News & Current Affairs

November 5, 2008

Obama wins historic US election

Democratic Senator Barack Obama has been elected the first black president of the United States.

“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight… change has come to America,” the president-elect told a jubilant crowd at a park in Chicago.

His rival John McCain accepted defeat, saying “I deeply admire and commend” Mr Obama. He called on his supporters to lend the next president their goodwill.

The BBC’s Justin Webb said the result would have a profound impact on the US.

“On every level America will be changed by this result… [it] will never be the same,” he said.

Mr Obama appeared with his family, and his running mate Joe Biden, before a crowd of tens of thousands in Grant Park, Chicago.

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” he said.

He said he had received an “extraordinarily gracious” call from Mr McCain.

He praised the former Vietnam prisoner of war as a “brave and selfless leader”.

“He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine,” the victor said.

He had warm words for his family, announcing to his daughters: “Sasha and Malia, I love you both more than you can imagine, and you have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.”

Congratulations… You are about to go on one of the great journeys of life
President George W Bush

But he added: “Even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime – two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.

“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep… But America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.”

From red to blue

Mr Obama captured the key battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, before breaking through the winning threshold of 270 electoral college votes at 0400 GMT, when projections showed he had also taken California and a slew of other states.

HAVE YOUR SAY

I find myself strangely emotional about this. I want to go wake up my neighbours and hug them

Amy Scullane, Boston

Then came the news that he had also seized Florida, Virginia and Colorado – all of which voted Republican in 2004 – turning swathes of the map from red to blue.

Several other key swing states are hanging in the balance.

In Indiana and North Carolina, with most of the vote counted, there was less than 0.5% between the two candidates.

However, the popular vote remains close. At 0600 GMT it stood at 51.3% for the Democratic Senator from Illinois, against 47.4% for Arizona Senator McCain.

The main developments include:

  • Mr Obama is projected to have seized Ohio, New Mexico, Iowa, Virginia, Florida, Colorado and Nevada – all Republican wins in 2004.
  • He is also projected to have won: Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Delaware, Massachusetts, District of Columbia, Maryland, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, Rhode Island, California, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon.
  • Mr McCain is projected to have won: Kentucky, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Kansas, North Dakota, Wyoming, Georgia, Louisiana, West Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, Utah, Arizona, Idaho, South Dakota.
  • Turnout was reported to be extremely high – in some places “unprecedented”.
  • The Democrats made gains in the Senate race, seizing seats from the Republicans in Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Colorado. They also increased their majority of the House of Representatives.
  • Exit polls suggest the economy was the major deciding factor for six out of 10 voters.
  • Nine out of 10 said the candidates’ race was not important to their vote, the Associated Press reported. Almost as many said age did not matter.

LOSSES AND GAINS
Key states
Projected gains for Obama in former Republican states of Ohio, New Mexico, Iowa, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, Nevada
Senate seats
Virginia: Democrat Mark Warner replaces retiring Republican John Warner
New Hampshire: Democrat Jeanne Shaheen unseats Republican John Sununu
North Carolina: Democrat Kay Hagan replaces Republican Elizabeth Dole
New Mexico: Democrat Tom Udall replaces retiring Republican Pete Domenici

Several states reported very high turnout. It was predicted 130 million Americans, or more, would vote – more than for any election since 1960.

Many people said they felt they had voted in a historic election – and for many African-Americans the moment was especially poignant.

John Lewis, an activist in the civil rights era who was left beaten on an Alabama bridge 40 years ago, told Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church: “This is a great night. It is an unbelievable night. It is a night of thanksgiving.”

Besides winning the presidency, the Democrats tightened their grip on Congress.

The entire US House of Representatives and a third of US Senate seats were up for grabs.

Democrats won several Senate seats from the Republicans, but seemed unlikely to to gain the nine extra they wanted to reach the 60-seat “super-majority”, that could prevent Republicans blocking legislation.

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September 19, 2008

Small-town girl v big-city boy

Small-town girl v big-city boy

Virginia-based author Joe Bageant claimed Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin as a fellow “redneck”, in a recent essay for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.He meant it as a compliment. Here Jamie Stiehm, a city-dwelling political commentator, asks whether small-town values are all they are cracked up to be.

When an American refers to someone as “small-town”, it’s seldom clear whether it’s meant as praise or scorn.

Trump Tower in Chicago
Sarah Palin declared psychological war on Barack Obama by setting up a ‘small-town girl v big-city boy’ dichotomy

It all depends on the speaker, subject, listener and ZIP code where the conversation is taking place.

For some, small towns are where virtues live: near the diner, yarn shop and swimming hole. For others, “small-town” is a synonym for smug narrow-mindedness.

Governor Sarah Palin, the political hurricane that made landfall in early September as the surprise Republican vice-presidential nominee, hit upon the deepest contradiction in the American character. It’s as old as the fierce fight between two founding fathers – urbane Alexander Hamilton of New York and Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia slave-owning gentleman of the land.

We Americans still have a romantic notion about the simple small town, which goes hand in hand with Jefferson’s idealized “yeoman farmer”. But in real life, most of us live in the busy, peopled world Hamilton envisaged.

Ms Palin declared psychological war on Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, right away by setting up a “small-town girl versus big-city boy” dichotomy.

In her hello-to-the-country speech, Palin zeroed in on Obama’s work as a community organizer in Chicago before he went to Harvard Law School. That was in another metropolis known as Cambridge, a lively academic grove in Boston.

In a rare move for a political unknown, Palin made it personal between the man running for president, Obama, and herself. They are of the same generation: she is 44 to his 47, and represent bipolar extremes.

Jamie Stiehm
Jamie Stiehm is a political journalist based in Washington DC. Her essays on the 2008 presidential campaign have appeared in the liberal, pro-Obama Huffington Post.

“I have the privilege of living most of my life in a small town,” Palin told roaring Republicans at their convention.

“I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain… I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organiser, except you have actual responsibilities.”

Gopher Prairie

But, just a moment, what’s so great about being mayor of tiny Wasilla, Alaska? Whether Ms Palin ever made time to see the skylines and neighborhoods of Philadelphia, Boston or Baltimore is arguably more to the purpose of governing the United States.

For like it or not, we are a nation composed of mostly city dwellers.

Sarah Palin
We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity
Sarah Palin quotes the late Hearst journalist, Westbrook Pegler

The 1920 census was the point in our social history when the population changed from living in rural and small communities to living in cities.

That shift is mirrored beautifully in the literature of the period, known as “The Revolt from the Village,” as critic Carl van Doren put it in The Nation in 1921. This revolt was accompanied by a rush to breathe in the exhilarating big city by young men and women, as told in the autobiographical novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe.

The most famous work in the anti-small town movement was the 1920 novel Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis, who based fictional Gopher Prairie on his own Minnesota hometown.

The Nobel laureate author opened with a world-weary, ironical note: “This story would be the same in Ohio or Montana, in Kansas or Kentucky‚Ķ Main Street is the climax of civilization.”

Biographer Richard Lingeman, also the author of Small Town America, said Lewis’ masterpiece launched “a conscious, definitive attack on the stuffiness, provincialism, smugness, conformity and cruel gossip of small town life, intended to puncture the myth once and for all.”

World citizen

Yet here the heartland myth persists, in popular culture as well as partisan politics. Rock singer John Mellencamp’s song, Small Town, tells the other side of the story told by Lewis: “No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from/I cannot forget the people who love me/Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town/And people let me be just what I want to be.”

The lyrics are in an ode to his Indiana hometown.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama would have a hard time laying claim to small-town credentials

Mellencamp is a big Obama supporter, as it happens. Maybe the Democratic nominee would be well advised to take the singer on the road to help shore up his support in small towns in battleground states like Ohio and Pennsylvania?

One of the strengths of Obama’s curriculum vitae, for some of his supporters, is its variety. Growing up, he lived in Hawaii and Indonesia. He studied in LA, New York and Boston and knows his way around Washington.

He’s a world citizen.

He’d have a hard time claiming small-town status, though Springfield, Illinois, where he served as a state legislator, is a fairly small town where another lanky lawyer who ran for President once lived. (That would be, of course, Abraham Lincoln.)

No doubt certain strengths come from living in a small town, especially for politicians.

Bill Clinton, who hails from Hope, Arkansas, embodies the easy social connectedness which a small town upbringing can produce.

Everyone tends to relate to everyone else, up and down the social scale. People know the person you were in high school.

You might even be married to someone you knew in high school, as Palin told the world she was. “My guy,” was how she introduced her husband, Todd Palin, to the cheering crowd that night.

You might even be pregnant in high school, as her daughter Bristol is – but somehow the redoubtable Palin has turned that into a small-town virtue, too.

Urban sophisticates

In her convention speech, she quoted anonymously Westbrook Pegler, the long-gone Hearst newspaper columnist and scourge of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt: “We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity.”

Was the subtext that urban sophisticates like Obama are somehow suspect?

Just what we need, a new culture war at home.

As if we Americans weren’t demoralized enough already by the economy and the war in Iraq.

But there is no obvious reason why the big city guy has to lose this ideological battle.

Maybe he should engage and ask Americans: hey, whose world would you rather live in? Jefferson’s or Hamilton’s? Mine or Palin’s? Wasilla or Chicago?

He’ll have to watch out though, or the small-town girl will have him for lunch at the diner.

September 16, 2008

Texas begins mass post-Ike rescue

Texas begins mass post-Ike rescue

Texas has begun what is being described as the biggest search and rescue effort in its history following Hurricane Ike.

At least 2,000 people have been rescued but many thousands more are believed to have ignored the mandatory order to evacuate before Saturday’s storm.

The death toll rose to 30 as Ike swept on from Texas into the mid-US, with heavy rain causing flooding.

Millions of people are without power and Houston is under a week-long curfew as work continues to restore services.

While many schools remained shut, there were signs of a return to normality on Monday, as the city’s two airports resumed limited services and some shops and restaurants opened for business.

Five people died in Galveston Bay, an island city south-east of Houston which bore the brunt of the storm as Ike swept ashore on Saturday, bringing 13ft (4m) waves and 110mph (175km/h) winds.

‘Stay away’

Rescuers feared the toll could rise as they searched areas awash with sewage for those who did not leave before the hurricane hit.

As many as 140,000 people – some 10,000 in Galveston alone – failed to heed the order to evacuate.

Across Texas, 50 helicopters, 1,500 federal, state and local search teams were looking for stranded survivors, and a US navy ship carrying engineers was heading to Galveston to help with rebuilding operations.

We’ll work as hard and fast as we can to help you get your lives back up to normal
US President George W Bush

Nearly 40,000 evacuees were being housed in 250 shelters across Texas – some with little money and no idea how long they would have to stay.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas urged residents to stay away until it was safe to return to their homes.

“There’s nothing to come here for,” she said. “Please leave.”

Warning that residents of Texas and Louisiana were in for “tough times”, David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), said some people would “be out of their homes for not only weeks, but months”.

Fema has said it will deliver 7.5m meals as well as 5m gallons (20m litres) of water over the next few days.

President George W Bush, who is due to survey the damage on Tuesday, told those affected by the storm: “We’ll work as hard and fast as we can to help you get your lives back up to normal”.

Although Ike weakened to a tropical depression as it headed beyond Texas, the storm’s US death-toll rose to 30 as torrential rain caused severe flooding and power outages in parts of Louisiana, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois.

Ike killed more than 80 people when it tore through the Caribbean late last week.


Have you been affected by Hurricane Ike? Send us your comments and experiences

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