Being a Foreign Correspondent in the 21st century (even just an occasional one) is not quite the easy pastime it appears in countless films noir. A sophisticated fop (think Cary Grant) tossing off a plethora of bon mots for an uneducated and grateful public back home. These days the international audience is far better informed on American topics - and frequently expresses greater curiosity about US politics than the domestic public.
Worse still - it is not so easy to baffle the British radio and TV hosts with whom one converses. They have an annoying habit of asking seemingly naive questions which in fact underscore the absurdities of the American political landscape.
In that respect they fulfill the same function as the little boy who has the temerity to point out the paucity of the Emperor's New Wardrobe. Or - to use another analogy - they sound that incredulous note of the interlocutors on Bob Newhart's famous comedic monologues - such as the man conversing with Sir Walter Raleigh on the discovery of tobacco. ("Don't tell me Walt... You roll it up, stick it in your mouth and set fire to it!!!!")
As a Brit in America I am frequently prevailed upon to explain the current election to British radio and TV audiences. And the incredulity of the hosts who quiz me do give one a perspective on issues that we have been bludgeoned by repetition into accepting as quite normal.
Trying to explain the conventional wisdom on the debates and the current poll swings has stretched my powers of eloquence to the very limit.
I try to explain that the presidential election is evenly matched between Gore and Bush. But the wretched hosts back in London insist on posing difficult questions - which quite frankly insult the intelligence of the approximately 50% of the American electorate who are plumping for George Bush.
They cannot understand how it can be that the American economy is at its strongest point ever - with some of the boom presumably accruing to the government of the past 8 years of whom Al Gore has been a prominent member - and yet half the voters are contemplating making a radical change of direction. (The British are accustomed to punishing failure not success.)
I recount that the prevailing opinion of the punditry (of both persuasions) is that Gore is clearly the smarter of the two candidates - but that he has been punished in the polls in the last week for SIGHING too much in a debate and for mild exaggerations of anecdotes illustrating his platform (not for distortions of his actual platform.)
I then relate that the punditry is fairly unanimous in conceding that Bush is less skilled in politics, debating skills, knowledge of foreign issues, oral skills ("he's a man I know in Mexico") but is self-deprecatory about his weaknesses.
I explain that they're missing the point... The presidency is about likability not competence.
For the British - this is the final confusion. The British nation endured a decade of Margaret Thatcher - a thoroughly dislikable shrew even to her supporters - precisely because she at least gave the appearance of competence. She was NOT elected and re-elected because of her charm - but because it was deemed that she knew what she was doing.
If she acted like a politician - well jolly good. That's precisely the sort of person one expects to be applying for the position of running a country.
According to those Brits - Gore being a "smartypants" (the most recent sobriquet with which the V.P. has been collectively dubbed by pundits) would appear to be something of an asset not a liability for the complex task of the Presidency.
Ohh those foolish Brits. They just don't understand...