It was the kind of glittering occasion at which John Kerry and his wife would feel at home. There were millionaires in tuxedos with their Botoxed and bejewelled wives, graceful daughters with flawless skin in evening gowns, members of the Kennedy and Hearst dynasties and, because this is New York high society, there were artists surrounded by their patrons and benefactors.
They had come to celebrate the National Arts Awards, but it was also the night of the final debate between Kerry and George W Bush. A special room was set aside for the dinner guests to watch the ding-dong on a big screen while eating petits fours and quaffing champagne.
Andres Serrano, the artist responsible for Piss Christ, one of the iconic images of the late 1980s culture wars, was rooting for Kerry. Wedged between two beautiful women, he enthused: “The debate’s going well. Kerry’s winning over the audience here.”
Indeed. There were laughs and applause for Kerry, groans for Bush. Jeff Koons, the celebrated pop artist, was standing by the bar. “There’s got to be a change for the future of the country,” he told me soberly.
Then Koons became unexpectedly open-minded. “This administration” — he couldn’t bring himself to say Bush — “has supported the arts. In this particular area, they have been generous.” But never mind such parochialism. “For the good of the country, it’s time for a change,” he repeated his mantra.
So here I am in deep Kerry territory, surrounded by designer Democrats who are far wealthier than me, harbouring a secret and deeply untrendy thought.
Darn them all, despite being a registered Democrat — and in my London days a staunch Labour supporter — I am going to vote for George Dubya.
When the metrosexual chap standing next to me confides that urban sophisticates prefer Kerry because “you have to have a low IQ to appreciate Bush”, I know I am making the right decision.
“The guy is an idiot,” he continued snobbishly. “I don’t know what the rest of the country is thinking.”
Perhaps I can enlighten him. I will be one of the millions voting for Bush because I trust the president’s judgment on the war on terror more than Kerry’s. In this election, I am a single-issue voter. It is that simple. Even in the New York metropolis, there are more of us out there than he imagines.
I have registered as a Democrat because I want to put the party on notice. Should it lose the election — an open question at present — I want it to look at the numbers of Bush-supporting Democrats and draw the appropriate lesson about its unconvincing foreign policy. Perhaps then I will be able to support the party in 2008.
My vote for Bush involves a fair amount of gritting of teeth. I am not a Republican and do not care much for the company he keeps. Back in Britain I have voted Labour since I was 18, sticking by the party through its wilderness years when it veered towards the extreme left.
I was political editor of the left-wing New Statesman magazine in the early 1990s when two bright MPs, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, embarked on their quest to make Labour electable. They succeeded so brilliantly that Labour dominates the political landscape. If I could vote for Blair in the American elections, I would. Unfortunately his name is not on the ballot.
Thanks to my mother, a lifelong Democrat from the swing state of Ohio, I have dual citizenship. I live in New York now and will be casting my vote in America for the first time. My decision is based on a straightforward proposition: I do not want the global jihadists and women-hating fundamentalists to be celebrating Bush’s defeat. They do not deserve to win, even if Bush deserves to lose, a position I am not quite willing to concede.
Tax cuts for the rich? Kerry can roll them back with my blessing. It is not a matter that affects me greatly. The deficit? Perhaps he will reduce it, though I’m sceptical. Abortion rights? By all means, let’s hang on to them. Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research? Good idea, I hope it works. Health? I would love to see more people insured. The death penalty? I’m against it even for terrorists, which puts me to the left of the Democrat candidate.
But, if Bush is ousted, there will be victory celebrations across the undemocratic Arab world. More “martyrs” will step forward, eager to play their part in the decline of the West. The fundamentalists are playing a long game: is Kerry? I suppose pollsters could classify me as a “security mom”: I have two children, aged four and seven. After the attacks of September 11 I feared we were entering a new, war-torn century. The peaceful years of my childhood, in contrast to the violence experienced by my parents’ generation, suddenly looked like the historic aberration.
I was standing next to the World Trade Center, gazing in horror at the torment above, when the towers collapsed. I was showered with pulverised masonry and the ashes of nearly 3,000 people. I decided fairly quickly that America was a beacon of freedom that needed defending against the anti-western, freedom-hating religious bigots and death cultists. I am determined my children will grow up in a world of increasing democracy where terrorists are captured, tyrants overthrown.
When Bush said in last week’s debate: “We can be safe and secure if we go on the offence against terrorism and if we spread liberty around the world,” I felt he spoke with conviction. When Kerry said he was going to “hunt and kill” the terrorists, I heard a politician’s soundbite.
Can it be that I am politically to the right of all those millionaire arts patrons? If so, I don’t accept that label. On foreign policy, Bush is the idealist and Kerry the conservative, afraid to disturb the status quo. I’ve never abandoned my belief in human rights and democracy.
I did manage to tempt one person out of the closet at last week’s awards ceremony. Alexandra Wolfe, 24, the daughter of Bonfire of Vanities novelist Tom Wolfe, confessed she was intending to vote Republican.
“If I say it out loud, it’s death,” she whispered. “In a place like this, people look at you like you are a freak. I believe in abortion and I totally believe Kerry is right on some social issues, but I just don’t trust him on terrorism.
“I feel that Bush has the character to say, ‘They did us wrong, and I’m going to get them back.’ Kerry can talk the talk, but that’s all he’s good at.”
I confess I am irked by the Massachusetts senator’s personality. With his patrician ancestry, going back to the Puritans on his mother’s side, he acts as though he is born to rule. School friends recall his insufferable vanity about sharing the same initials as John F Kennedy.
With limited means of his own, he has a fondness for heiresses that Jane Austen would have recognised. His first wife was from a family worth $300m. When they separated, Kerry was forced to live on his own relatively meagre salary. Thus began his years as “Cash and Kerry”: he has the distinction of having taken more money from lobbyists in Washington than any other senator, Democrat or Republican.
Only when he wooed and won the hand of Teresa Heinz, the billionaire baked beans widow, was Kerry again able to indulge in the agreeable elite life to which he feels entitled.
I could perhaps overlook that, given that Bush is also from a privileged family, but I cannot forgive Kerry’s complacency on foreign policy.
In a magazine interview last week Kerry recalled his reaction to the September 11 attacks. “You know, my instinct was, where’s my gun?” His all-too-characteristic pander to the gun lobby — he is always going on about shooting small, defenceless creatures — did not impress me when he went on to say: “I mean it didn’t change me at all. It just sort of accelerated, confirmed in me, the urgency of doing the things I thought we needed to be doing.”
And what would they be? Given some of the Democrats’ hysteria over the National Commission hearings last spring into the September 11 attacks, you would have thought the correct policy would have been for American fighter jets to blast all four hijacked civilian airliners out of the sky before they hit their targets — as if that could ever have been done in a pre-September 11 world — and launch a total war against Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts after the bombing of the USS Cole.
Now that really would have been warmongering. But Bush’s policy of pre-emption is not. He has been acting on the basis of an actual attack on America and is pinning his hopes for a peaceful future on bringing democracy to former failed states and tyrannies such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Is that so terrible? Christopher Hitchens, the left-wing British writer who lives in America, said he first understood the uncompromising nature of Islamic fundamentalism when Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced a sentence of death on his friend Salman Rushdie in 1989. The ultra-liberal Rushdie’s only offence was to write a novel, The Satanic Verses.
Although the penny did not fully drop at the time, the fatwa helped Hitchens later to make sense of the attacks on America. To the fury of his old comrades, he too will be voting for Bush in November.
I also had a formative experience in 1989. I was a cub reporter at the London magazine Time Out when I covered the campaign by Yusuf Islam — Cat Stevens — to gain state funding for his Islamia school in Brent, north London. I was ambitious to seek out foreign stories as a freelance and had heard that an obscure group called Hamas was becoming a force to be reckoned with in the occupied territories.
I was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and wanted to know more about these upstart challengers to Israel and the PLO. But how could I possibly gain access to Hamas? I rang my contacts at the Islamia school and bingo! I was immediately put in touch with their leaders in Gaza, whom Cat Stevens was flying off to see that very month.
I took two weeks’ holiday from Time Out and set off for the occupied territories with a black chiffon scarf over my head. On arrival in Gaza I was disturbed that the Hamas leaders I met would never look me in the eye. To them, it was indecent even to glance at a member of the inferior sex. All their answers were directed at my boyfriend, who was taking pictures. But they were co-operative and eager for publicity.
We were taken upstairs in a mosque and, to my shock, were introduced to a dozen or more would-be suicide bombers in their mid-teens, who declared their fervent wish to martyr themselves for their cause.
At the time, there had been no suicide bombs in Israel. Some Hezbollah members in Lebanon had blown themselves up, but they were Shi’ite Muslims: Palestinian Sunnis were not supposed to go in for that sort of thing. Yet here I was, looking at a bunch of boys with kaffirs masking their faces, brandishing knives and practising karate in a place of worship. These weren’t boy scouts in a church hall; they were being trained to become fanatical killers by their religious elders.
When I heard the other week that Cat Stevens had been refused entry to America, I thought good riddance.
When mosques are raided by US forces, I am not surprised. I know mosques are used as terrorist bases. I expect most of the young men I talked to are now either dead or sitting in an Israeli jail. They were triumphalist about the global spread of Islam and confident that it would one day dominate the planet. They hated the West, they wanted to kill Jews, and none of them had ever heard of George W Bush.
So has Bush inflamed hatred in the Arab world? Yes and no: he certainly did not start it. One of the most unconvincing arguments advanced by the Democrats is that the jihadists favour a Bush-Cheney victory. I don’t buy it. Their leaders are on the run and no government will afford them safe haven. They have not yet managed to pull off another attack on America. It is hard for Bush to boast about this, lest he tempt fate, but he deserves some credit.
On September 11, 2001, a global wave of anti-Americanism was unleashed. At worst, Bush’s “you are either with us or with the terrorists” rhetoric has allowed people all over the world, from western intellectuals to the so-called Arab street, to give voice to a latent but virulent pre-existing hostility.
At best, he is advancing the cause of freedom and democracy. I was very moved by the long line of Afghans queueing to vote for the first time in their lives last weekend. Overwhelmingly, they were proud and happy to cast their ballots.
Plenty of Afghans voted along tribal lines, some voted early and often and many women voted the way their husbands ordered or did not vote at all. But western democracies have had their own experience of rotten boroughs and tribal strongholds. In Britain women were denied the vote less than a century ago: did that make the election of David Lloyd George illegitimate? Even today some women let their husbands decide their vote.
Kerry has nothing to say about Afghan democracy. His official campaign website still whines that the Afghan presidential elections are “seriously threatened by the prospect of warlord intimidation”, despite the fact that they have already taken place peacefully.
I remember one occasion when the left was determined to see voting take place. In 1994 I was in South Africa reporting on Nelson Mandela’s historic campaign for president. There were so many vicious necklacings that some rightwingers predicted civil war between the African National Congress and the Zulu party, Inkatha. There were calls for the elections to be postponed.