The photo that changed US opinion

Talking to Jimmy Young on Radio 2 the other day, I told him that Janet Reno was "absolutely" ready to use force to free Elian Gonzalez from the distant relatives illegally holding him in Miami. Being the grand old hand that he is, JY seized on the implications immediately: "With 12,000 people who don't agree with them around there - my goodness, that could be nasty," he replied. He saw what most of us - but not the rest of the world's media, apparently - could foresee weeks ago: with Cuban- American fanatics determined to parade poor little Elian around as a political trophy and boasting that they would die rather than hand him over to his father, the world's most famous six-year-old was never going to be freed as a result of a polite knock on the door from the US equivalent of PC Plod.

But what has been most worrying about the whole Elian saga, I fear, has been the malleability and ready polarisation of US public opinion. Polls as late as Good Friday showed that the public was - by a majority of at least 60-40 - in favour of re-uniting Elian with his father (who had been his primary parent in Cuba, incidentally). The ailing Reno, weary from Parkinson's disease and the obduracy of Cuban-Americans who insisted that Elian was somehow their property and that they had a right to flout US laws so brazenly, showed enormous restraint in her reluctance to use force: when she finally did so, only eight people entered a house to liberate Elian in three minutes. No bloodshed, not a bullet fired, nobody even slightly hurt.

Then, along with Republican extremists and all Clinton-haters, the US media decided that the operation was A Bad Thing - and public opinion (plus international media coverage, naturally) followed like lemmings. The Miami Herald brought out a special edition with the banner headline "Elian Seized". A facile twit on the MSNBC news channel, speaking of the Associated Press photograph showing the rescue of Elian, pronounced that "it is feared . . . this photograph will have an incendiary effect" and referred to the US government's "excuse" for the rescue mission. More than 48 hours later, a no less fatuous hackette on Fox News was complaining that Janet Reno "has still not apologised" for what happened.

The inevitable then transpired. By last Monday, such incendiary media coverage had reversed the balance of public opinion: 48 per cent of the public approved of the mission, but 49 were against. I remember much the same process happening with the Lewinsky affair: those same media lightweights were pronouncing that Bill Clinton was finished (with papers such as the Times duly following their lead across the Atlantic), while the lone voice of the NS predicted he would easily survive. In the same way, I suspect, public opinion will now swing back in favour of Reno's action.

Why? First, Marisleysis Gonzalez - the 21-year-old woman frequently described as Elian's "surrogate mother" for the past five months, although she has actually been in hospital at least eight times during that time for "mental exhaustion" - had let it be known that, inside the house in which Elian was being kept, "there's more than cameras waiting for anybody who comes after him": a clear implication that anybody sent in to free the little chap would be shot at (and a threat lent extra weight by the fact that two of Elian's other cousins, the Cid brothers, have long US police records involving violence and illegal possession of firearms).

Second, the "fisherman" who rescued Elian last November and just happened to be in the bedroom that Marisleysis and Elian shared when the 5am raid was carried out, is no fisherman at all. He's actually the tattooed owner of a house- cleaning business that exploits Latino women; his cousin on the boat that rescued Elian will now have nothing to do with the fiercely self-righteous propagandising of the Cuban-Americans and their unholy melange of voodoo, sentimentality and Catholicism.

In short, Reno decided that the extended family holding Elian - besides showing no respect for the laws of the adopted country they purport to love so much - was a) dysfunctional, b) unstable and c) downright dangerous.

That MP-5 9mm machine-gun the world saw in what the "fisherman" revealingly described last Monday as "the miracle photo" was, therefore, sadly necessary to protect the lives of the men and women sent in to get Elian. Although Americans certainly do go in for over-the-top militarism in civilian operations, here was a case where it would have been downright irresponsible not to send the team in heavily armed for the quite likely eventuality that they would face gunfire. The "miracle photo", needless to say, was taken by an AP photographer invited in by relatives who knew they were creating the scenario that unfolded, but that they could use the resulting photo for incendiary motives: a PR agenda in which Elian was sole victim.

So, just as they did over Lewinsky, the Republicans are already busily shooting themselves in the foot. The same sleazy politicians who tried to get Clinton over Monica are now determined to get him over Elian, but they will experience the same backlash as soon as public opinion realises that Reno's operation was both necessary and desirable to uphold family values: child psychologists are unanimous in thinking that those three minutes when Elian was retrieved were infinitely less traumatic than the five months he has endured with his propagandising relatives in Florida. Now he is with the loving father he has so self-evidently needed since last November.

If only there were a few more Jimmy Youngs this side of the Atlantic who could calm the country down.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone