“WATCHING BARACK Obama get to The White House was such a one-off experience. For him to go from such obscurity to the highest political position in the world in such as short space time was an unparalleled journey in American politics.”
So says Belfast-born, New York-based, political journalist Niall Stanage who had a unique inside view of the 2008 US presidential campaign through his work with The New York Observer, The Guardian, and The Sunday Business Post.
His account of the campaign trail is now the basis of the book Redemption Song - Barack Obama: From Hope to Reality and Stanage will read extracts from it at the Hotel Meyrick on Friday July 17 at 6pm as part of Galway Arts Festival.
Stanage began writing as a music and politics correspondent with Hotpress in the early 1990s before becoming one of the youngest ever editors of Magill. He also performed music part-time.
“I played music very casually and I was around the singer-songwriter scene in Dublin that produced people like Paddy Casey, Gemma Hayes, and Damien Dempsey,” he says. “It would be inaccurate of me to portray myself as someone who had anything near their ability but music was and is a big passion of mine.
“I was interested to note that David Gray is playing The Big Top at this Galway Arts Festival because one of the first times I was actually in the United States was to write a cover story for Hotpress about his breakthrough on the Billboard charts. I felt very privileged to be able to see his transfer from the Irish singer-songwriter scene to international success.”
By early 2000 Stanage was ready for a new challenge and various stints in America over the years had convinced him that his future lay there.
“I had success with Magill during my time as editor and had increased the readership quite significantly,” says Stanage. “At that point though I had intended to move to the US because I had been interested in American politics for a very long time. I had sort of convinced The Sunday Business Post that they needed an American correspondent and so I moved there in late 2003.”
Within a year of Stanage’s move to New York a young senator from Illinois with a funny name had appeared on the political radar.
“The first time I was aware of Obama was at the Democratic Convention in 2004 at which he spoke,” Stanage recalls. “That was the speech that launched him as a national star. He was a state senator at that point but he was well on his way to becoming a US senator.
“The interesting thing about doing the book was that I was able to talk to people who knew him from his time as a state senator. For example, I spoke to a lot of people who were part of a late night card school which he was a member of. Basically Obama and another guy started the school because neither of them were big drinkers and they didn’t want to be hanging out in bars after the legislative sessions in Springfield. It was great to get insights like that.”
After the Democratic Party had made significant gains in the 2006 mid-term elections, the race to replace George W Bush looked like a straight fight between the former mayor of New York Rudy Guiliani on the Republican Party side and the former first lady Hillary Clinton for the Democrats. However, the plucky mixed race senator from the Midwest, Barack Obama, surprised everyone.
“Guiliani was a curious candidate and I wasn’t that shocked that he didn’t ultimately win because frankly he isn’t a very nice man,” says Stanage. “With regard to Hilary Clinton she obviously had very powerful advantages on the face of it but I personally never found her a very inspiring candidate and I think she had a problem with authenticity.
“A lot of people thought the advantages the Clintons had were too powerful for Obama to overcome. There were people in the past that had come through the grassroots of the Democratic Party such as Howard Dean, Jesse Jackson, and Gary Hart but they hadn’t won the party nomination. Obama was certainly the outsider when the race began and seeing him overturn that was fascinating both as a political and journalistic experience.”
Obama overcame his Democratic Party rival Hillary Clinton and in the presidential election beat the Republican candidate John McCain in style and on November 4 2008 to become the 44th president of the United States. Many have compared Obama and his campaign style to John F Kennedy. However, Stanage is keen to play down the comparisons.
“To me the parallels are quite general and are to do with someone being a young candidate and having an inspiring effect on people,” he says. “I’m very reluctant to make too many comparisons with John Kennedy because there are significant differences between the two men. Saying that though Obama has inspired a whole generation in a way that is similar to what Kennedy did in the 1960s.”
Stanage won a significant race of his own late last year when he was the first journalist to publish a book on Obama’s campaign and in doing so beat rivals from larger American newspapers such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Chicago Tribune.
“Writing the Obama book was an interesting experience for me because I sort of felt compelled to write it,” says Stanage. “There were obvious deadlines which required writing it quite fast and in that the campaign really inspired me.”
For tickets contact the festival box office, Merchants Road, 091 - 566577. Tickets are also available through www.galwayartsfestival.com