There he was again, the forefinger jabbing the air, the handsome head cocked ever so slightly to one side, the familiar rising cadence, the uplifting, inspirational words. It was 1963 revisited, courtesy of the History Channel's fine retrospective, JFK: A Presidency Revealed. A million Germans were cheering wildly once more to "Ich bin ein Berliner"; thousands in Ireland were crying and waving to "I'll return in the springtime."
It all brought back half-buried emotions that teared up the eyes, but it also brought sober reflection. When has another American president ever received such heartfelt acclaim abroad? Perhaps Woodrow Wilson, when he arrived in Europe to attend the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference, carrying a generation's hopes and dreams for a better postwar world in his attaché case. No other instances came to mind. Kennedy, like Wilson, was hero-worshipped overseas because he represented the best America had to offer, and when we put our best foot forward without obvious ulterior motives, they do like and admire us.
Contrast June 1963 with November 2003. What a difference 40 years makes. Here was another American president, George W. Bush, skulking through London under heavy security, avoiding protesters and the public, sneering at the Fleet Street press, delivering a dour, somber speech not to Parliament (where he would have been heckled) but to the closed-door session of a private think tank -- and then hightailing it for home. Bush in London was the complete antithesis to Kennedy in Berlin: America at its worst.
The president's shadowy twilight mystery tour through the capital city of our "strongest ally," whose citizens by and large view him unfavorably, is said to have raised his political currency, but the tenor of the visit belies it. Prime Minister Tony Blair's grim visage and tortured body language suggested one of those cute tee shirts with the horizontal arrow and the message that reads, "I'm with stupid." Prince Charles, performing his pro forma obligations as a host, imparted the enthusiasm of a military draftee facing KP duty. Only the queen, approaching her dotage, appeared taken with the Bushes, but, then, she's had years of practice at projecting royal insouciance in difficult social situations.
Things are not all that different here at home. Just as Richard Nixon during the Vietnam era, the increasingly besieged president speaks in public only before carefully selected and dependably friendly audiences -- at military bases, defense-industry complexes, conservative campuses, and the like. He appears mostly in staged settings, usually before gigantic American flags, and preferably in the South, where his martial stance and cultural conservatism are in line with regional tradition. A Bush appearance in the liberal Northeast or on the West Coast is comparable to an Elvis sighting. The current occupant of the White House is not the president of all the people, and he knows it. More to the point, he evidently doesn't care.
He also loses little apparent sleep over the world's opinion of him, and that accounts for the dismissive quality of his brief, superficial encounter with live Britons, as well as his nose-thumbing decision not to cross the English Channel and engage firsthand with the leaders and citizens of Continental Europe. It never occurred to the president that Europeans might have something constructive to say to him -- or maybe it did, and he didn't want to hear it.
George W. Bush's sole outreach seems directed at his domestic political base: the Christian fundamentalist right, the secular conservative ideologues, and the corporate business establishment. If they're with him, he's happy and satisfied. The problem is: He can't take this approach and still pose as leader of the nation -- to say nothing of the broader world. Narrow parochialism and ideological exclusivity are a large part of the reason Bush can't generate a Kennedy-style emotional appeal and also why he can't command international respect and a foreign following.
There are other reasons. The president's belligerent rhetoric (with us or against us, etc.) serves him well before audiences of the far right; it obviously fires up the GOP base. But the world is a global village now, and every vituperative Bush phrase, every sarcastic inference, every instance of unilateralist bombast is seen or heard by millions abroad. They neither like what they hear, nor appreciate its implications. Democratic presidential aspirant Richard Gephardt summed up this aspect of the current president and his nationalistic foreign policy with a schoolyard reference. Bush, said Gephardt, "doesn't play well with others."
The Missouri congressman is on to something. Words obviously matter, but so do actions, and George W. Bush's swaggering tone is matched by his go-it-alone operating style; it's his way or the highway. When it comes to Iraq, there will be no United Nations involvement except on Washington's restrictive terms. There will be no sharing of reconstruction contracts with estranged former allies. There will be no collective military occupation that implies cooperative decision making. There will be no democratic self-government for Iraqis until we say so. The world may send its soldiers to be killed and its money to be spent, but as far as participation in strategic and tactical planning or future restructuring are concerned, forget it.
The same mindset is applied to other intractable global problems. Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bush backs Israel's rightist Sharon government, and that's that. European and Middle Eastern appeals for an evenhanded approach go unheeded. As for Iran and North Korea, they're just part of the Axis of Evil. Forget negotiations. End of story. On terrorism, the entire Third World is suspect and a potential target for American arms. Nuanced views and subtle distinctions are beyond the pale. Even in international trade relations, failure to kowtow to administration views on globalization results, as Brazil has learned, in being placed on an economic enemies list and being treated with contempt.
Given this record and the attitude that produced it, is it any surprise George W. Bush's London visit was a less than stellar success? The wonder is that he was invited at all. America's cowboy diplomat has managed to place a new spin on the ancient advice to travelers abroad, to wit: "When in Rome, do as you damn well please."
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.