James Naughtie on a lifelong love affair with American elections

The former Today presenter discusses the changing face of US politics, Clinton versus Trump, and his first meeting with Barack Obama outside Jesse Jackson's church in Chicago

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He’s become the BBC’s voice of the US election – a veteran of no fewer than 10 presidential campaigns and a man who when asked to name his favourite place in America comes back instantly with, “Anywhere there’s a convention on!”

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Meet James Naughtie, now 65 and as enthralled as ever by another race for the White House as he prepares to cross the pond for the umpteenth time and take up a ringside seat at Clinton v Trump.

“Anyone who grew up in the 1960s was bound to be electrified by US politics,” Naughtie tells me, but the truth is it’s not just anyone who did what he did all the way back in 1976 when he was just 25 and a reporter on the Aberdeen Press and Journal – fixing himself up with accreditation to the Democratic Convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden. “I should stress that the paper didn’t pay for me to go over there,” Naughtie says. “I made the trip myself and I think they chipped in with a few expenses.”

Naughtie’s enterprise paid off. It was an unforgettable experience, not least the moment when he disappeared off to the gents and found himself standing next to Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago – then a huge figure on the US political scene whose modern-day counterpart a young hack like Naughtie was wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near. Followers of Naughtie’s interrogatory style when he was on the Today programme might be surprised to know that he was stunned into silence. “I thought to myself, what do I say to him? But somehow it wasn’t really the moment!” 

The love affair had started, and for Naughtie, who spent more than 10 years in newspapers before joining the BBC in the late 1980s, the flame burns as bright as ever. “The presidential election is an endlessly fascinating story which has immense resonance here in Britain, not just because of the sheer entertainment of it all but because it matters so much. Wherever I go, people are fascinated by it, in my view rightly so. They want to know how it has come about that the US has been so divided and ended up with such unpopular candidates.”

The answer, in part it seems, is the internet age. “We’ve come into a whole new phase, where the tide can turn more quickly than ever before,” Naughtie says. “A momentary lapse or a dramatic phrase can have cataclysmic consequences. It’s been building up like that for 40, 50 years but it’s at a higher point now than it’s ever been. I remember Bill Clinton saying that when he came into the White House in 1992, there were barely half a dozen websites in existence. Fast-forward a few years and his cat had a Facebook page.”

Some things don’t change, however. “What I love about US campaigns is that if you go to a primary somewhere like New Hampshire, there are still people knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes, putting up posters in their garden,” Naughtie says. “For all that we are cynical about the money and the mechanisms involved, there’s still a visceral quality to campaigning in America. There’s a ‘street’ quality to it, and as a reporter that’s what I love.” 

And when Naughtie hits the streets of America, he finds that saying he’s from the BBC still carries enormous weight. “There was a period a generation ago when Americans who’d lived through the Second World War knew and understood the BBC because of Ed Murrow [the US reporter who sent vivid wartime dispatches back from his London base], but time passed and what I find now is that the recognition of BBC voices is hugely greater than it was 20 years ago. I think that’s because of two things – the success of BBC America, and the fact that so many US radio stations carry programmes from the World Service. It doesn’t matter where I go, the number of people who say, ‘I’ll talk to you because you’re from the BBC’ is extraordinary, and here in the UK I think people should be aware of that.”

Naughtie’s credentials did him no harm back in 2004 when he secured what might well have been the BBC’s first interview with Barack Obama, then a candidate for the US Senate. “I went to meet him at Jesse Jackson’s church in Chicago but was told that we had to do the interview outside. To begin with, I wasn’t sure why, but it soon became clear – it was because Obama was a smoker.” Obama, says Naughtie, was “great”, and he puts him alongside Ronald Reagan as the president who has made the biggest impact on him.

And now a new era beckons and we wait to see how much impact Clinton or Trump make. Naughtie says he’s covered too many elections to be prepared to predict who’ll win, but he sounds a warning note to whichever candidate does so. “This is the most extraordinary campaign of my lifetime,” he says, “and what it portends is a period of real difficulty in pulling together people who’ve been pulled apart.” 

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Jame Naughtie is fronting BBC Radio 4 and 5 Live coverage of the US election on the night of Tuesday 8th November