Interview: BBC’s man in Washington accentuates the positive

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Justin Webb has not gone completely native in his seven years in the United States as a BBC correspondent.

“There are several areas where I’m completely un-American,” he asserts down a crackly phone line from Washington DC.

“I cannot be bothered with any of the sport, I find it incredibly boring, I’d rather watch people play rounders than baseball.

“The food I also find really difficult, I never understood the thinking that if you eat healthy food you’re suddenly making a statement about how sensible and down to earth you are.

“It seems to me that American eating habits are appalling, but it’s not so bad for me because I travel so much.”

Webb, whose take on American politics and culture has become such a mainstay of BBC’s output that he has been compared to legendary BBC correspondents Charles Wheeler and Alistair Cooke, has just published a book.

Have A Nice Day is an attempt to “take a new look at the essence of the USA, at why Americans think as they do, and why they might just have a point.”

Webb’s 230-page pro-American thesis is divided up into chapters on the big themes; religion, poltics, guns.

It is also a curious record of the Bush administration – after all, with Obama in the White House, pro-American sentiment is not exactly hard to come by.

Have A Nice Day deals with some of the underlying prejudices against America, the ones that exist no matter who is in the White House.

Webb, 48, is returning to London later this year as presenter of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.

A BBC journalist since 1984, he was chief Washington correspondent from 2001 until 2007, when he was appointed to the newly-created role of North America Editor.

Have A Nice Day is an outsider’s appeal to others to try to understand this vast, complex and bewildering nation.

As an example of his innate optimism about America, Webb considers the 2006 midterm elections as the moment of “outright annihilation” of the power of social conservatives and the religious Right.

Some gays might disagree, with bans on gay marriage passing in California, Florida Arizona and on Election Day 2008.

Webb defends his optimistic analysis.

“I think still that the brunt of the country is going in a direction away from social conservatism, not to say that they won’t get back to it at some stage in the future, but generally speaking I think that is what is going to happen.”

The concern is that socially conservative Latinos and African-Americans voted down gay rights.

The Republican party could put together a winning coalition in 2012 or 2016, based on bashing gays or restricting abortion.

“I think that is an interesting point,” Webb responds.

“The Democratic party is arguably the great driver of change.

“The Democratic party is going to be affected by those areas in which it is getting support effectively stolen from the Republican party.

“Also getting support is essential from conservative people in the small cities. Whichever party does this takes a stronger lead in the primary states.”

Webb, with years of experience watching the Bush White House, does not think the 44th President will move to remove the ban on gays in the US military early in his administration.

“He (Obama) doesn’t want to dwell on these things. He knows that Clinton got into all sorts of mess early on. I think he will focus first on the economy and on certain key bits of foreign affairs.”

As for civil unions, also supported by President Obama, Webb is confident some states will introduce them, but does not think they will be universal.

Barack Obama’s decision to nominate Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State has been welcomed by Democrats and Republicans alike – Webb is more cautious.

“I think it’s a risk and more than one individual who works with Obama will worry about Hillary. It’s not about her, and it’s not about him, but it’s about the Clinton culture, and the way they conduct themselves almost as an organisation. Maybe this time round it won’t be like that, but a lot of people will be suspicious.”

Webb is leaving a political culture that many British people think they understand, but many of its most vocal critics have no idea how complex America is.

Have A Nice Day confronts negative attitudes towards the US, which he compares to racism in some contexts.

“Why else would English friends with impeccable anti-racist credentials ask of our children (who have grown up in the US), ‘How will you get rid of their accents?'” he asks.

“They assume, without ever questioning why, that we would want to.”

Webb has clearly a deep affection for America and American people, their diversity, their quirks and above all their values. There is a lot to be positive about, but he is looking forward to coming back to Blighty.

“Although are very happy for our children to be American, fundamentally we are English.

“I suspect that they will always have a real link with this place.

“I’ve got eight-year-old twins and a four-year-old, the four-year-old is a US citizen.

“If I think back to being 18, I’m sure that if I had an American passport I might well have wandered over to Manhattan and not necessarily come back to Bognor Regis afterwards.

“That is really the point of the book, that although the criticism of America is legitimate, at the same time it is an incredibly alluring place, and there is absolutely something about it that attracts people.

“I suspect that if I do go back (to London) I might rather regret it.”

Have A Nice Day by Justin Webb is published by Short Books and is on sale now.