Sarah Sands: Love thy neighbour, preaches Obama. So they do

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The Independent Online

How many politicians would release a picture of themselves as a small child in order to boost their ratings?

Would it have endeared us to Derek Conway? As for George Bush, it would be poison. So that is how the nasty little frat boy grew into a neo con, we'd say. But Barack Obama laughing in the waves was pure feel-good. What a happy little fellow!

Obama's appeal lies in his childhood, and particularly his childhood outside America. When he says that his foreign policy will be enriched by knowing Africa, there are huge cheers from his hip, rich supporters. They love Africa too. Oprah Winfrey loves Africa so much she supports an orphanage there. The glow from Obama's rallies is Live Aid politics. Obama may be a triumph of the American dream but the love affair we are having is with Kenya.

I watched Obama at a sports stadium in New Jersey last week (and incidentally, the wisdom that he fills sports stadiums is not quite true; it was only a quarter full, the quarter being in the range of cameras). His grace and gentleness, the dark, truthful eyes and the fabulous, joyful smile are geographically specific to Africa. It is why people lose their hearts to the continent.

In their stiffer, more Caucasian way, Hillary Clinton and even John McCain are preaching the same message. We must repair our differences with the rest of the world. The mighty unilateral superpower wants to shake hands. George Bush is spectacularly unpopular in his own country, mostly because Americans hate what he has done to their nation's image abroad.

Several Americans I met in queues for cross-party political events last week made a point of telling me: "You know, Bush is not what we are." In the picture-perfect New York suburb of Chappaqua, where the Clintons live, athletic and middle-class mothers in four-by-fours grimaced when I asked them how they were voting. They did not speak to journalists but they did not want to be rude to a Brit. The signs of re-engagement are like spring.

Even a year ago the passage through immigration at JFK airport seemed hostile. They are still more rigorous than in the UK – although the fear of lipstick and gel is peculiar to us, as if only British suicide bombers have a love of toiletries. But there is more conscious goodwill in America today. I watched carefully and saw no change of expression or manner towards those of Arab complexions.

McCain preaches security but Barack and Michelle Obama preach love. The message that we should not fear those who are different to us seems a conventional piety, but it is met with gasps of longing. The Obama movement is the advertisement even Gap would not dare to make. The barriers are down and the Americans are beaming at us. They have always been polite and friendly but I have noticed them making an extra effort to relate to us. They ask, "How is France?" or "How is Germany?" as if they were enquiring after the health of a relative.

But the clearest sign of cultural humility was in the response to last week's Super Bowl game. Football separates America from the rest of the world more than anything. Our game is boring to them and theirs is incomprehensibly over-dressed and pointless to us. In the past, Americans I know have tried to overcome the differences by evangelical enthusiasm. "What a game! You watch it?"

This time I noticed an almost Archbishop of Canterbury-like excess of outreach. "Ah, the Super Bowl," said one American man to me, deferentially. "It's a bit like the European Cup." This is true multilateralism.

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