I was standing in line for Bowling for Columbine in Brussels not long ago with two writer/editor friends, when a 15-or-so-year-old Belgian boy in front of us turned around and inquired, "Excuse me, are you Americans?" Given his typical-American-teenager looks, we figured he had a question about Michael Moore, or perhaps Michael Jordan or even Michael Jackson. Instead, he asked, "Do you support attacking Iraq without a second Security Council resolution?" Next up he wanted to know why our "defense minister" had insulted France and Germany by referring to them as "Old Europe" just because they didn't want to "do everything Bush wanted them to do."
Such anecdotes, the fodder of foreign correspondents for centuries, are virtually meaningless as evidence of the views of entire populations, but the young man was on solid ground. My friends and I were attending a meeting sponsored by the Parliamentary Group of the Party of European Socialists. Two things struck me about the discussion at the meeting, which was divided into politicians on the European side--including former prime ministers and spokespersons for parties in and out of power from various NATO nations--and writers/intellectuals on ours. The first was the eloquence of the Europeans. They spoke for that boy, but with a command of the issues that would have made every one of them just about the most articulate member of Congress, save perhaps Barney Frank. (And most of them in English, too.) The second was that they spoke their minds without fear that their words would be twisted to imply that they were "soft" on terrorism, crime, pornography, child kidnapping or whatever the prevailing bugaboo might be in the US media. They could afford to be subtle.
Things are different, to say the least, over here. I have been a consistent proponent of the view that George Bush is often only pretending to be a moron, but the fact that he can (almost) get elected even pretending is painfully telling. For the second time in just over two decades, the nation is represented by a President whose knowledge of history, economics, sociology, political science, etc. would not get him through freshman courses at our best universities. (Insert rich white-guy affirmative-action joke here.)
If you take a careful look at Bush's State of the Union address, as the folks at www.liberaloasis.com  did, you will see that the entire thing collapses as a mountain of gibberish at the slightest examination. The Washington Post coverage of the speech described as its "boldest facet" Bush's proposal to turn federal dollars away from drug treatment centers and toward religious extremists on the model of Marvin Olasky, the ex-Communist, ex-Jewish, conservative Christian proselytizer. Bold? How about lunatic?
And what of Iraq? Michael Kinsley, who has apparently cornered much of the franchise on logic among respectable pundits, quotes some of the Saddam Hussein horror stories Bush offered in support of his obsession with invading Iraq and wonders just what their purpose might be. After all, we are not about to invade Iraq because of human rights violations. The idea was supposed to be that Hussein plus weapons of mass destruction plus (someday) nukes represented an unacceptable security threat. But "what happens," Kinsley asks, "if Hussein decides to meet all our demands regarding weapons and inspections? Is he then free to torture children and pour acid on innocent citizens without fear of the United States?"
And don't forget--just because Bush did--Saddam's "Axis of Evil" sidekick, nuclear-armed North Korea. When Bush advises us to "learn the lessons of the Korean Peninsula and not allow an even greater threat to rise up in Iraq," he appears to be arguing that we should have invaded them too, back when we had the chance. "But as Bush sets it out," Kinsley notes, "the 'lesson' of Korea seems to be that if you don't go to war soon enough, you might have a problem years later that can be solved through regional discussions. That doesn't sound so terrible, frankly." Again, parse a single sentence and Bush might as well be speaking pig Latin.
Bush greased his path by inviting a few of his media buddies over for a pre-SOTU "background" luncheon. If he did this more often, Ari Fleischer could just play golf every day. Acting White House stenographer (and Washington Post columnist) Michael Kelly quoted "a senior Administration official" demonstrating "an iron determination to wage war against Iraq, no matter what, if war is necessary." When Bush again offered the still unproven and apparently false charge that Saddam was operating with Al Qaeda as "part of, and partners in, the war of terror against the United States," Kelly passed it along without changing a comma.
But Kelly sounds like Izzy Stone next to Peggy Noonan. Quoting her "high Administration official with intimate knowledge of the President's thinking," Noonan discovered that the President, "truly, is a good man...courageous...[with a] profound authenticity to him, and a fearlessness too." Heard enough? Tough luck. Bush also has "a steady hand on the helm in high seas, a knowledge of where we must go and why, a resolve to achieve safe harbor. More and more this presidency is feeling like a gift." (Uh, Peggy, it was. Address your thank-you note: United States Supreme Court, Washington, DC.)
My friend and fellow moviegoer Rick Hertzberg attributes the sorry state of just about everything in American politics to the faulty quality of our institutions. If we had the good sense to adopt European styles of proportional representation--coupled with desperately needed campaign finance reform--we would be rewarded with European-quality leaders who could express their values with eloquence and courage, without fear of seeing their words deliberately distorted beyond recognition in order to exploit the ignorance of the average voter. He has a point. But what of the almost complete abdication of responsibility on the part of our permanent political class, including most particularly the punditocracy? What's its excuse?
As apparently any Belgian 15-year-old could tell you, America's "senior Administration official" has no clothes. From much of our media, however, we get little besides fashion reporting.