May 25, 2002


Until you laugh at plastic fish, Bush will be a mystery (Ben Macintyre, May 25, 2002, Times of London)
Bush is the most American American President since Ronald Reagan. George Bush the elder was a classic East Coast cosmopolitan, with the patrician’s easy ability to blend and schmooze. Bill Clinton was the foreign tourist par excellence, with a chameleon knack for taking on the colour of his surroundings. But Bush is as irreducibly Texan as Reagan was Californian, and for that reason, again like Reagan, most Europeans don’t quite “get” Bush, and probably never will.

The Bush mystique is almost untranslatable abroad. To appreciate it you need to have shot the breeze in a baseball dugout; you must find the sound of a train’s whistle keening across a night prairie the most beautiful music on earth; you must believe that Norman Rockwell was a great artist, wear cowboy boots without irony and know the quiet pleasure of eating Cheez Doodles in front of the Super Bowl. It is not so much the vision thing, as a pretzel thing. [...]

Part of Bush’s appeal to Americans is his sense of humour, which also happens to be the aspect of his nature that Europeans find hardest to grasp. This is a President who would usually rather say something funny than anything profound. In the three years I covered France’s President Jacques Chirac, he never once made anything resembling a joke: but during Bush’s presidential campaign, the candidate lived on an endless diet of practical japes, nicknames and gags, some horribly ill-timed, such as the occasion when he attended a funeral for the victims of a gun massacre and spent the entire time waggling his eyebrows at the press.

Watch Bush approach a microphone. Even when he has something crucial to say, the eyes crinkle round the edges, the lip twitches, the eye twinkles. His is a specifically American form of democratic chumminess, the establishing of a communal wavelength, code for: “I may be President, but we’re the same underneath.” Americans immediately read this code, which is far more sophisticated that it looks; Europeans see a man mugging for the cameras.

During the election campaign Bush was delighted to be presented with a “Billy Bass”, one of those plastic fish on a wall mounting that break into song and remain amusing for about two days. He showed it all around the campaign plane. Only later did it transpire that Bush had been sent hundreds of these things from voters around the country: telling proof of quite how clearly America knew, and shared, his sense of humour. Jacques Chirac would open a vein rather than been seen with a singing plastic fish. [...]

Compounding the culture gulf, Bush is a happy man. I don’t mean that he is smug, or one-dimensionally cheery. He is occasionally capable of expressing profound emotion. But he is comfortable in his skin, his religion, his family and his office. This has done wonders for American self-confidence at a time of the most profound trauma. If the first half of his presidency had been more placid, Bush’s natural optimism might swiftly have lost its appeal, but for many Americans something in Bush’s sunny and straightforward personality has provided an antidote for September 11.

Quite apart from his policies on the environment, Iraq and terrorism, Bush offends French sensibilities in a country where the President is expected to be aloof, cerebral, grave, private, formal and intensely serious. Thus, while France sees a caricature of crass America, much of America sees continuity, familiarity and reassurance.

Clinton was spiritually part European, but Bush’s popularity at home, and his unpopularity in much of Europe, lies partly in his refusal (or inability) to temper his Americanness. [...]

This is a good profile, though if I didn't know better, I'd swear Mr. Mcintyre had plagiarized the whole thing from Frank Bruni's fine book, Ambling into History.

Mr. Mcintyre's assessment offers what's probaby a pretty easy way to divide the Red states from the Blue : would you rather your choice for president have this said about him, "the most American American President since Ronald Reagan", or this "spiritually part European"?

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 25, 2002 10:36 AM
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