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Diary: Adam Boulton

My weekend with Obama

I've still not quite worked out the relevance of the bald, popsicle-chewing, Greek-American TV cop, but Kojak's catchphrase "Who loves ya, baby?" was as good a way as any for Sky News's ebullient Washington fixer and blogger, Jon-Christopher Bua, to break the news by phone that our year-long efforts had paid off. "You've got an interview with the president - but they want you to go to Ghana to do it."

The Obama White House has an informed respect for the British media, but doesn't grant interviews for the sake of it. Before the London G20, Obama talked, naturally, to the Financial Times. The BBC's Arabic services gave the corporation the advantage before his Cairo speech, so he prepared the ground with their correspondent Justin Webb. Now his third British interview is with Sky News, which is also widely viewed across Africa.

The strategy is to keep the Brits on international policy. When we finally do get to talk, the president blames "Fleet Street trying to sell newspapers" for stories that suggest he resents Britain over colonial treatment of his Kenyan relatives. "I love the Brits," he reassures me.

A few hours earlier he'd reminded the Ghanaian parliament that Martin Luther King had attended their independence day to see "justice", and that "my grandfather was a cook for the British in Kenya, and though he was a respected elder in his village, his employers called him 'boy' for much of his life".

Africa is a perfect place to get the president to talk about the issues of race that he usually seeks to brush aside - especially after his family have toured the slave fort at Cape Coast. His daughters, Malia and Sasha, seem shocked, and their parents comfort them; but Obama says it is "important for Malia and Sasha, who are growing up in such a blessed way, to be reminded that history can take very cruel turns . . . and that any group of people who are degrading another group of people have to be fought against".“Do you represent post-racial America?" I ask him. "I don't use that term," he replies, "because it implies that the door is closed to any issues of race. And I don't think that's true."

Obama is as blunt with Africa as he is with his daughters. Bill Clinton played the crowds in Ghana and George W Bush jived to the drum music. Barack Obama just gives excited onlookers a gracious wave before getting down to business. He is the first US president with "the blood of Africa" in his veins, so for him it's time for home truths. Never mind "hope": in an admission of his impatience, he inverts his campaign chant of "Yes, we can" to "Yes, you can" to ram home his simple premise that "Africa's future is up to Africans".

I interviewed George and Laura Bush a year ago, and though some of the flunkeys - official stenographers, photographers and even water bearers - are the same, there's a contrast in styles; and not just because the Bushes were by then preoccupied with legacy, while Obama is still beginning his long journey. Bush shook hands, posed with the camera crew, signed autographs, chatted and spoke off the cuff. Obama is cool, almost brusque. He likes "to think before I open my mouth" and engages closely with questions, usually giving
a direct answer. This is both unusual for a politician and something he has in common with his immediate predecessor, even if his eloquent paragraphs are the opposite of Bush's folksy soundbites.

Already Obama has given more news conferences, interviews and televised remarks than some presidents manage in a whole term, becoming known as "the great explainer". His technique is the same at home and abroad - make the case directly to the people: get them on side, and the political classes will follow.In ideological terms, Obama's economic and foreign policies are broadly similar to Gordon Brown's, but the president is not struggling like the Prime Minister. He didn't lead his country into its financial predicament or help commit it to controversial wars in the Middle East. Obama has done pretty well, but he's yet to deal with a major crisis all of his own.

By advance request of the White House, this was an interview without neckties. The president would be in casual clothes and would appreciate it if I was, too. Given the muggy heat of Ghana and Obama's dignified self-assurance,
open collars made no difference. But tie-manship is often part of the sparring involved in a one-on-one interview - especially in hot countries. At a Commonwealth retreat in Cyprus, I had to lend John Major my tie so he could record his reaction to the shock of the Shankill Road bombings, and it was a similar situation at a Summit of the Peacemakers in Sharm el-Sheikh as we searched for the least sun-drenched corner (it was next to the dustbins) so Major could make his first comments on the Dunblane massacre.

In Abuja, Nigeria, I kept to my tie for the sake of continuity, even though Tony Blair insisted on being casual. I've seen even the great David Frost get caught out. When I helped produce his election interviews for breakfast TV in 1987, there was some doubt whether Mrs Thatcher would deign to give us one. David nonchalantly interviewed David Owen, David Steel and Neil Kinnock open-necked - and then Thatcher came through. It took much argument about balance before David was persuaded to take her on without the courtesy of a Sunday-best tie. Eventually, he did so. But, under her disapproving gaze, we were one-nil down before kick-off.

Adam Boulton is political editor of Sky News

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country