers in the ways of the Internet. When I told her about HuffPost's OffTheBus running the raw audio of campaign conference calls, she practically jumped out of her seat, announcing: "We'll link to that as soon as we finish this meeting!" We talked about how the paper has recently digitized over 20 million articles from its archives. They date back to 1785 and include the paper's coverage of the Battle of Waterloo. It brought home in a dramatic way just how new a kid on the block HuffPost is -- delivering news and opinion since May 9, 2005.
Anne also told me about an interesting controversy when the Times reprinted an online discussion among their parenting bloggers in the paper's print edition: turns out the bloggers were outraged that their online discussion had been "made public." In their eyes, print was a public forum while online was private.
Daniel Finkelstein, a weekly columnist and Comment Editor of the Times, was also at the breakfast. One of his most recent pieces is a fascinating take on McCain, Obama and the role what he calls "the legacy" of the 1960s will play in the '08 race.
It includes laudatory words about both candidates. No one I met had anything laudatory to say about the man one of them will succeed. Indeed, just about the only person in England heaping praise on Bush was Brown, who thanked the president for being "a true friend of Britain," thanked him for his "friendship" and "leadership," and said, "I look forward to our continued friendship."
This encomium was described to me by one of Brown's detractors -- a rapidly expanding group -- as a perfect example of the replacement-Prime Minister's "political tone deafness." Brown and Bush are not really friends, so what does it gain Brown to talk as if they are?
Brown is struggling. He's received a lot of flack, even from within his own party, for his support of a controversial proposal that allows the government to hold terror suspects without charge for 42 days. The measure barely passed in the House of Commons last week and led to the protest resignation of Tory MP David Davis, the shadow home secretary.
And the Daily Mail's Daniel Martin reported that, according to official figures, "stress levels in government have soared since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister... Far more civil servants are taking time off for 'depression, anxiety and potential stress-related problems' than under Tony Blair." Not exactly a rave review for the new boss.
John Cusack, who is in London shooting a new film, was going to swing by for a drink before a dinner hosted by Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, at the Garrick club, a historic haunt for theater and literary types -- until he heard that he would have to put on a tie to come in. "I don't even have a tie with me," he told me with a laugh.
So we met at the National Gallery, which was showing an exhibit dedicated to the work of Italy's "divisionist" painters between 1891 and 1910. The exhibit is called Radical Light. And as we took in the paintings and talked about the latest happenings with War, Inc, I was struck that even at the National, political overtones -- Radical Right, divisionists -- were very much in the British air.
Or perhaps it was just my politically obsessed mind.
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