There’s a whole world beyond Washington’s Beltway, and Peter Ryan is glad Michael Brissenden found it.
When I was posted to the United States back in 1991, I received some sage advice from one of my ABC bosses back in Sydney. "It's not all about Washington politics, you know," I was told. "Get outside the Beltway whenever you can to see the real America. Don’t be a hostage to the US networks. Talk to real people and send back stories about slices of American life."
I was also reminded that while Washington was the global hub of politics and diplomacy, it was not necessarily the best vantage point to tell American stories through Australian eyes.
As soon as I got through the initial jargon (like issues being "inside the Beltway" of freeways circling a very insular Washington DC), the biggest challenge was making new contacts and sidestepping the demands of producers in Sydney for daily news items that defied the advice I was given on the eve of my US adventure.
With the prodding of producers from the ABC’s newly created Foreign Correspondent program, I found myself occasionally released from daily TV news and dispatched to corners of America to file postcards on topics ranging from an accent reduction school in Atlanta to a university for rodeo wannabes in Wyoming.
So not surprisingly, I was immediately attracted to Michael Brissenden’s American Stories: Tales of Hope and Anger, knowing that as the ABC's only foreign correspondent dedicated to television current affairs, he had a brief beyond the news grind that would take him far away from the Washington Beltway into American suburbs and households.
His book is framed around his posting to Washington. This has coincided with President Barack Obama's tumultuous first term, where expectations have been high but results decidedly "mixed" – to be generous.
Unlike my 1990s experience of the United States – which was initially shaped by America's victory in Gulf War 1, the end of the Cold War, the demise of George Bush (senior) and the rise of Bill Clinton – Brissenden's journey is made in a post September 11 world and the ongoing war on terror.
The challenges facing President Obama are immense and extreme, such as gun control, health care (Obamacare), the growing Hispanic demographic, the perception of America's Muslims and divisive issues over a mosque near Ground Zero in New York.
And then, always in the background, there's the still unresolved global financial crisis that was born in the US through the greed, mismanagement and unethical behaviour of Wall Street. It's the basket-case economy Barack Obama inherited from George W. Bush which today even optimists describe as "frail".
As Brissenden points out, with unemployment still high at 8.1 per cent, President Obama's re-election in November is largely dependent on a deluge of better economic news combined with any gaffes or campaign road disasters on offer from the Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
Barack Obama knows that any achievement on the global stage (such as the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan) can be meaningless to many voters while there's an economic crisis at home.
Obama might be regarded as a "foreign policy president" outside US borders, says Brissenden, but at home he knows "it's still the economy, stupid" – to paraphrase Bill Clinton's one-time chief strategist James Carville in the 1992 presidential campaign.
But the running theme throughout Brissenden's sharp observations is the rise of the "Tea Party" and the, at times, extreme far-right lobbying on God, guns, immigration and preserving a view on "the American Way".
Brissenden has had the privilege of travelling far and wide, courtesy of his main ABC assignments for Foreign Correspondent and 7.30, which have been enhanced through the commissioning of American Stories.
Those stories are about divisive policies and promises, but they shine through despite the sometimes confused and contradictory words of real people. The words and images are often captured by Walkley-winning ABC cameraman Louie Eroglu, whose skills as a lensman are globally acclaimed.
Brissenden portrays a nation at the crossroads. On the one hand, it is either in a fragile transition or stalemate, but there’s also a nation that is prospering in new corners rather than simply surviving.
Brissenden's easygoing and simple style resonates throughout. His highly regarded storytelling ability reminded me of his previous career bullet point as The 7.30 Report's political editor, where his nightly analysis was required viewing for anyone with an interest in national affairs.
He succeeds in explaining the highly complex issues challenging the American lifestyle and survival in a jargon-free, interesting and often entertaining manner.
This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the challenges facing the United States, or any journalist considering a career as a foreign correspondent.
Brissenden acknowledges the ABC's commitment to foreign coverage and, more importantly, primary sourced journalism – an area which is under threat in these days of budget cuts and demands on correspondents to report "live" rather than leave the bureau of the Beltway.
American Stories: Tales of Hope and Anger by Michael Brissenden, UQP, RRP $29.95
Peter Ryan is the ABC’s business editor. He was a TV correspondent and the ABC’s Washington bureau chief from 1991 to 1996.