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Travels in Obamaland: we take our two boys for their first holiday in the vast parish of St Barack, as his first 100 days come to an end.

29 April 2009

12:00 AM

29 April 2009

12:00 AM

Travels in Obamaland: we take our two boys for their first holiday in the vast parish of St Barack, as his first 100 days come to an end. The wave of T-shirt wisdom unleashed during the election campaign hasn’t dried up: one favourite is a sepia image of a group of American Indians, being sold by native Americans in Union Square — and bearing the slogan ‘Homeland Security: fighting terrorism since 1492’. For more portable appeal, try ‘I love my country — it’s just the government that bothers me’.

Joanna Coles, a feisty British export as editor of the American Marie Claire, kindly gives us a dinner at the hotspot Waverly Inn (particularly so, since if you’re a Brit who travelled there in the days of the two-dollar pound, you spend a lot of time hankering for a time when Bergdorf’s seemed quite reasonable). One of our fellow guests was at the Waverly the night that news of the titanic wobble at the insurance giant AIG broke. Having ordered a truffle dish, he thought such conspicuous consumption at odds with the dolorous mood and made to cancel. ‘Oh, just truffle up,’ replied the waiter, sternly.

That turns out to be presidential advice too: he gives a speech during our stay sombrely warning Americans against underspending as the new risk to the economy. So in the spirit of truffling up, we spend a couple of nights at the Plaza on Central Park, where Eloise may or may not still reside in the 50-plus years since her creation by Kay Thompson. Fans of the original children’s hotel fantasy will recall that this is the only Fifth Avenue establishment where guests are allowed to keep a turtle. Our second child was much more taken by memories of Macaulay Culkin ordering room service during his unofficial stay in the Royal Suite in Home Alone. Every generation finds its magic anew. A Plaza suite comes with the useful addition of a white-gloved butler. Who knows how we ever managed without one before, or indeed how we will again, now that the age of truffling up has come to a screeching halt?


In the next cosy Waverly booth are Les Hinton, the seigneur of Dow Jones, and his fiancée Kath Raymond, who have just been our hosts and now keep running across the guests who never really seem to leave. Kath and I go back to what Miss Prism might have called ‘An unfortunate youthful interest in social policy’, when she ran the Social Market Foundation. She got a little more excitement than she bargained for as a key adviser to David Blunkett during l’affaire Fortier. We have developed an odd but enjoyable routine when I visit, which consists of wandering round Armani and Roger Vivier on Madison admiring the classy bling, then suddenly launching into fierce arguments about the now defunct big ideas of the Blair years. It keeps the sales staff at bay.

One sombre note, Tina Brown and Harry Evans host the showing of a film about Iran entitled The stoning of Soraya M — about the murder of a woman put to death on a trumped-up adultery charge with the collusion of the mullahs, local dignitaries and her own family. This is one of the few fact-based films I have found almost impossible to watch, while knowing that it is something that should be seen and confronted as an arcane evil. A fierce argument follows among the (mainly Obama-supporting) guests afterwards about how far to go in pushing a human rights agenda in Iran and Afghanistan, and there’s a strongly held view that the President should be more outspoken. Yet it was a values-based crusade that turned so sour for Mr Bush. Now many of those who dislike him most also want his successor to step up to the plate on universal values. The fertile tensions of Obamaland are only just beginning to bloom.

Rolling south to Washington, Steve Merritt is on the Pod. He’s the most unfairly neglected singer, a quirky, lo-fi modern Sondheim, creating new Tin Pan Alley tunes that never quite leave your head. I know this having fallen for his soundtrack to the indie New York comedy Pieces of April (the last film Katie Holmes made when she was normal). So the children get an earful of ‘Washington DC, It’s the greatest place to be, It’s not the cherries everywhere in bloom, It’s not the way they put folks on the moon, No, no, no… It’s just that’s where my baby waits for me.’ Mr Merritt is elusive. From fan sites, it appears he is Boston-born, Buddhist-educated and partly deaf, finds applause irritates his tinnitus and so stalks off stage after his concerts. Also, he once told a critic who didn’t like all of his 69 songs album to ‘just turn down the volume: it’ll sound fine.’ That usually works for politicians one doesn’t much like, too.

How’s Barack really doing? We run across Obamatrons who believe he walks on water; and indeed that huge smile and confident gait really do come across as an agreeable boost to the spirits. The more sceptical venture that the adulation of the UK visit was not really to his advantage. It showed him as too dependent in his economic vision on one foreign ally, our very own Gordon, who is not — well, how to put this kindly? — futureproof. Apart from the small matter of the gazillion-dollar spending boost and its scary risks, the conversation keeps turning to Bo, the White House dog: who should really be Bobama. In Washington, a colleague’s daughter got so close to the First Mutt as to be allowed to stroke him. But no pictures allowed: Bo has his privacy needs too. And probably a lawyer as well, if it comes to it.


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