Rocking his way to the White House

January 24th, 2007

(Guest blog by Anushka Asthana, education correspondent of The Observer.)

Three thousand young people, packed into an auditorium, jumped to their feet and started cheering and shrieking with joy. It was as if a rock star had stepped on stage.

In fact, this was Barack Obama, a rising star in the Democrat party who the Washington Post had sent me to interview. Next month, the senator from Illinois will take his first step towards becoming the first black president of the United States.
Interviewing Obama was just one highlight in three months packed with once-in-a-lifetime experiences when I was the Laurence Stern fellow, last summer.

Top editors at the Post gave me a huge amount of time and support, and trusted me to write a host of stories.

In the run up to the 2006 mid-terms I was sent to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to cover one of the most hotly contested races for the House of Representatives. I spent time with scores of locals discussing how the Iraq war and domestic issues such as health care and immigration were affecting their vote. When it came to the election it was one of the seats that the Republicans lost.

As well as being an amazing journalistic experience it was also great fun. I was taken on an airboat ride over the Everglades and managed to spend an afternoon in Miami.
UK and US politics are vastly different and spending time in Washington DC in an election year was a huge learning experience. I met senators and representatives, sat in on hearings over the Iraq war and worked alongside some of the country’s most renowned journalists.

I was able to write stories about the president, Congress and federal agencies and also given the freedom to work on issues close to my heart such as race and women in politics.

It was a different world of journalism than that back home and I had to adapt to it. I was amazed that political reporters there rarely even expressed their opinions in the newsrooms – people wrote news or comment, never both. Leonard Downie, the editor, has not voted since he took up post.

There was a different style of reporting, different style of writing and a different set of values – ones that I will let future fellows judge for themselves.

On a personal level, my time in the US also went some way to breaking down stereotypes I had heard about the country. I also met some of the warmest and most welcoming people I have ever come across and in the time that I was given to travel (I chose California) saw some of the most magnificent scenery.

But the thing that caused most excitement among my friends had to be the fact that I twice travelled on Air Force One to report on the president. I was standing close by when George Bush made a speech on the war on terror in Atlanta and watched as he shook the hands of soldiers about to travel to Iraq.

For me, it was just one of many remarkable experiences during my time as the Laurence Stern fellow.

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