It is a measure of our natural deference to America, cultural and military, that when the New York Times rang up and asked for a piece, I was thrilled. The New York Times, I thought. Three million registered readers in the most powerful country on earth! All the news that's fit to print! You betcha. So I sat up for an hour or so, cracked out an article on Blair, Bush and Iraq, and fired it off to the charming NY Times op-ed editor, whom I shall call Tobin, because that is his name.
Tobin and I spoke the following day, after a long surgery in Henley town hall. 'Boris,' said Tobin, 'we love it! Everybody loves it. But we have, uh, a few issues of political correctness that I have to go through with you.' There followed a bizarre hour-long negotiation with New York, as I sat in the Grays Road carpark, and Tobin read out the politically correct version of my piece. I want to stress that Tobin was at all times a model of humour and cordiality.
At every stage, he seemed to imply, he was running up against the NY Times hierarchy. It wasn't he who objected, I gathered, so much as a procession of sacerdotal figures, each in his or her glass box, each with his or her name on the masthead, sitting in judgment over correctness and style. There was nothing he would have liked more, he seemed to say, than to accede to my vulgar, unpasteurised British journalism. But the longer our conversation went on, the more I felt like that professor in the Philip Roth novel, the one who gets sacked for using the word 'spooks,' and who was thought, mistakenly, to have been referring to blacks.
Some of the changes were unobjectionable. For American readers, Tony Blair leads the Labor party. The NY Times is too grand to call Rumsfeld 'Rummie,' and nothing happened last autumn; it happened last 'fall.' Fair enough. But I started to get a floaty, out-of-body sensation when he said that he had made a change to a sentence about donations of U.S. overseas aid to key members of the UN Security Council. I had said something to the effect that you don't make international law by giving new squash courts to the President of Guinea. This now read 'the President of Chile.' Come again? I said. Qué?
'Uh, Boris,' said Tobin, 'it's just easier in principle if we don't say anything deprecatory about a black African country, and since Guinea and Chile are both members of the UN Security Council, and since it doesn't affect your point, we would like to say Chile.' In the end, I gave way on this, since it was getting cold and I was worried about the battery of my mobile. But my views of the NY Times were starting to evolve.
How craven and mealy-mouthed can you get? Why is a mild insult more bearable because it is directed at a crisis-ridden Latin American country, rather than a crisis-ridden African country? Is it, heaven forfend, because one country is Hispanic and the other is black? That was nothing, however, to the trouble I had with a sentence about the aftermath of the war.
I was trying to explain that so many people, in the commentariat and in the saloon bars, had invested so much emotional and intellectual capital in the anti-war cause that in a perverse way they would be hoping for disaster. To illustrate the point, I noted that the last Gulf war had been so amazingly free of casualties that Gulf war syndrome (a stochastically unexceptional ragbag of symptoms) had been invented to fill the void, and to satisfy the yearning of the anti-war brigade for catastrophe.
'We just cannot say this,' said Tobin. 'You could say this, and I wouldn't disagree with you. But this administration takes Gulf War syndrome seriously, and so does this newspaper.' You must be joking, I said. OK, so my point was vigorously and perhaps provocatively made, but wasn't that one of the objectives of journalism? This was not the New York Times speaking in propria voce. These were the opinions of a British Conservative MP, and I would, of course, take all the consequences.
No dice. Tobin was immovable. 'It's got to come out,' he said, and it did. In the whole poker game, I took only one trick. Tobin had told me at the outset that he had 'issues' with my introductory sentence, and we reverted to this problem at the end. The sentence was very short. It was a sarcastic reference to Rumsfeld's offer to go ahead without a British contribution to the war effort. Rummie's words struck me as deeply embarrassing for Blair, who had made such heroic efforts to spin the case for action in Iraq, and who had expended such prodigious quantities of political capital in support of Bush.
The intervention also sounded faintly dismissive of the 35,000 British troops who are about to engage in the liberation of Iraq. So I began the piece with the words, 'Gee, thanks, guys,' and Tobin wanted those words removed. For the life of me, I couldn't see why.
All right, it was a bit colloquial, but the idea was to try to be snappy, and to draw the reader in: the New York Times might be grand; she might be a crinolined beldame of political correctness, but surely she could tolerate a little slang. At last, Tobin revealed the true concerns of his multitudinous line-editors and page-editors.
'OK, Boris, I'll tell you what the problem is. Our problem is that "Gee" is an abbreviation for Jesus. For a century this has been a Jewish-owned paper, and we have to be extremely sensitive about anything that might offend Christian sensibilities.
'We can say "God", "God" is fine, but we have to be very careful about anything that involves the name of the Lord and Saviour.'
'Jesus H. Christ,' I said, 'this is insane. This is utterly insane. I really think we ought to try to get that one in....'
Tobin who, as I say, was at all times a very reasonable and understanding editor, finally agreed to consult the Brahmins. There was a long pause, and I imagined him going down a corridor of glass boxes, as the question was referred to ever higher authorities on what was permissible.
'OK, Boris,' he returned at length. 'We can go with "Gee''.'
'Gee, thanks, Tobin,' I said.