LONDON--You may not be able to get as many TV channels in London as you can in Los Angeles or New York, but you sure as hell can buy a lot more newspapers. In fact, you don't even have to fork over any cash. Just stroll onto any train and you'll find sections of the Sun, the Evening Standard, the Guardian, the Independent or the Daily Telegraph abandoned on the seats and ready to be scanned. All of which helps to generate, from a variety of political perspectives, the hysteria surrounding George W. Bush's visit to the United Kingdom, home of his nervously stalwart ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The real news on Tuesday, the day of Bush's arrival, was to be found on the front page of the liberal Guardian. Given that it was good news for the president, this was an unexpected place to find it. PROTESTS BEGIN BUT MAJORITY BACKS BUSH VISIT AS SUPPORT FOR WAR SURGES read the headline above the fold. If I had read that over the Internet back in the States, I would have assumed some Pentagon-friendly hack was having himself a little fun. Even with the actual newspaper in my hand, purchased a hundred yards from the Thames beneath a low gray sky about to spit a classic English rain, it was hard to believe my eyes. But there it was. Under a photograph of an anti-war protestor pinning an upside-down U.S. flag on the gates of Buckingham Palace -- a mere black eye for the security services, compared with what was to follow -- the day's lead article began with the words, "A majority of Labor voters welcome President George Bush's state visit to Britain which starts today, according to November's Guardian/ICM opinion poll."
The article went on to say that an "overwhelming majority" of Britons -- 62% -- believe that the U.S. is "generally speaking a force for good, not evil, in the world." Furthermore, 43% of voters "welcomed" Bush's visit as opposed to the 36% who didn't and the 21% who couldn't make up their minds. Perhaps the oddest statistic was that 51% of Labor voters welcomed Bush's trip as opposed to only 45% of the Conservatives. If your definition of "news" is reading or hearing something of political import that you hadn't known or heard before, then this was definitely the thing itself.
Now cut to a patch of muddy lawn across from Euston station in central London. It's 7:30 on Tuesday evening, and an overflow crowd estimated at 1,200 people has been forced out of the Friends Meeting House, an old Quaker hall, to hear Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, playwright Harold Pinter, actor Colin Redgrave (brother of Vanessa), former Scottish M.P. George Galloway, lefty aristocrat Tony Benn and various representatives of the Stop the War Coalition, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the Green Party and other groups inveigh against the president, his war in Iraq, his poodle in Downing Street, and his visit to London.
Like most political rallies, this one was long on boilerplate and short on understatement or insight. Most of the people in the crowd were in their 20s and 30s, and a lot of them had obviously come from work. Despite the presence of MAB on the podium, there were few Muslims to be seen. Red flags had been unfurled on the sidewalk outside the hall, and tables had been set up from which books, magazines and pamphlets were being sold. "A Killer Comes to Town" stated the cover of the Socialist Worker, while the Socialist Review pictured Dubya emerging from hellfire under the words, "Give Bush a Warm Welcome." I forget the headline on the Morning Star, which I've heard is actually Stalinist, but perhaps my memory is just being kind.
With Kovic a featured attraction (the paraplegic Vietnam vet had delivered a petition to Downing Street earlier in the day), several speakers were careful to differentiate their anti-war, anti-Bush positions from any trace of reflexive anti-Americanism. "Millions and millions of Americans share our ideals," said Tony Benn, which was indisputably true. "Make no mistake, Bush wants to tear up the charter of the U.N.," he said later, which was not. For a veteran politician, Benn had a pretty poor grasp of microphone technology, and much of his speech was unintelligible. "Did you hear what he said?" a voice behind me asked. "Not at all," someone else replied, and then cheered loudly anyway.
Galloway, a mustachioed Scotsman and former MP -- he was recently kicked out of the Labor party amid accusations (which he denied) that he had secretly been in the pay of Saddam Hussein -- did better. He pressed the microphone to his lips like a crooner, and by this elementary trick his voice carried to every corner of the lawn. "Brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, salaam aleikam," he bellowed, and the effect, coupled with the light Scottish accent, was mildly electrifying. Islamic salutation aside, listening to him was like being transported back in time to a communist rally in the 1930s, and for a moment I could imagine that I stood in a crowd of working-class men wearing cloth caps with filterless cigarette stubs clamped between their lips. In reality, the woman next to me was a nicely dressed professional, and the guy blocking my view was wearing a New York Yankees jacket.