Niall Stanage - On The Road

The Irish journalist reports on covering Obama's rise to office. Click Play Audio for a full podcast recording

As the only Irish reporter to travel with the press core on Barack Obama’s campaign plane, Niall Stanage has a story to tell. Tonight in the Waterfront Hall, as Stanage addresses his audience for the final installment of the Northern Bank On The Road lecture series, he forgoes the protection of a lectern or any notes whatsoever. He’s articulate, passionate and eloquent. He’s not nervous. He learned from the best.

Riffing on presidential precedents, American voter statistics and former Democratic Party hoodoos (amongst many other Obama-related topics) Stanage walks the line between know-it-all and personable professional, and comes out smiling.

His oratory is punchy, informed and entertaining, and although he has - perhaps inevitably - subsumed some of those melodramatic behavioural habits that we oh so love the Americans for (his talk is littered with well-placed dramatic pauses, for instance), he never ventures beyond the limits of decent Northern Irish self restraint. Which must be applauded, for other hacks in his position would be name dropping from the rafters.

Stanage’s greatest achievement with this lecture, and also with his book Redemption Song: An Irish Reporter Inside the Obama Campaign, is his ability to sum up just how significant Obama’s journey to the White House is in historical and political terms.

‘In November 2008 a man who’s full name was Barack Hussein Obama,' he comments, 'who grew up in what was to all intents and purposes a single parent family, whose skin is black, whose family has no wealth and influence becomes the president of the United States with 53% of the vote. It is an extraordinary political achievement'

We all knew that - ’Face of Change’, ’Dream Realized’, ’Obama 1st Black US President’ read some of the headlines in the wake of Obama’s presidential victory - but how many of us could have put it so succinctly?

Stanage never lets up, or pauses for applause. He makes his point - always looking at the bigger picture, the 'big time politics stuff', as he describes it - and moves on swiftly without milking it, without wallowing with vainglorious relish in his own privileged position. It’s not until well into the lecture that he recounts an actual occurrence on the campaign plane itself (and we remember that he was ever on it in the first place).

'Very close to the election - about two weeks before - we were in the plane,' he recalls. '[Obama] had just left a very triumphant event in Florida where Hilary Clinton had appeared and it had all been very positive. Robert Gibbs, who is now the White House press sectretary and who was then [Obama's] press spokesman, came down the aisle of the plane and just stood there. That was a bit wierd and so people started getting notebooks or tape recorders out.

'Gibbs was looking kind of solemn, even though Obama was a long way up in the polls at this stage. The news he had to impart was the news that Obama's grandmother was critically ill... This was his sole surviving relative. Her demise was close, and Gibbs wanted to announce that Obama, with only two weeks to go before the election, was going to go back to Hawaii to see her. I think at that moment everyone, irrespective of their political views, felt a human sympathy for him.'

This anecdote is quickly followed by another nugget of insider information that gets the audience giggling with glee. 'It costs the news organisations which reimburse the campaign about $1000 per person per hour of flight time on the plane. So I look forward to the Belfast Telegraph funding a team of reporters next time,' Stanage quips.

With this lecture Stanage assigned himself the task of apraising whether or not Obama had lived up to his promises of change in his first 100 days in office. A self-confessed Democrat, Stanage compares Obama to Democrat Godfather FDR and suggests that you’d be hard pushed to find an early misstep. 

He highlights Obama's closure of Guantanamo Bay - the epicentre of Bush's 'torture tactics' policy -, his signing of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and mentions Obama’s swift ‘expansion of a healthcare act for children of low income families’.

All well and good, Stanage concludes, but everything is not rosy in the White House garden. Obama may be the pinup boy for a generation of media savvy leftist Democrats who are only too happy to donate record amounts to his campaign coffers and do his electioneering for him. His landslide victory and senate majority may have left the Republicans bloodied, bruised and reliant on a gun-tooting hockey mom for salvation. But Stanage is keenly aware that the dream realised could just as easily fade into a living nightmare. It all hinges on one thing.

'The caveat that we have to add to everything is that Obama will rise and fall in large measure in terms of the economy. It is simply too early to tell whether the economic measures that he has taken are going to work.'

Rest assured, whatever happens, Stanage will be there to report on events. He has just released an updated version of Redemption Song and continues to write for UK and American publications on the day-to-day particulars of Obama's rule. The only Irish journalist on the pre-election campaign plane now operates on a grander scale - the Obama/Democratic Party juggernaut his mode of transport, Washington his destination. 

Lee Henry  

Redemption Song: an Irish Reporter Inside the Obama Campaign is available from Amazon.co.uk.