The mt diary

Washington's Straw poll; PC for dummies; shoeless in the buffet bar; tilting at Branson.

by Howard Davies, director of the London School of Economics
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A trip to New York and Washington in the autumn is always pleasant. This year, the mid-term elections approach, and the continued high death toll in Iraq provides an uncomfortable backdrop for the Republicans.

Jack Straw re-ignited public debate here on Iraq when he described the situation in Baghdad as 'dire'. That would be polite language in the US, where it is hard to find anyone who supports President Bush's policy - except Democrat Joe Lieberman, who was de-selected by his party as a result.

The difference in Washington, of course, is that the Republican right are also opposed to the Bush strategy. They favour a far larger American military commitment on the lines that proved so successful in Vietnam.

Fortunately, there are few takers for that argument in Britain, even in Downing Street.

Another big transatlantic difference is that supporters of the administration argue that at least the war has had the effect of exporting terrorist killing to the Middle East, and no-one is dying in the States. This is a rather unappealing line, but it does take some tricks in Middle America. The Department of Homeland Security, although unpopular with legit visitors to the US, has not had a major domestic incident to handle since 9/11.

But not everyone in America is impressed. Down in Washington Square you can buy a T-shirt decorated with a photograph of 19th-century Indian braves, armed with ancient rifles, and the legend 'Homeland Security - fighting terrorism since 1492'.

Did I say Indians? Whoops. I refer, of course, to Native Americans. We might quarrel with some PC formulations in America, but this one makes a meaningful point. As, indeed, does another similar designation that I came across on Broadway. There's an American ventriloquist with a show near Times Square (called The Two and Only) whose dummy has objected to what is, frankly, an insulting designation.

He and his kind now prefer 'wooden Americans', which is both descriptive and inoffensive.

Broadway is not a good place to stay in Manhattan, but West Broadway certainly is. SoHo and Tribeca are more sympathetic locations than mid-town, despite their closeness to Wall Street.

And the Tribeca and Soho Grands are lively places to stay. The wine in the rooms is by Francis Ford Coppola and there are no irritating floor butlers asking sir if there is anything else he desires. I can never think of anything except to be told how to switch off the muzak and to be left alone.

The Grands are mercifully free of high-cost 'service'. But this time when I checked in I was asked a question that had me stumped. Would I like a goldfish in the room? Pets are welcome at the Soho Grand, but I was not travelling with a cat, so it was not obvious what a goldfish could do for me. I have never found goldfish to be particularly companionable creatures, but it seems that some Americans do.

Leaving my goldfish behind, and slightly anxious about her welfare in my absence, I popped down to Washington for the day on the train. Though the Amtrak connection between Penn Station and Union Station by Capitol Hill is quite convenient, it's best not to tell your American contacts that this is how you have arrived. There is something un-American, even faintly communistic, about travelling by rail.

Only social misfits take the train.

Amtrak staff seem, curiously, to take more or less the same view. The carriages are well appointed and, on a warm Indian summer afternoon, I slipped off my tasseled loafers and put my feet up. An hour later, in need of a cappuccino, I headed down to the buffet car. There, a very large and rather menacing train guard informed me that 'you got no shoes on'.

'That's right,' was the only response I could call up.

But it was not what she had in mind. As I stood in the empty car, in front of the counter, she informed me aggressively that there was no coffee for me: 'no shoes, no service' was how she put the point. Since I was not outnumbered but certainly outweighed by about three to one, it occurred to me that I'd probably had enough caffeine that day.

I have not tried the same experiment on one of Richard Branson's tilting trains to Manchester when I pop up to see Man City. I think the risk of dipping my cotton-rich hose in a pool of lager might put me off.

But perhaps I should try. Because all the profits Virgin will receive from my cappuccino investment will in future, we are told, be part of his $3 billion pledge 'to beat global warming', proudly announced at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York.

As often with Sir Richard, things are not quite all they seem. The $3 billion will come from 10 years' estimated profits from his airline and other travel firms - an unusual example of a 10-year profit forecast.

And it turns out, looking a little more closely, that he plans to invest these profits in 'commercial ventures to produce renewable energy'. This may prove to be good business, and it may even be good for the planet, but surely it isn't, pace the BBC, a 'most significant act of philanthropy'.

My licence fee sometimes looks that way, though.

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