In Europe, Bush Amazes and Confounds the Natives

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George W. Bush, our 43rd president, has a lot in common with our 41st: their names are the same, for one; they have virtually identical prep school and Ivy League credentials; and they each have the same maddening habit of mangling the English language. But "43", as he's called inside the White House to distinguish him from "41", wasn't supposed to be anything like his father when it came to their favorite policy spheres. The elder Bush was a foreign affairs aficionado who far preferred dialing up his old friend Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to talk about the Middle East than putting the squeeze on a no-name congressman to vote for some education or tax bill. The father's indifference to domestic policy cost him a second term, a lesson the son never forgot. Which is why George W. Bush ran as a domestic policy Republican, and why his enthusiasms run to things like mandating school testing, expanding the role of faith-based charities and cutting taxes. Foreign policy was foreign to W, and, during the campaign and early months of his presidency, it showed.

Exceeding expectations abroad

So last week, as we hop-scotched with the president through five European countries in five days, the traveling press corps was on the look-out for signs that would confirm 43's inexperience in and his distaste for the art of diplomacy. He definitely had his moments. In Sweden, Bush was expounding on the spread of AIDS in the Third World when he confidently told reporters, "Africa is a nation that suffers from incredible disease." And in Spain, his first stop, the President committed the novice's faux pas of actually kissing a Queen (Sophia) — once on each cheek — when protocol requires that a commoner's lips never get near those of a royal. (Perhaps Bush thought that as a distant relative of Britain's Queen Elizabeth he was exempt from the protocol.)

But Bush's mistakes were relatively few. And far from coming across like the reluctant, unpolished player on the world stage that we had expected, the president seemed to relish the experience. He was so pumped up after his meeting with other NATO leaders in Brussels that he nearly leapt from behind his podium during a press conference with NATO chairman Lord Robertson. Later, dropping by Brussels' finest chocolatier to pick up some truffles for the press and his staff, Bush drove aides to distraction when he wouldn't stop chatting with journalists about how well he had been received at the NATO meeting. Bush loves to be underestimated, and you could tell he was enjoying the fact that everyone from European prime ministers to the White House press corps was surprised at how smoothly the trip had gone so far. "You get the feeling he likes this stuff?" asked one incredulous government official. "Who woulda thunk it?"

On the last day of his trip, in Slovenia, Bush's newfound enthusiasm for foreign affairs may have gotten the better of him. The President emerged from a two-hour meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin gushing about how the former KGB agent was a man who was "trustworthy" and whose "soul" Bush had been able to see. Instead of comfortable and confident, the comments made Bush seem naive and gullible. The White House has spent the past few days trying to reassure conservatives that the president hasn't suddenly gone soft on Moscow.

Misunderstanding the Moon

Bush had a mixed experience in Goteborg, Sweden, where European Union leaders chided him for abandoning the Kyoto climate change accords and protesters labeled him the "Toxic Texan." Still, the president seemed to enjoy his first foray into real foreign policy, as if he were suddenly coming to realize what his dad loved about it all those years. Outside his hotel in Goteborg, several thousand young Swedish demonstrators held what they dubbed a "mass mooning of George W. Bush." In the end, fewer than 50 of them actually dropped their drawers and pointed their derrieres in Bush's direction. When I asked one young female about to participate if she would explain the meaning behind mooning the American president, she revealed a serious lack of understanding of the true nature of the man who leads the free world. "Bush is extremely conservative," giggled 21-year-old Carin Alnebratt of Karlstad. "If he were a Swedish politician, mooning him wouldn't work because he'd think it was funny. But because Bush is so close to the church, he'll be offended by it. And that's what we want."

"Did you know Bush was the president of a fraternity in his college?" I asked Carin.

"No," she said suspiciously. "What's a fraternity?"

I explained and then asked, "Did you know that mooning people was a favorite pastime of fraternity brothers across America?"

"No," she replied, looking worried. "So maybe we shouldn't moon? Maybe he'll like it?"

"Bill Clinton would definitely have liked it," I said. "Bush may not like it, but he'll probably think it's funny." In fact, I told her, a woman had once mooned Bush in Pennsylvania during the presidential campaign as he went by on a slow-moving train. "You just got yourself on national television!" Bush shouted with a laugh. "You're damn right I did," the woman shouted back.

Carin looked depressed. She nodded and walked away.