The Magazine

Even Happier than the Democrats

Europeans greet the election news with glee.

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
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Berlin

I RECALL a friendly dinner party in Bonn while Ronald Reagan was president. As usual, I was on the defensive. The other guests were piling on--"Reagan is a cowboy, a warmonger, an idiot-actor"--when suddenly a German guest decided he had heard enough. "Hey, let's not get carried away," he said "and condemn all Americans just because of this cretin in the White House." I'd like to say these over-the-top opinions reflected only the company I was keeping, but these sentiments were pretty mainstream at the time. So I had to laugh when the German media later eulogized Reagan as the man who helped bring down the Berlin Wall.

Will George W. Bush ever get his due? I sat with a group of left-wing Haaretz journalists in Tel Aviv recently, all of them deploring stupid Bush's disastrous foreign policy. Simultaneously, they more or less acknowledged that Bush has forever changed the conversation about democracy and the Middle East to the benefit of humankind.

I cannot think of a single European I know who will admit publicly that he likes the president of the United States. Joy has spread across Europe over the midterm elections. More than two hundred Socialist members of the European Parliament have praised the result as "the beginning of the end of a six-year nightmare for the world." Bush is bad, goes the mantra: bad for human rights, bad for the environment, bad for world peace, you name it. French author Bernard-Henri Lévy, yearning for that "better" America, wrote recently that midterm elections might overturn the 2000 and 2004 victories of the "'moral values' maniacs." I keep wondering why people find so much pleasure in hating this president and what he represents.

Of course, there are policy differences. But how can you explain so much heavy breathing about Bush and Kyoto, for example, when nearly all Democrats in the Senate, John Kerry included, had already rejected the treaty by the time the current president arrived? By the way, 15 E.U. countries who signed the thing have been having trouble complying with their own obligations. On Iraq, maybe things would have been different if we had found weapons of mass destruction. But then again, nearly everybody thought Saddam was hiding WMD and no one runs around screeching that the Clinton administration lied or that Germany's Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer is a monster.

I have a theory. Several years ago, I helped convene a conference in Prague in parallel to a NATO summit going on at the same time. On the last evening of the summit, Czech president Václav Havel kindly invited our conference participants to attend a state dinner at Prague Castle. Chirac, Blair, Schröder, all the leaders from NATO countries were there. So was President Bush. One of our participants was a Gore adviser, who went up to the president at dinner and introduced himself. The president recognized this fellow, greeted him warmly and, turning on a dime, said to the French president standing nearby, "Hey, Jacques, I want to introduce you to a friend of mine." The president then took a short walk with this Democratic adviser, asking along the way about advice for new exercise equipment for the White House. In the end, my Democratic colleague was charmed by the warmth and down-to-earth quality of his encounter with the commander in chief.

If I tell a group of Americans this story, they tend to be impressed. Love him or hate him, the story suggests that Bush is a real mensch. If I tell this story to Europeans, and I've done so several times, they either look disgusted (as in--"how unsophisticated, how unstatesmanlike!") or their faces go blank because they don't quite understand the anecdote. And so my simple theory: Bush's greatest sin in the eyes of Europeans is that he is too American.

I get the feeling that when Europeans say they really like Americans, they tend to mean those who seem most like European Social Democrats, and even then they airbrush out inconvenient details like the fact that Bill Clinton favored the death penalty, that Hillary voted for the Iraq war, or that John F. Kennedy, that suave and promiscuous East Coast liberal, was also a staunch anti-Communist who frequently quoted from Scripture in his speeches.

George W. Bush is the full package of everything that makes Europe squirm. He is undiluted Americanism. He is anti-elitism. He's religion and piety. He's morality and muscle. He's patriotism and self-confidence. He is rather like that dreaded American animal, the "neoconservative." I gave an interview recently to the German weekly magazine Stern. Talk about a fixation. Question one: Would a victory for Democrats in the midterm elections mean voters are repudiating Bush's neoconservative policies? Question two: In light of failed U.S. policies, is neoconservatism utterly bankrupt? And so on.