Britons fascinated, and a bit perplexed, by US election

The Monitor has invited some distinguished foreign correspondents in the United States to describe how they are covering the American presidential election. This report from a British writer is the first in a series. LAST May Pete du Pont, already on the road in Iowa for half a year, asked me about the forthcoming elections in Britain. How long would the campaign last? I said about three weeks. ``Three weeks!'' he exclaimed, sighing. ``Oh, what a luxury.''

Britain has some sympathy with him. Most British people were sick of their election by the time it occurred; we cannot imagine how Americans can put up with campaigns that grind on for over two years.

But even early on, incidents occurred that grabbed the attention not only of the serious students of American politics in Britain, but of newspapers pandering to more popular tastes.

The Gary Hart-Donna Rice affair seemed tailor-made for Fleet Street. It was the kind of old-fashioned sex-and-politics scandal we have all too frequently in Britain. There was much pious clucking over it, and a certain Schadenfreude at the embarrassment of the earnest American press.

Mr. Hart's collapse, which was immediately front-page news, was quickly followed by another political demise that had a bizarre link to Britain: Sen. Joseph Biden's appropriation of Neil Kinnock's campaign speeches.

As the campaign got under way, there were the usual essential guides to an election process that at best seems baffling to Britain, unused to primaries, conventions, and delegate counts. But the process still seems arcane. More interesting were the unknown personalities.

With the precipitous decline in President Reagan's authority, and the alarming sense in Europe of drift and indecision in Washington, Britain, like America, has begun to worry about the growing political vacuum in Washington.

Not only are problems piling up for the West which only America can solve - the US budget deficit, arms control and NATO force modernizations, the Middle East, threats of protectionism and trade wars - but it is clear that an era is ending in America. Who will follow Mr. Reagan, and what will follow Reaganism?

And so by the time of the Iowa caucuses, interest had been keenly whetted. Every main British newspaper sent one or two correspondents to Des Moines. We also roamed over the farmlands, pursued the candidates into people's parlors, often astonishing them that foreigners should want to know the details of their lives. British television crews were out in force, joining the jostling throng around each candidate, beaming back to Britain at least 10 minutes of coverage every evening.

The astonishing result of Iowa commanded even more attention.

Who was Pat Robertson? How could a television evangelist be taken so seriously as a political figure in America? My own newspaper was determined not to dismiss Mr. Robertson. As we in Europe know, in a non-parliamentary system, anything can happen.

New Hampshire, therefore, turned into a gripping political drama that played as well on the other side of the Atlantic as it did over here. The Republican campaign, with its bitter personal feud, rapidly overtook the Democratic candidates as the focus of interest.

I was lucky enough to be snowed into the same hotel as Robertson, and able to elicit from him some thoughts on populism, arms control, East-West relations, and other topics that interested - and frankly alarmed - most Britons.

Mr. Bush's triumph and Mr. Dole's bitterness commanded front-page attention. There was also a new Democratic front-runner, whose odyssey as the son of Greek immigrants is so different from the way our politicians rise to power.

Then came Super Tuesday. Britons could only wonder at the money, the jets, the television advertising, the ``spin control,'' the punishing pace of a 20-state election. It seemed so huge, so media-driven, so American.

It probably also marked a high point in foreign interest. From now on, there will be a lull: The steady accumulation of delegates is of less interest to foreigners than the candidates and their views of the world. Of course, we realize US elections do not turn on what matters to us - foreign policy. We need to know therefore what matters to Americans.

It is an ideal chance to examine the American mood, to get outside the Washington Beltway and tell people at home about the other Americans who decide the election on the concerns of small towns and rural communities.

The process does seem enormously lengthy and clumsy. But no one in Britain this year can say it is dull.

Michael Binyon is Washington bureau chief for the Times of London.

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