Thursday 22 April 2021
Peter Gregson’s reminiscence of travels with Walter Mondale reminded me of my dizzying plunge into the whirlpool of American politics when I was assigned to Washington from Southern Africa in 1984.
Lightweight Mondale was in the ring against heavyweight Ronald Reagan and I joined the “boys on the bus” on a campaign trail unlike any other. It was a non-stop whirlwind of unruly candidate planes (great fun skiing down aisles on plastic safety notices as we soared into the sky), dodgy motels (one reporter found a dead body beneath her bed) and interminably repetitive appearances by the contenders.
Mondale and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, tried often to raise the tone with serious, structured speeches of the type we were used to in other countries. But they were no match for Reagan’s sunbursts of soundbites. Ferraro, the first woman nominee for vice president, foundered on questions about her husband’s wealth (it was often said in New York that anyone with an “o” at the end of their name had to be in the Mafia).
It was a fast learning experience for a foreign correspondent forged in the Middle East and Africa. Feeling a bit like a country rube, I’ll always appreciate a thorough, hilarious, briefing on American pols and politics given me by Maureen Dowd of The New York Times during downtime in Queens, home of the Ferraros.
It was also a challenging encounter with modern reporting technology. I was a master of the telex, of which there were none in the US. My competitors on the bus all were armed with Tandys, original forerunners of today’s laptops. Reuters North America hadn’t yet latched on so I had to spend hours laboriously dictating stories by phone while everyone else shot off their pieces and went to dinner.
Reagan won by a landslide, proving yet again that in politics - especially of the US variety - it’s never enough to be seriously nice. ■