On the Road in America’s Election Year

When my great-uncle passed away in 1967, Mum and Dad went through his things, which turned out mostly to be unpaid bills and notes in a small pocket diary of slow horses and bad bets. None of this came as a surprise, as Cyril had spent the last several years of his life hiding from bookies and their duns, some of that time camping in our garage, which caused Mum no small degree of resentment. She had harboured a visceral dislike of the man from their first meeting and this only grew as he put the bite on Dad for loans that would never be repaid. The fact that his final imposition was to burden them with his funeral expenses testifies both to his profligacy and my parents’ decency. Despite everything, they wouldn’t countenance him going to Potter’s Field.

There  was one thing, however, that made even Mum smile. It was a shoebox of old snapshots and letters from the Thirties, when he had not yet run through the family fortune, an effort in which he was allied with my no less profligate grandfather. The most entertaining of that correspondence came from and went to America, where Cyril had worked (’employed’ would be a better term, as he worked only at his own humbling) for a California oil company. It seemed there were claims he had somehow disposed of a quantity of large-diameter pipeline material which was not his to sell, after which he decamped suddenly and without notice back to Melbourne. Then as now there were slow racehorses in California. His carbon-papered response to the accusations of grand theft were rib-ticklers. Such aggrieved and offended innocence professed on page after page! Cyril had, as they say, more front that Myers.

The Box Brownie snapshots of his journey to and from the US were no less a delight. They are lost now, gone with Mum and Dad and the clearing out of old cupboards, which is a great pity as they speak of another age. White-suited with a cane, I recall snaps of him aboard some or other steamship, always with a smile that must surely have been a factor in the propagation of various distant cousins and half-cousins who came to light only when testing for ancestral DNA became possible and popular. A rogue and sometime scoundrel, what I most recall is a towering figure, never without a tie and what I suspect were hand-tailored suits, who would slide from behind the wheel of his 1948 Chevy and toss me high into the air. Despite Mum’s disdain and my father’s weary “he’s family” rationales for continuing to bail him out, I loved the man. He gave me my first cigarette at what could have been no more than the age of eight, taught me the point value of the variously covered snooker balls and — Lord, but the authorities would have him by the ear these days! — a first taste of distilled spirits, the retch-worthy memory of which made it easy to take the tea-total pledge some years later when the Melbourne monsignor who presided at my Confirmation laced his talk of tongues of fire and the Holy Ghost with a call to swear off Demon Rum until the age of 25. Cyril would have been tickled that the commitment to alcoholic abstinence survived barely longer than he did.

The advice I particular remember, especially today as I type by the pool at a cheap but safe Florida motel (‘We provide 24-hour security’), was that I should make a point to visit the United States. Disneyland was on the telly every Sunday night at 6pm, to be watched fresh from the bath and already in pyjamas, and of course that destination was a ten-year-old’s first fancy. It wouldn’t have been his though, the not-to-distant Hollywood Park race track being for his tastes a far more compelling amusement. America was “a dynamo”, he said, which puzzled me at the time because I knew the word only as referencing a small, silver, bottle-shaped affair which could be pushed against the front tyre of my bicycle to make the headlight glow.

Years later, when Jimmy Carter was in the final year of his hapless presidency, I journeyed as Cyril bid and touched down in San Francisco. It was March of 1980, I was 24 and the blessed holder of a letter from the editor of Sydney Sun-Herald that informed US Immigration I would be working for a few months as a reporter in Fairfax’s New York bureau. My friends all made the traditional dart to London for a year or two of Bazza McKenzie-ish revelries, which struck me then and now as foolish. What was the appeal of a destination chiefly notable for warm beer, industrial strife, crap jobs and life in Earls Court’s ghetto? America, that was different, so very different. Where in class-conscious England my Strine would have marked me at first syllable as another one of the many flat-voweled same, in the States as I traveled by car, train and bus from West Coast to New York it was an invitation to converse, to stay a night or two, and in Texas to empty a Tommy gun’s .45 calibre magazine into an old car at my host’s ranch barbecue. That sort of thing didn’t happen in Kent.

I spent not months but 27 years in the US, married, had a family, worked for various US newspapers and magazines, built a profitable business with Joanne, my now-ex, and punctuated all that with regular trips back to Melbourne, where my parents aged in stop-frame impressions every time I found them waiting to welcome me at Tullamarine’s arrivals gate. When they were no longer up to making the short trip from Altona to airport it seemed time to return. I’d given them a lot of grief, caused them much expense as a child and teen. Time to balance the books.

Thing was, though, America had changed me. I’d arrived a Whitlam-loving lefty, still angry at the Dismissal, half convinced it had been a CIA coup and fully certain Ronald Reagan would blow up the world. I left all those years later inspired by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, the Fourth’s prohibition of warrantless searches and, with some reservations, even the Second’s right to bear arms as an antidote to the tyranny the Founding Fathers perceived lurking deep and dark in the heart of any democracy. More than that, there was the dynamism of entrepreneurial capitalism and free markets. The trans-Pacific contrasts were stark. In the US, by way of illustration, cable-TV companies were free to dig their trenches, bury wires and take their chances with gaining enough subscribers to make those investments worthwhile. In Australia, it was inquires, committees, panels of worthies and governmental requirements that, ultimately, resulted in just one big player, Sky, restricted choice and much larger monthly bills. It’s likely Cyril never heard of Joseph Schumpeter, but his paen to America’s dynamism was the Austrian’s creative destruction.


TODAY, I’m now far to the north of warm Miami, having crossed crossing wintry Georgia and, if a looming snow storm permits, heading further north to the Iowa caucuses, where on January 15 the presidential election season begins in earnest. With the exception of 2020, when Covid’s hysteria forbade Australians leaving or arriving — something the authorities tried and largely failed to implement across all the US — I’ve covered every White House race since 1980. In 2016, when Trump pulled off the impossible, I’ll modestly note that, after driving from Florida to New York, I urged Quadrant readers to back Trump at 6-1 because the signs were everywhere that Hillary Clinton’s confidence was misplaced. There were very few front-yard posters supporting her, but hundreds for Trump. In bars and diners, the sort in which the US press corps wouldn’t be caught dead, it wasn’t that those I encountered were gung-ho for MAGA, rather that the word ‘Hillary’ prompted wrinkled noses and brief words of dismissal and disdain.

What followed were four years of outrages I could hardly credit of the America I knew. Russia! Russia! Russia! The two unsuccessful impeachments engineered by congressional committees stacked with out-for-blood Democrats. The suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story. The partisan debasement of the FBI. And, oh dear, most painful of all for a reporter — that would be me — the mainstream media’s abrogation of the responsibility to report fair, square and honest. (If you want to see a local example of how that fractured reporting filled simple minds with lies and twisted ‘facts’, just read today’s Silly Morning Herald editorial. Even by SMH standards, such as they are, it’s a compilation of nonsense and, as Trump would say, ‘fake news’: Trump’s second shot at president (sic) a danger to the US and the world)

So here I am and will stay, God and good health permitting, operating out of a wired-up campervan that will be Quadrant Online’s office for the duration of the campaign.

Great-uncle Cyril was right, America is too much to miss, especially this year when so much is on the line.

14 thoughts on “On the Road in America’s Election Year

  • Lonsdale says:

    Roger’s Trump campaign coverage was brilliant. Suddenly 2024 is looking good … whoever wins

  • Peter Smith says:

    Roger, you might profitably (for me) explain next time how the Iowa caucuses work. Safe travelling.

  • Sindri says:

    Roger, it sounds like there may be an entertaining book in your 27 years in the US.

  • wdr says:

    Wishing you well.

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    Apart from usual commitments its been hard to decide if its worth following the US election.
    That ‘spare’ time is already taken historically by Pell and Voice, amply assisted by your journal.
    Independently its been a slog to follow Ukraine and only now have passing interest in ‘Climate Change’ as the world slowly grinds to the realisation that catastrophe is not inevitable or likely.
    The Higgins saga has little to go and will be “Lost in France in Love,” never to return.
    At the moment I look at Breitbart, which paradoxically publishes the Trump arguments, often in full and mostly the Democrat reply.
    Breitbart has cooled on Trump.
    Alternatively I watch SBS stream of US, ABC news and the Public equivalent to get a pure Democrat line.
    Anecdotally I have been told no one watches these in the US yet we seem to get it here.
    Perhaps its free to SBS.
    A clean feed from an authentic Australian reporter, rather than a Reuters cover story, would be most refreshing.
    Speaking to a Registered Texan republican recently he confided that the biggest fear for Democrats was that Biden would shuffle off his coil and the deputy would end up being president.
    On the Republican side he suggested that Nikki Hayley would be good, a diplomat and ,of course, the first woman president, not that we hear the Me Too movement evincing that.
    He is frightened that Trump would get in, perhaps for our correspondent to elucidate, but would prefer Hayley to Trump.
    On the polls Trump is line ball with Biden.

    • lbloveday says:

      “On the polls Trump is line ball with Biden”.
      Not so with bookmakers, eg Bet365 and Ladbrokes both have 5/4 Trump, 9/4 Biden (or 2.25 3.25 in the new lingo). Haley’s third in the market at around 7/1..

  • David Isaac says:

    Just because Whitlam was a Fabian who needed to go doesn’t mean the CIA wasn’t involved in showing him the door as they did to Allende. Forty-four years on from your first arrival America is far less American than it was then, mired in debt and divided against itself. Where did it all go wrong? Americans are deeply divided over the answer to that question too.

  • john mac says:

    Article of the year so far Roger !

  • ianl says:

    Informative and entertaining article.

    It would be of great value for an accurate summary of the state of play in the SCOTUS hearing on whether State Courts or State officers can kick people who they don’t like (or even fear) off the ballot paper. One can easily see the “red” states playing at that too.

    By state of play I include the all the legal oobie-doobie shuffling and timetable plays, including all the hard “must-be-done-by” dates, prior to any actual hearing. Accurate information on this sequence is just not available through the Aus MSM. Sudden, unexplained to us, timetable changes to the case will be tensioned to breaking point.

    I admit to some surprise that the SCOTUS agreed to hear the case prior to the primaries, if indeed that is what they have actually agreed to. The possibility of cities burning in riots irrespective of the outcome is real, I think, as we’ve seen this happen earlier.

  • pgang says:

    I’m very jealous Mr Franklin, not just of your campervan but also of the decision to head for the USA while young, rather than Blighty. Why, why didn’t I choose California, the home of everything a young man could want? I think the no-visa entry to Britain had a lot to do with it.
    As for those dynamos, I never met one that didn’t bring the pushie to a dead stop after about ten metres of struggle. Your Disneyland experience is also weirdly reminiscent of our household. Of course with the older teenage sisters there was always some friction with Mum about watching Countdown instead.

  • lbloveday says:

    “Trump’s second shot at president (sic) a danger to the US and the world)”
    Maybe they plagiarised The Economist’s Leader of Nov 16, 2023, titled:
    Donald Trump poses the biggest danger to the world in 2024

  • Stephen Due says:

    According to Biden et al Trump is “a threat to our democracy”. Trump is certainly something of a threat to their agenda, which involves corruption on steroids – and never telling the truth unless it is absolutely unavoidable. As to their ‘democracy’, it is a strange beast. It involves rigged elections, using the courts and the FBI to terrorise and persecute your political enemies, flagrant vote-buying with tax-payers funds, invoking non-existent sex scandals to smear your opponents, and going to no end of extreme lengths to prevent the other party’s candidate from standing for the office of President.
    With his ‘threat to our democracy’ mantra, Biden has effectively declared that anyone who supports Trump is what the US elites are now calling a ‘domestic terrorist’. As the January 6 saga drags on, what would ordinarily be considered an unruly mass protest has been labelled an ‘insurrection’. This sort of language ties the case against Trump to the machinery for dealing with enemies of the State. Like everything else associated with the Woke corporate-elite alliance currently in power in the United States, this use of language is disconnected from reality. But in today’s virtual world – the parallel universe of the board rooms and government offices – reality is immaterial, except to the extent that, like bad language, it can be regarded as offensive.

    • john mac says:

      Great post , Stephen , As Trump said “They’re not after me , they’re after you ” . Wasn’t a fan until he ran and then watched the Dem/media let loose the dogs of war on him , unrelenting for 7 years and he just laughs it off ! Most people would have been destroyed by this but his focus is off the charts . All because he had the audacity to beat shoe-in Shrillary .

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    I’m reading this five days late, Roger, sorry about that. Something you showed in your piece on your experiences in New York on 9/11 is that you are a very fine writer as reporter. This new venture looks like promising to equal in excellence that previous on-the-ground journalism now that you’ve set the scene for us. I hope you expand it into a book of road reports from America, straight from the roadside diners and speakeasy motels and high-roller haunts and wherever you find yourself in these United States. And then you might write another about those 27 years as an Australian journeyman in the US, lost in translation, with your Aussie accent as your calling card. Waiting to hear more.

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