A special delivery for voters in Ohio

October 24, 2004|By G. Jefferson Price III

BRITAIN'S THE GUARDIAN newspaper, formerly of Manchester, now of London, has been a part of my life practically since I was old enough to read. My father subscribed to the newspaper's international airmail edition and would derive great succor from its leftist inclinations.

When I joined The Sun as a reporter in 1969, my great dream was to become a foreign correspondent.

Coincidentally, The Sun's impressive adventure in reporting from overseas began in London in 1924 with an office next to what was then called The Manchester Guardian at 40 Fleet St. The Guardian had a great influence on The Sun reporting from London.

Now, as it turns out, one of my favorite friends, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American newspaperman, Albert Scardino, is executive editor of The Guardian. I visited him at his office in London last month, arriving as the news meeting was under way. This is an extraordinarily freewheeling encounter every morning among editors and reporters speaking their minds openly and provocatively.

There was no hint then that the newspaper was on the verge of an intrusion into the American presidential race that supporters of President Bush would come to view as the most dastardly British act on American territory since the sacking of Washington 190 years ago.

This month, the spirit of the news meeting moved to a pub where Guardian reporters and editors conceived the idea to start a letter-writing campaign to American voters, alerting them to the importance of the presidential election, not only to Americans but to the rest of the world.

The Guardian targeted Ohio, one of the most contested states in the presidential race. Mr. Bush won Ohio in 2000 by about 4 percentage points. For a fee of $25, the newspaper obtained a list of independent voters in Clark County, Ohio, which Al Gore carried by a little more than 300 votes in 2000. From that list, it culled the names and addresses of 36,000 voters.

Then, in a venture named "Operation Clark County," the newspaper invited readers to volunteer to write to voters in Clark County. Readers would alert The Guardian of their interest by e-mail, and the newspaper would reply with one name for each interested reader to write to until 14,000 names were distributed. They would have distributed more if the newspaper's computer system had not crashed -- probably due to sabotage. The Guardian said its campaign ended Thursday.

The readers were not told what to say. Actually, they were encouraged to be "diplomatic." But the anti-Bush sentiments of the newspaper are well-known, and it's reasonable to assume that most of its 400,000 subscribers share that view -- as most Britons do. Moreover, The Guardian published the text of sample letters written by three prominent Britons, including author John Le Carre, which were decidedly opposed to the Bush presidency and the war in Iraq.

Mr. Le Carre wrote: "Maybe there's one good reason -- just one -- for re-electing George W. Bush, and that's to force him to live with the consequences of his appalling actions, and answer for his own lies, rather than wish the job on a Democrat who will then get blamed for his predecessor's follies."

The reaction to the letter-writing campaign has been astonishing, far beyond the wildest expectations of anyone at The Guardian. Coverage of the campaign has been worldwide. The newspaper's Web site has had tens of thousands of visitors beyond the usual number, which is in the millions. Mr. Scardino told me by telephone from London last week that the response has been "hideously successful ... four times the response to any story ever."

The reaction from Bush supporters also has been stunning -- frighteningly so. Mr. Scardino told me that 50 percent of the reaction has been "really nasty." Hackers who Mr. Scardino describes as "known right-wingers" invaded The Guardian's Web site and inundated staffers with hundreds of e-mails. Rush Limbaugh devoted a large part of a show to a denunciation of The Guardian's campaign.

Supporters of Sen. John Kerry have weighed in against The Guardian campaign, too, expressing the fear that in such a tight race, the backlash might cost Mr. Kerry valuable votes.

Mr. Scardino acknowledges this concern, but, he adds, "There is also a concern about a state of affairs that exists that make it a concern."

This election is everyone's concern, not just the concern of Americans, for the outcome will have an impact that is felt around the world. Foreigners are not entitled to vote in our election, but they have a perfect right, if not an obligation, to let us know how they feel. God knows, we spend a lot of time telling a lot of other countries how to run their affairs.

So, I'm grateful for what The Guardian started as a lark and delighted to see it turned into an energetic expression of opinion -- to put it mildly.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former editor and foreign correspondent for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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