Mr Bush will astonish with his ingratitude

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The Independent Online

When Richard Nixon was President, the late Peter Jenkins set out for Washington to be The Guardian's correspondent there. Shortly before leaving, he said to a small group of us:

When Richard Nixon was President, the late Peter Jenkins set out for Washington to be The Guardian's correspondent there. Shortly before leaving, he said to a small group of us:

"My great problem is, how close I should get to the President."

"Don't be so silly," one of our number said, who had himself had a spell in the capital. "He won't even know you're there."

"Oh, I think he will, you know," Jenkins said. "The Guardian is quite an important paper after all."

"It may be over here," our colleague replied, "but over there they've never heard of it. You'll be in the same position as" - he searched for a suitably humbling comparison - "a Dutch journalist in London."

So it turned out, more or less. Certainly Jenkins did not have the easy access to the mighty which he had enjoyed in Westminster and Whitehall. And though it is always dangerous to attribute motives, it may be that his new lack of familiarity with the great and the good (the phrase comes from Henry Fielding's Introduction to Jonathan Wild) contributed to his early falling out with the Nixon regime.

I had been in the United States myself for a stint just over a decade previously, for the first six months of J F Kennedy's presidency, though based in New York, not in Washington. What was striking was how little anybody knew about - or was, indeed, the slightest bit interested in - what was going on in this country.

The newspapers had heard of and sometimes referred to the Queen; the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who were assumed to occupy a position of the highest constitutional importance; Princess Margaret, who was the subject of faintly lubricious anecdote; Noël Coward; and Winston Churchill. Of the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, there was scarcely a mention. Of the leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell - who was in the thick of a battle to save the Western Alliance, or so he thought - there was no mention at all. He might as well not have existed.

But, you may say, this neglect took place before the arrival on the scene of Mr Tony Blair. Why, it even preceded the landing of the Beatles on American soil. Things have changed since. Yes, indeed.

Here, however, I would enter a note of caution, based not so much on my knowledge of America as of British newspapers. There exists a whole school of what journalists call stories and most people call articles. These concern some astonishing British success, usually on Broadway or in Hollywood, sometimes on Madison Avenue or even Wall Street or wherever it may be in the United States, and they tell of the loud and prolonged applause which our endeavours have elicited. On closer examination it appears that the success, though real enough, was modest in its scale, and the applause polite but perfunctory in its nature. Why we should possess this overwhelming urge to persuade ourselves that they think well of us is mysterious: but so it is. Likewise, as Mr Adrian Hamilton, who spent the last week in Paris, tells us in Friday's Independent, French newspapers and television treated the US elections much less fully than their counterparts in London. It is not as if we are specially keen on Abroad, in the normal way, for our television and newspapers are distinguished by their parochialism. But for the United States we make an exception, which they do not reciprocate.

Last week it was more justifiable - it was certainly more understandable - than it usually is, owing to the character of Mr George Bush, his relationship with Mr Blair, and our involvement in the Iraq war and its aftermath. At the beginning of the week there were stories that the Prime Minister "really" wanted Mr John Kerry to win but, naturally, could not say so publicly. He had even dispatched his emissary, Lord Gould, the focus-group king, to meet a representative of Mr Kerry. This seemed very like what a gambler or a bookmaker (who is, of course, a gambler also) does when he lays off a bet to minimise damage and risk.

At the same time, however, we should recognise the advantages which a Democrat win would have given Mr Blair. He would not have been the sole surviving western war criminal, as many pre-election analyses said he would: for Mr Kerry would not have got out of Iraq any more quickly than Mr Bush and might, indeed, have stayed there for longer. But he would have the great asset, from Mr Blair's point of view, of not being Mr Bush. It would be a fresh start. The traditional Labour game of "influence" in Washington, which started with C R Attlee's visit to Harry Truman over the possible use of the atomic bomb in Korea, would enjoy a new popularity, this time with a different cast.

As it is, the official Downing Street line is that, in Mr Bush's second term, Mr Blair's influence will increase, not only because of the President's reincarnation as an author of peace and lover of concord, which sounds highly unlikely to me, but also because of his obligation to reward Mr Blair for his unstinting support in Iraq. This seems, if anything, even more implausible. Mr Bush is more likely to echo the Austrian Chancellor, Felix Schwarzenberg, in 1849, speaking of the Russians who had assisted him in some enterprise or other: "We shall astonish them with our ingratitude."

For why should Mr Bush be grateful to anybody but Mr Karl Rove? He has a majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives and will shortly have one in the Supreme Court as well. Why should he make any concessions on the Middle East, which Mr Blair says he wants, when his fundamentalist supporters of Middle America, whom Mr Rove brought out in multitudes, are even keener than the entire Jewish lobby to maintain the Biblical boundaries of Israel? Mr Bush is more likely to ask for more. Mr Blair might remember Kipling's:

"That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld

You never get rid of the Dane."

Mr Bush is unlikely to ask for help in Iran or Syria because he has quite enough on his plate already. If he did, and Mr Blair complied, Mr Blair would be brought down. He is more likely, I think, to ask for reinforcements in Iraq, whether in extra numbers or by shifting existing forces as the Black Watch have been shifted. It was Mr Blair, not Mr Geoff Hoon, who first promised that they would be home for Christmas. It now looks grim. But after last Tuesday, perhaps the worst news of all for Mr Blair is that the polls - not to mention Mr Robert Worcester - turned out to be wrong.

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