Freedland's transatlantic world puts politicians in a spin

PUBLISHED: 17:24 11 August 2008 | UPDATED: 15:17 07 September 2010

By KATIE DAVIES IN January this year Barack Obama stood at a podium in New Hampshire and electrified his audience and viewers across the world with his Yes we can speech. Geeing up his campaign troops in the manner of JFK, his talk of change and hope f

By KATIE DAVIES

IN January this year Barack Obama stood at a podium in New Hampshire and electrified his audience and viewers across the world with his "Yes we can" speech.

Geeing up his campaign troops in the manner of JFK, his talk of change and hope for a new beginning left the thousands in attendance feeling truly inspired.

No-one longed to be there more than Jonathan Freedland.

The UCS schoolboy-turned-political columnist has now graduated far beyond the daily grind of the reporter on the beat. But being tucked behind his desk and ruminating on the wider implications of the Obama-Clinton race from afar. simply wasn't enough to satisfy the man who started his career as Washington Correspondent for The Guardian.

"I couldn't go because I was working on my new book," he explains. "But then New Hampshire happened and it became so gripping - I was itching to go. So 10 days later I was on a plane to Carolina. As a reporter, there is nothing I can compare to a presidential campaign."

More surprising is that Freedland, who has been meeting and greeting the greats and not-so-greats of transatlantic politics for years, is able to feel genuinely excited by the son of a Kenyan goat herder becoming the Democratic nominee for the most powerful job in the world.

"He is a mesmerising speaker," Freedland enthuses. "He kept the crowd, including me, waiting for two and a half hours but when he came in we immediately forgave him. He kept an audience of tens of thousands absolutely rapt."

Freedland, it is easy to see, is no cynic about his pet subject. As he explains in conversation about his work: "It is so often the case that I want to be proved wrong."

And back across the Atlantic it is evident in his assessment of Gordon Brown, the leader he once championed but who he now admits is doing "terribly".

"I'm one of those people who believe there could be a programme for Labour which is both centre-left and popular," he says of the Freedland political model with which he has obviously wrestled for some time.

"Brown could scrap ID cards and spend the £7billion saved on child poverty. He could say 'I am not going to renew Trident and I'm going to spend all the money on the biggest programme of renewable energy anyone has ever seen.'

"I think we should return to the worst crimes leading to a life sentence with no parole and then be very liberal with crime which is not violent.

"I would go to a far pole on one thing and then to the opposite for another and I'm sure that way, you could construct a very progressive programme. If you look at someone like Obama - he manages to truly excite people by breaking some of those taboos."

This is a man who is obviously crazy about the political. Every question I ask on the subject is considered with a wise nod and a pause for thought, but you get the feeling he's already argued it all before.

The father-of-two has now left his Hampstead "stomping ground" for family life in Stoke Newington after discovering that "it's pretty hard to be a Hampstead liberal if you can't afford to live there."

And sadly, despite all these ideas he's harbouring, he has no ambition to make a move on Westminster.

"Going into politics appealed to me as a teenager but hasn't appealed to me since," he shrugs. "I look at most of them and they are so constrained, they can't speak freely and after a while they develop this way of thinking along very narrow tramlines. There's so much more freedom in what I am doing.

"Also, what kind of life would you lead? I've got young children and politicans see their children much less than I see mine and I do want to see them."

At the vegetarian Stoke Newington cafe where we meet, this thoroughly modern family man sits easily among the backdrop of yummy mummies and cute humous-eating toddlers in Wellington boots.

He arrives, naturally by bike, suit trousers tied down with bicycle clips, friendly and casual from the outset - the very picture of a Guardian journalist.

His face is expressive and enthusiastic - one that you can instantly imagine in childhood form, perhaps more so for the fact that it's made up of freckles, muted ginger hair and glasses.

But his voice conveys a much more intimidating intelligence, with booming Oxford tones and observations flying around at speed and with rare clarity.

Despite his determination to steer clear of political life, he is not ready to be a stay-at-home dad either, keeping several other endeavours on the go, vying for his time.

His latest is a novel. The Final Reckoning, written under his pseudonym Sam Bourne, which comes out today. This is the third tome under his alter-ego following religious thrillers The Righteous Men and Last Testament.

"I always wanted to write fiction but I didn't imagine it was something I would do so soon," says the 41-year-old.

"I had a version of the first book, The Righteous Men, knocking around for a long time and my agent, who happens to be a childhood friend, used to say it was a project for my retirement.

"It was really brought forward when The Da Vinci Code went very big. Waiting until retirement didn't seem so sensible."

The Final Reckoning opens with a botched police shooting of a man presumed to be a terrorist. The parallels to Jean-Charles De Menezes are obvious. But, as the story continues, we discover that Freedland's innocent victim is a Second World War ghetto survivor, and one of a group of avengers who sets about killing as many Nazis as they can.

Freedland's Jewish heritage left him torn about venturing into the realms of the war and ultimately he decided he could only do so with delicacy.

He is a practising Jew, following the rules of Kosher, the Sabbath and Passover, but he prefers to avoid the word religion.

"I am strongly and passionately Jewish so we do all the things which are technically religious but to me they are cultural and ethnic activities," he says. "They are part of a civilisation I was born into, so it is cultural, rather than God telling me to do it.

"The idea of fictionalising elements of the Holocaust is hugely problematic because there are people out there, starting with the president of Iran, who want to deny or question its historical truth. There is also a real danger of cheapening it.

"I make sure that my characters go nowhere near the concentration camps, so the true horror of the Holocaust remains offstage and that's a very deliberate decision.

"The other side of my wariness is that I am very keen that the Holocaust should not be the central defining event of Jewish identity. I want there to be a Jewish life that is not about the Holocaust."

But after long conversations with his publishers about the problems, Freedland decided to press ahead with The Final Reckoning.

"The vow I made to myself going into it was to be as scrupulous on the historical record as I would be if I were writing non-fiction," he explained.

Religion, or the way in which Freedland evokes it, is obviously important in his life and so it is unsurprising to learn that his other great love - politics - looks likely to be the inspiration for the next Bourne endeavour.

Given his relationship with American politics, I would hazard a guess it will be based in the US.

"There is something about American politics which to me is more immediate. I've found I get it almost instinctively," he says.

"It may be partly that I'm interested in issues of cultural identity and I just always had a more immediate feel for American politics, which is based in that."

Perhaps that is why Freedland finds Obama's race for power so exciting, yet it is identity of the most superficial kind which he thinks could prevent him entering The White House.

"The great unknown is still race. I think it is conceivable to see Obama winning and winning quite big," he reflects. "But if the race issue does obtain, I think McCain could squeak a victory, just like Bush.


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