Australia Diary: The Inescapable Presidential Race
By Joel Achenbach
CAPE LEEUWEN, Western Australia -- The lighthouse is on a finger of granite and limestone poking out to sea. To the right is the Indian Ocean. To the left is what they call the Southern Ocean. Out there somewhere across the blue water is Antarctica. This is the southwestern corner of Australia -- and just about as far from Washington as a person can possibly go without actually leaving the planet Earth entirely.
The fellow in the gift shop at the lighthouse, Bob Cooper, likes Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
"I think he's just straight honest," Cooper says. "I think it'll be a good change for America."
Everywhere in Australia, from the eucalyptus forests of the coast to the dry red center of the continent, people want to know about the American presidential contest. You can't escape it. On Monday morning, the Northern Territory News, a tabloid on sale at the airport in Alice Springs, smack in the heart of the Outback, had a two-deck, six-column headline spanning an inside page:
Obama camp has sights
On nomination victory
Richard Glover, a prominent radio host in Sydney, says his program often deals with the American presidential race.
"The identity of the American president has a big impact here -- remember we're the only country that has been with America in every war you've fought, including Vietnam," he says by e-mail. "Apart from the significance of the election, there's also something about the Clinton-Obama battle that anyone can understand -- race vs. gender, experience vs. a fresh approach."
Australians are following their own politics as well. People are still buzzing about the new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, whose first public speech was an apology to Aborigines for historic mistreatment by the Australian government -- a gesture that the previous prime minister, John Howard, had resisted. And the recent unveiling of the Labour Party's new budget received breathless coverage. TV stations covered Budget Day with live feeds as the treasurer announced his plans. The Australian, the national newspaper, came out the next morning with a 14-page liftout section covering Budget '08 from every conceivable angle.
Meanwhile, there are less decorous matters in the news, particularly in Western Australia, where a prominent politician has been forced to admit to boorish behavior. As reported on the front page of the West Australian, member of parliament Troy Buswell confessed "that he sniffed the chair of a female Liberal staff member." Another official stands accused of having "lifted the top" of a female MP. There were also reports of drunken crotch-grabbing and bra-snapping. The situation seemed to be spiraling out of control as party elders feared that they were becoming the laughing stock of the entire planet. At one point the admitted chair-sniffer was forced to address an Internet rumor -- a hoax, it turned out --- that he had, during a visit to Rottnest Island, "mistreated a quokka." This apparently refers to some kind of small marsupial.
So American politics is part of a lively matrix of news. Sen. John McCain doesn't seem to be getting much attention here so far -- the Democrats dominate the coverage and the chatter.
"I think the Democrats are doing a wonderful job of beating themselves up," says Gavin Prideaux, a paleontologist at Flinders University in Adelaide.
Charlie Dortch, an archaeologist born in Georgia, but a resident of Western Australia for the past four decades, thinks it would be a mistake for Obama to pick Clinton as his running mate. He'd rather see the vice presidency become a more ceremonial job. "I think the vice president should be the chap who's cutting ribbons at new hospital openings," he says.
The campaign was Topic A on Glover's radio show after the Indiana and North Carolina primaries.
"I just don't get Obama," declared Gary Linnell, editor at large of the Daily Telegraph and a guest on the radio show.
Australians, explained Glover, are plain-spoken and aren't comfortable with lofty rhetoric.
"Our politicians tend to be more prosaic, more practical, less soaring," Glover said.
A number of politicians have come on his show and declared their support for one of the American candidates ("I'm sure their verdicts were breathlessly reported over there!" Glover said).
Obama's signature line, "Yes we can!", has become an audio prop for Glover. He has it on tape, ready to roll with the push of a button.
"Can we check the Sydney traffic?" someone might ask.
"Yes we can!" Obama will answer.
Web Politics Editor
May 19, 2008; 12:23 PM ET
Categories: Barack Obama , Hillary Rodham Clinton , Joel's Two Cents
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