Blunders, threats and the leader's zoo

By Shaun Walker, Peter Popham, David Usborne

International correspondents look back at events that helped define the year for them.

David Usborne
The United States election

It was a hairy moment. Barack Obama was about to deliver his victory address in Chicago and I was stumbling around in the dark under the scaffolding platform for the television cameras. I was pushing towards the front edge hoping for a clear view of the President when I felt a thick cable looping around my neck. It was almost electrocution for me and blank screens for the nation.

As I look back at the election it is the assorted screw-ups and follies that come to mind first. The best of those moments I did not see. It happened at a dinner for fat-cat Republican donors in Boca Raton, Florida, when Mitt Romney said something deeply dismissive about 47 per cent of Americans.

But I was at the primary debate in Michigan in January, when Texas Governor Rick Perry began a sentence with a pledge to close down three government departments in Washington and ended it with an "Oops" that was heard from coast to coast. He could recall only two. He withdrew from the race the next day.

There is usually schadenfreude attached to those days when a candidate, who for months has been evincing such confidence about their suitability for the highest office in the land, has to concede that they are not quite up to scratch.

Why Michele Bachmann ever thought she was up to the task remains a mystery. It's juicier still if they pull out under a whiff of extra-marital scandal. Remember pizza giant Herman Cain?

The threat of storms forced Obama to move his big acceptance speech in Charlotte indoors, but far more consequential was his out-to-lunch performance at the first presidential debate in Denver. Like everyone I went there assuming the country would see the same Romney I had come to know - wooden, listless and generally unappealing. That it was the President who played that part was altogether flummoxing. In the end, Obama recovered from his errors. Romney did not.


Peter Popham
Jaipur Literary Festival

We were all there to talk about ourselves - or, to be generous, about the great themes our great tomes brought stunningly to life. We were all authors, with the famished ego-hunger common to the tribe. Yet we ended up spending most of our time and emotional energy talking about Another, the biggest beast of the lot.

The Jaipur International Book Festival is, as it declares: "The most prestigious celebration of national and international literature to be held in India." And I was there, not to report it for the Independent but to participate, discussing my newly published biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady and the Peacock.

Yet no sooner had we landed at Jaipur airport than my mobile rang. Independent foreign desk on the line: "Can you give us a page lead about Salman Rushdie?"

Sorry, about who? "Rushdie, you know he's supposed to be speaking but Muslim groups have called for his visa to be cancelled and there's doubt about whether he'll show up."

Born and raised in Bombay, Rushdie had made several visits to his homeland since the Iranian fatwa. The bad luck this time was that elections were scheduled for Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, which has long been a stronghold of the Congress Party, and where Muslims account for 18 per cent of the population. If Rushdie came in the teeth of Muslim rage there was a strong risk that the Congress - in power at the centre - would suffer at the polls. We suspected the mischief was being stoked by the Hindu nationalist BJP.

Would he come or wouldn't he? How would it look if the festival dis-invited him? Should we protest? Would we be arrested if we read publicly from The Satanic Verses? Nobody wanted to talk about anything else. Rushdie, in absentia, carried all before him.


Shaun Walker
My encounter with Georgia's zebra-loving leader

Working in Russia you deal with a lot of opaque politicians and businessmen, and it is rare to get a glimpse into their private worlds. So it was a dream come true when Bidzina Ivanishvili, once one of Russia's most reclusive oligarchs, announced he was running for prime minister in his native Georgia. Ivanishvili, who had never appeared in public, suddenly had to put himself in the spotlight, and I was to travel to Georgia and take a tour of his Black Sea estate over the summer, a few months before the elections he would go on to win.

All the rumours about his exotic pet collection proved true - we met Zelda the zebra, as well as parrots, flamingos and peacocks.

Georgia is fascinating; in a region of dictatorships, it is one of the few post-Soviet nations to have achieved something close to a democracy. Mikheil Saakashvili led the Rose Revolution in 2003, and although his regime was now becoming unpopular, the way people are happy to criticise their leaders is different to Russia or other countries nearby.

I found Ivanishvili charming, but detached from reality. His main criticism of Saakashvili? "He does not know what love is." Now he is Prime Minister, it will be fascinating to see whether this eccentricity will help him or hinder his life in politics.


- Independent

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