Tony O'Reilly: The morning the world woke up to America

It was a gripping night. I watched till 6am with a deep admiration for the way democracy works in America

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Having lived and worked and reared a family in America for over 30 years, I watched John Kerry's dignified and eloquent concession speech at Faneuil Hall in Boston on Wednesday night with a sense of admiration and growing pride. A particular phrase at the end caught my attention. He said: "There are no real winners or losers in yesterday's election because this morning we all woke up, and we were all Americans." It seemed he said it in a way that underlined what a privilege and honour he felt it was to have been involved in this great democratic contest.

Having lived and worked and reared a family in America for over 30 years, I watched John Kerry's dignified and eloquent concession speech at Faneuil Hall in Boston on Wednesday night with a sense of admiration and growing pride. A particular phrase at the end caught my attention. He said: "There are no real winners or losers in yesterday's election because this morning we all woke up, and we were all Americans." It seemed he said it in a way that underlined what a privilege and honour he felt it was to have been involved in this great democratic contest.

A great deal of ink will be spilled over "what might have been" and yet, to the distant observer, some central truths emerged with startling clarity. A titanic contest had ended with a dignified concession, an elegant summary of the campaign, gratitude to his supporters and, in his case, a return to his day job as a Senator for Massachusetts. Here was democracy working as it should have worked.

In the US presidential election, a campaign of enormous intensity had been fought. Huge sums of money had been spent on both sides which served to intensify, but not greatly alter, the landscape of the past four years, and a peaceful and graceful ending had been reached for the job of the most powerful political post in the world. It is a cliché and, as in the case of most clichés, earned by its accuracy: "It's the American way."

The campaign itself, and the events that surround it, are also enormously important to the entire world. The world outside would probably have voted 75 per cent for Kerry against Bush, certainly as far as Britain and Ireland are concerned. If Ohio had cast just another 100,000 votes in this enormous sea of 110 million votes for the other candidate, this weekend we would be honouring President John Kerry. The Republican and Democratic strategists deemed Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania the key states in achieving the vital 270 seats in the electoral college that make up an American majority. In the end Florida, decisively, and Ohio, agonisingly, came good for the President and so, whether the world likes it or not, we have four more years of George W Bush.

Perhaps a more important indication of the mood of the country, however, was the swing to Republicans across America and, in particular, a copper-fastening of their control of the Senate and of the House of Representatives. The brief, incandescent presidency of John F Kennedy suffered greatly from the fact that he did not control these key elements of power. There is an assumption that in America a President is an all-powerful figure, but the truth is that although the President proposes, it is Congress in both houses that disposes. If a President cannot convince them of a particular policy, then no matter how powerful he may feel he is, his proposals will lie fallow. The power of President Bush is, therefore, greatly enhanced by the fact that he will be working with a House and Senate in which there are Republican majorities and Republican leadership.

It would, I think, be comforting to some and dismaying to others to feel that this would simply mean an intensification of those policies, many of which seem partisan and on the international level divisive. But I think, in a curious way, that it will not lead to an acceleration of many of the policies with which the world has some sense of disagreement. The election has been an extraordinarily personal success for George W Bush. Not only has he received more votes than any other candidate in American presidential history, but he succeeded where his father did not - in securing a second term. It might, therefore, be assumed that this was a universal confirmation that all the policies that he embraced were being endorsed by the electorate - but this is not so. The Bush campaign, particularly in the minds of his chief strategist, Karl Rove, and the hundreds who will contribute to the election analysis, believe that it was, as Wellington said after Waterloo, "a damned close-run thing".

On the evening of the election, it was clear the Kerry camp thought they were going to win, judging from the exit polls, in Ohio and Florida. As the night wore on, inexorably the tide seemed to turn, the US television networks, which were universally wrong in Florida in 2000, were extraordinarily cautious and did not call Florida until 4am European time. By then it was clear that Florida had gone for Bush and that central Ohio particularly was polling strongly for the President. It was an utterly gripping night of television, and I watched it through to 6am with a growing sense of admiration for the way that democracy works in America. Ten million more people voted than in 2000, and the imagery of the excited crowds - young and old, black and white, Mexican/American and "Old Line" Boston, all good humoured, determined, focused, patient - will be an abiding recollection of this election.

The campaign taught both candidates many lessons. In the debates, Kerry was a clear winner of the first, catapulting himself into contention with a forceful critique of a President under pressure over Iraq, with twin deficits to face at budget and trade level and with employment an issue. I sensed President Bush was surprised and caught off balance. The second and third debates, one of which allowed him to roam freely with a mike in his hand and invite audience participation, showed his skills in a better light. While Kerry proved there was a case to answer on foreign policy, on the economy and on healthcare issues, in the final debate, President Bush kept hammering away at the simple theme that with George W Bush at the helm, America was safer. It was an image that Kerry could never quite project, and my gut feeling was that Bush would win because Americans who never had their homeland attacked before 9/11 would sleep safer if he was confirmed as President.

Where does the result leave President Bush and America in relation to matters of vital importance to everyone throughout the world? Will he change policies on unilateral intervention in the world of geopolitics? Will he continue to run budget and trade deficits? Can he incite a degree of protectionism? Can he change the tax laws on foreign investment? Will he change American healthcare, or stem cell research or single-sex marriages, or a host of other things that have no direct bearing on our lives outside America?

In my view,Bush has been surprised and disappointed by Iraq. The coalition won the original war quickly and decisively, but to date has failed to impose a stable peace. Reflecting on lessons from the first Gulf War, he has probably realised that a longer wait, a more patient appraisal, and a larger coalition of the willing would have made Iraq a more universally shared burden.

Nevertheless, he is where he is, and both he and Tony Blair believe the cause is just. I also believe that he considers that the threat of nuclear proliferation, particularly in the hands of terrorists, remains the biggest single danger to all our lives. I believe America will maintain a low-interest policy with possible incremental rate increases; that it will continue to use the dollar as a tariff barrier against imports; that it may flirt with protectionism in special industries; and that it will look at the tax structures of US companies overseas. Bush will pursue domestic policy based on what he sees to be his "family values", and his international policy will be more inclusive and probably less hawkish.

In the last two great conflicts that the world saw in the 20th century - the first and second world wars - America joined late and reluctantly, but in both cases was the decisive force between defeat and victory. There is a strong sense of isolationism that runs through the American psyche, and, given that it is the world's only superpower, we should not let it develop in an uncaring way.

To me, America with all its faults remains the greatest democracy in the world, with its balance of powers, its Supreme Court, vigilant regulatory agencies and vigorous and constantly changing economy. One of my favourite politicians was Adlai Stevenson, who was twice beaten by Dwight Eisenhower for the presidency in 1952 and 1956. He finished a speech in Chicago with the words: "The greatness of America, in the future as in the past, is that it has never sought anything for itself it has not sought for all mankind."

Imperfect as it is, infuriating as it can be, last Tuesday proved yet again that America has within itself that sense of inquiry and self-criticism and optimism and generosity about tomorrow which can enrich all of our futures.

Sir Anthony O'Reilly is chief executive of Independent News & Media, owner of 'The Independent on Sunday'. He was chairman, president and chief executive officer of the HJ Heinz Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of the world's largest food manufacturers, for more than 25 years

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