Never before have I watched a US election unfold from this corner of the planet, but what a vantage point it offers. The most high holy day in the American political calendar not only takes in Australia’s first Tuesday in November, but also its first Wednesday, giving us two days to savour this great carnival of democracy. Better still, there is the additional bonus of having two great horse races to enjoy. So while the voters of Dixville Notch in New Hampshire were preparing to carry out their midnight ritual of casting the first of the nation’s ballots — an electoral version of Punxsutawney Phil’s Groundhog Day emergence from Gobbler’s Knob — I was tucking into my race day lunch.
Coming nine days after the launch of the Asian Century white paper, one might have expected the conversation to include the leadership transition in China, merely out of a sense of geopolitical correctness if nothing else. Needless to say it did not come up at all, and the political chat was monopolised by whether Obama would get to waltz his wife Michelle at the inaugural balls in January. The Economist clearly thinks China should be Australia’s focus, having put Xi Jinping on the cover of its edition on sale here last week, while elsewhere it featured Barack and Mitt. But the colour and pantomime of the US race remains irresistible. The sight of Charles and Camilla in the VIP box at Flemington was but one more reminder of Australia’s ongoing Anglocentric bent.
Sitting next to me at lunch was one of Sydney’s leading obstetricians, who was on standby to deliver twins at any moment. Babies born at three o’clock on Melbourne Cup day, I have long thought, are surely the antipodean equivalent of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and enter the world with magical tipping powers. The combined predictive skills of twins, presumably, would wipe out every bookie in the land. Alas, these were delivered a few hours afterwards.
Our build-up to Election Day had actually started the weekend before with an evening in the company of American political royalty: Christopher Kennedy Lawford, nephew of JFK, or ‘my uncle Jack’ as he affectionately calls him. Sober for more than 25 years, after a long struggle with alcohol and drug addiction, Lawford is now a UN Goodwill Ambassador on drug dependence treatment and care, which explained his presence in Australia. Inevitably, as a Kennedy, he can draw from a gilded treasure trove of anecdotal material. In the preamble to his speech, he told us how he was taught to do the twist by none other than Marilyn Monroe. Another early memory is of being awoken in his parents’ Los Angeles hotel room on the night in 1960 that JFK won the Democratic presidential nomination. It was his uncle enlisting his help to beat Richard Nixon. Then there is his chronic case of ‘godfather envy’: his sister’s was Frank Sinatra, Rat Pack pal of his father, the movie star Peter Lawford.
I spent years writing a book that was strongly critical of JFK for his inaction on civil rights — at the beginning of his presidency, he was a bystander to the great social revolution of his age — and have prided myself on being impervious to the Kennedy charm. But Christopher Lawford Kennedy has not only inherited some of the addictive genes of his family, but also its great charisma.
It is also the final weekend of Sculptures by the Sea, hosted in what surely must be the world’s most staggeringly beautiful outdoor art gallery, the cliff-top walk between Bondi and Tamarama. Snooty art critics, succumbing perhaps to the last spasms of the cultural cringe, tend to look down their noses at the artwork. Gimmicky is the usual complaint. But who cares? I love the exhibition’s larrikinism and fun, from the pink penguins waddling down to the ocean to the mesh crocodile overlooking Bondi. The morning I take my little boy to the exhibition is also the day on which the entire school population of New South Wales appears to have descended. The cry of ‘miss says stop’ echoes all along the walkway. In retrospect, it was also a mistake to take our pet labrador, Skip, whose appreciation for sculpture is expressed in a uniquely canine manner.
Upholding the latter part of Gore Vidal’s famous dictum ‘never turn down an opportunity to have sex or to appear on television’, I spend Election Day flitting between the studios of SBS and ABC. Auntie’s small election set seems packed with one-time politicians, like former New South Wales premier Kristina Keneally, who hails from Ohio, and former foreign minister Alexander Downer, who obviously considers himself something of a Beltway blackbelt. Then there is the impish Antony Green, popping up occasionally with the smart screen equivalent of the old tally board, a whizzy new touch-screen electoral map of America. Number-crunchers have become the unlikely stars of this election. Nate Silver of the New York Times, who accurately predicted the outcome of every state, now drives 20 per cent of the online traffic to the grey lady’s website. Green is already a household name here, of course, although I suggest to him in the pub afterwards that to really get with the zeitgeist he needs a zippier moniker. Ant Green might just about do it.
On the way home, I call in at my monthly book club, where the title under boozy discussion is Ian McEwan’s clever new novel, Sweet Tooth. As with so many of his books, it finishes with a late twist, which is more than can be said for the US election. How Mitt Romney must have been longing for an unexpected ending.
Nick Bryant, a BBC correspondent, is the author of Adventures in Correspondentland.
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