The President's Man

On the campaign trail with Barak Obama, Irish reporter Niall Stanage tells it like it is 

Niall Stanage was born in Belfast, studied at Oxford and has been living in Harlem for the past five years. He covers the United States for Ireland's Sunday Business Post and writes about American politics for the New York Observer. He is a former editor of Magill and his work has appeared in numerous publications including the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal. He is the author of Redemption Song: an Irish Reporter Inside the Obama Campaign.

How would you describe your book, Redemption Song: An Irish Reporter Inside the Obama Campaign?
It’s essentially an eye-witness account of the entirety of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. I followed him from the autumn of 2007 right through to the night he won the presidency. Over the course of that time, I got to know his key advisors and I also met a lot of the grassroots volunteers who really propelled him to victory. So – hopefully – the book incorporates the ‘inside story’ from his aides, a clear sense of the viewpoint of ground-level supporters, and my own descriptions of how it felt to be in the midst of it all.

Did you have full access – did you talk to the man himself?
I was the only Irish journalist – and one of only a very few foreign journalists – to travel on Obama’s campaign plane (nicknamed ‘O Force One’) at any point. There were casual exchanges between him and us in the media as a group, and we could gauge his mood pretty well from how he was behaving with his aides behind the scenes. But access to him on a one-to-one basis was very tightly controlled, for obvious reasons, and was largely limited to brief TV interviews by the time I got my seat on the plane.

How did you find the experience?
I’ll preface this by saying that I know my answer will sound a bit corny but…it was easily the greatest privilege of my career. Remember that it’s just 13 months ago that the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in the battle for the Democratic nomination, were looming; that Obama was an outsider there until the very final days; and that, had he lost, it would have been all over. Of course he won, and in the hall that night you could feel the whole landscape of American politics start to shift. 

To be there for that and for all the other big landmarks – the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, the first ‘Unity’ event with Hillary Clinton, his speech to the huge crowd in the football stadium at the Democratic Convention, and obviously the night he won the presidency in Chicago – would have been an exhilarating thing for any writer, and it certainly was for me. The significance of so many historic events only becomes apparent months or years afterwards. With Obama, you knew you were witnessing history as it was happening right in front of you. 

When you read other campaign books from the past, like Hunter S Thompson's famous Fear And Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, what are the differences or similarities that strike you between then and now?
Campaigns seem to have been much more freewheeling a generation ago. But there is still that weird mix of camaraderie and competitiveness among the press corps. And there is also that strange capacity for a kind of tragicomic absurdity, because you are often trying to cover events that are of huge import in rather chaotic circumstances.

On the campaign plane one night, Robert Gibbs, who is now the White House press secretary, came back to the press seats to tell us that Obama's grandmother was seriously ill, and Obama was going back to Hawaii to see her. Bear in mind here that Obama's parents had died years earlier and his grandmother was his only surviving relative from his childhood. Despite people always thinking that the media are a cynical bunch, we were all pretty sombre for the rest of the plane trip, because it just seemed such a rough thing on a human level.

So we land, get off the plane and get onto the press bus. A correspondent for a big American network gets on the phone and locks himself into the bus's bathroom to record a quick radio report for broadcast on the next news bulletin. But there is still this quiet, sombre mood on the bus, so we can all hear him. And, to his annoyance, the producers in his studio keep insisting that his report should last exactly 22 seconds. He tries a couple of times, and we can hear him saying stuff like "25? Too long? OK, I'll cut out a couple of words."

He keeps trying, and he keeps overshooting or undershooting by a couple of seconds, and the studio people are obviously refusing to back down. So you have this big-name correspondent trying to report really sad news while balancing himself in the toilet of a lurching bus, and this kind of hysteria breaks out among the rest of us, because we are listening to him each time with a kind of suspense ("Is he going to get it right this time?"), and with some amusement when his expressions of annoyance with the studio producers grow ever more…let's just say 'colourful'.

There was a particularly frank exchange of views, I recall, when he ran over by one second and they wouldn't let him away with it. He got it right on about the twelfth attempt, and came out to a combination of applause and jeers from the rest of us. But, to be honest, I think we were all a bit relieved to have something to lift the gloominess of the news itself.

Obama inspired the American public to get out and vote. Are people still as optimistic and energised now that he’s taken office?
Yes, in my opinion. Certainly in Harlem, where I live, there is still a tangible buzz in the air. Obama also spoke a lot during the campaign about the need for a greater sense of personal responsibility and a higher level of engagement with civic life. I think people really did answer that call in relation to his campaign, and I think the full effects of that will continue to be felt for many years to come – and certainly long after the initial excitement about his election has dissipated.

Spending so much time on the campaign trail, you no doubt lived and breathed Obama. Has it been difficult to withdraw from the subject now that your book has been published?
It’s a good question. On one level, I haven’t really withdrawn from the subject yet, for two reasons. Firstly – and very gratifyingly – the book has received a good deal of positive media attention, and so I have gone from writing about Obama a lot to talking about him a lot. Secondly, obviously I will continue to cover him through my newspaper journalism. But it did feel quite odd to attend his inauguration, for example, and not end up writing anything longer than a newspaper article about it. On the bright side, for months I would wake up with a tightness in my chest about whether I could make the book as good as I wanted it to be. So I enjoy my first cup of coffee more these days! 

What future do you see for America under President Obama?
He is clearly taking office at an extraordinarily difficult time. The depth of the economic crisis is severe enough to tax any new president – and on top of that Obama has two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, to deal with. Then there are the problems that have bedevilled America for years but are becoming increasingly unbearable, most obviously a healthcare system that has so many deficiencies it’s an embarrassment. As if all that were not enough, he has also committed himself to ambitious goals in plenty of other areas, from resuscitating the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians to moving American sharply towards energy independence. 

On the one hand, it seems incredibly daunting. On the other, these problems hit before Obama took office, opinion polls do suggest the American people are prepared to give him time and, if he succeeds, he’ll earn himself a very exalted place in history. Everything depends on the economy, though – and since the supposedly finest minds in that world don’t seem too sure exactly what will happen next, I’m certainly not going to predict it.

Do you think he will live up to the hype?
It depends upon who’s hype you mean. In an odd way, I actually think that some of the expectations for him in Europe are more unrealistic than the expectations in America. I think that in the US there is a greater realisation of the depths of the challenges he faces and also a better understanding of where he stands ideologically. 

Every indication we have is that Obama stands pretty much in the centre of the Democratic Party on the vast majority of issues. That still makes him radically different from his predecessor as president, who personified a Republican Party that has moved further and further to the right over the past generation. But sometimes I think people in Ireland and Britain look at Obama’s consistent opposition to the war in Iraq – and also, frankly, look at the colour of his skin – and extrapolate from those things that he is much further to the left than he actually is. 

Put another way, I don’t think that people who expect an intelligent, empathic, composed and extraordinarily eloquent president cut from roughly the same ideological cloth as Tony Blair will be disappointed. But people who think they’re getting a younger version of Jesse Jackson, Tony Benn or Eamonn McCann most certainly will. 

Redemption Song: An Irish Reporter Inside the Obama Campaign (Liberties Press, Dublin) is available at all good bookshops, as well as Amazon.co.uk and from Amazon.com. Reviews and extracts at www.niallstanage.com.