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Operation Clark County: the British dabbling in American politics

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Friday, 1 December 2006

It started as “a quixotic idea dreamed up last month in a north London pub”, wrote Ian Katz, feature editor at the Guardian newspaper and mastermind behind Operation Clark County.

The idea was to reduce President George W. Bush’s vote in the November 2004 election by persuading Americans in an important swing state not to vote for him. Introducing the operation, Katz wrote, “British political life may now be at least as heavily influenced by White House policy as by the choices of UK voters.

His colleague, Oliver Burkeman, wrote that many described the 2004 presidential election as “the most important in living memory”, and the British seemed keen to see Bush removed. This was certainly reflected in the newspaper’s poll, which showed that only 22 per cent wanted him re-elected.


One can surmise that far fewer Guardian readers wanted a second Bush term. The newspaper’s Operation Clark County became a small part of a global campaign to unseat the president.

Instead of feeling powerless, the newspaper urged readers to write to registered independents in Clark County, Ohio (Americans have the choice of registering as a Republican, a Democrat or an independent), and set up a website where they could receive the name and address of a registered independent voter. Each reader was urged to write a personal plea and encourage a vote for John Kerry.

Although the operation was cheeky, the Guardian realised it had the potential to misfire. To avoid this, the newspaper continually stressed the need to be “diplomatic”. It cautioned: “Keep in mind the real risk of alienating your reader by coming across as interfering or offensive” and “Please remember to be courteous and sensitive in what you say”.

The Guardian claimed that Bush’s constant references to British Prime Minister Tony Blair when discussing Iraq - something of which the British were more aware than the average American - would give them “a certain leverage” in the United States. Realising that its “modest proposal” to change the course of history had its weaknesses, the newspaper launched the Operation Clark County website.

The judicious tone of the Guardian’s introduction was undermined by the sample letters “from three prominent Britons” posted on the website - and presumably already en route par avion to Ohio. All three were high-handed and condescending. John Le Carré’s missive was a tirade worthy of any anti-Bush conspiracy website.

Instead of the polite and reasoned arguments urged by the Guardian, Le Carré offered abuse, calling the Iraq war a “hare-brained adventure”. As Clark County is the site of a large Air National Guard base, his letter was likely to offend its recipient.


The next prominent Briton, Antonia Fraser, offered some praise of American history but called for a vote against “Bush and his gang” and their “savage militaristic foreign policy of pre-emptive killing”.

Professor Richard Dawkins opened his letter condescendingly: “Don’t be ashamed of your president: the majority of you didn’t vote for him. If Bush is finally elected properly, that will be the time for Americans travelling abroad to simulate a Canadian accent.” A stream of abuse of the Bush administration followed: he called the pre 9-11 Bush “an amiable idiot” and Colin Powell “spineless”. Dawkins exemplified one vein of Bush criticism - so confident of the righteousness of its cause that the basics of polite dialogue are forgotten, replaced instead by arrogance and vitriol.

In a few days, over 14,000 Guardian readers began writing to registered independents in Clark County. Fortunately the pleas dispatched by rank and file readers were much more even-handed and sensible than those sent by their prominent compatriots. Many had genuine connections with the United States and expressed this in a heart-felt manner.

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First published in the October 2006 edition of the Griffith REVIEW 13, The Trouble with Paradise.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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