THERE are very few times when I have met an American politician and thought: "Ah, yes, this person is a superstar." It happened with Bill Clinton in October 1991. And it has just happened again, with an American state governor who has been visiting Scotland.
In Clinton’s case, I was waiting in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Manchester, New Hampshire, at about seven o’clock in the morning when this large, red-faced, sweaty and smiling man in jogging clothes bounded in with the enthusiasm of a newborn lamb. Since I was the only person in the lobby, the lamb bounded over to me, struck up a conversation and convinced me in the course of a few minutes that he might, just, have a chance at being president of the United States.
We talked for a long time, and met again later in the day when he agreed to do a TV interview. In the interview, he was doubly impressive. Clinton has that rare quality of being able to break through the TV glass and talk - it seemed - personally to everyone watching. When I met or watched Clinton many times over the next eight years, even in the gloom of the scandals, I was always struck by his superstardom. He had the ability to light up a room, and he still does.
WELL, in the past few days I have had the chance to meet someone most Europeans - and most Americans - have never heard of, but a man I would confidently tip for political superstardom (barring the usual accidents which cause the best-laid plans to collapse.)
He is Governor Bill Owens of Colorado. Owens is a tax-cutting conservative Republican from a mountain state in the American west, about as far away politically from Bill Clinton as you can imagine, and he has been visiting Scotland (including a trip to watch Celtic and a number of discussions about trade and other economic matters in London.)
Governor Owens shares at least two extraordinary Clinton qualities - charisma and intelligence. I hate to suggest that policies are irrelevant. They are not, and Governor Owens’s views (he is strongly anti-abortion, for example) will attract some people and repel others, just as Clinton’s did. But Owens impressed me as a man with the Clinton hunger for knowledge, ambitious and shrewd.
Since he is a strong supporter of George W Bush, I interviewed him for about half an hour for HardTalk on News24 on Mr Bush’s foreign policy, mostly Iraq. Whether you think US policy is right or wrong, what impressed me about Governor Owens was that he defended the Bush administration better than most members of the administration themselves manage to achieve. In a country where state governors sometimes do not know much about the world beyond their own borders (like Mr Bush himself just three years ago), Owens is far more like Clinton, a politician who seems too big for the politics of his home state.
He is at ease discussing America’s role in the world, trade and protectionism, how power should be used, why America is hated in so many places, America’s presumed arrogance, and all the difficult issues which leave some members of the Bush administration perplexed, irritable and floundering.
I have met US Senators who have a vague notion about the existence of China, Russia and Europe, but for whom most of the world remains a mystery. I have also met American politicians who confuse Iran with Iraq, the IRA with the UDA.
In about three years’ time, the Republican party will start to look for a candidate for the presidency in 2008. Maybe then you will have cause to remember the name of Bill Owens.
THE clichd view, of course, is that politicians are an odious bunch. But if you ask British people, as the BBC did a while ago, who was the greatest Briton of them all, they plump for a politician, Winston Churchill. My guess is that if you asked around the world who the greatest living person is nowadays, the vote would be for another politician, Nelson Mandela.
Ask Americans if they have any living heroes and (beyond the usual team allegiances to sports stars), I’d guess that Ronald Reagan would get the American vote. It is not politicians as a class that we suspect. It is - quite rightly - people in positions of power.
FOLLOWING some thoughts on Italy in this column last week, a friend tells me he was sitting in a street corner caf in a big Italian city when three well-dressed businessmen sat down and ordered coffees. The men began an energetic discussion, and it was only then that my friend noticed they had placed on the table between their coffee cups five mobile phones. Five mobile phones for three sets of ears? Can anyone beat this record?
Gavin Esler is a presenter on BBC2’s Newsnight.