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Schmemann: Europeans Fascinated with Obama 'Phenomenon'

Interviewee: Serge Schmemann, Editorial Page Editor, International Herald Tribune
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
March 31, 2008

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Serge Schmemann, a veteran journalist based in Europe, says the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign has generated “a bigger stir than any election I can remember.” He says of the three main front-runners, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) has generated fascination “as kind of a new face of America that everyone wants to believe in.” The extraordinary nature of this year’s campaign has also meant more European correspondents exploring the United States outside of Washington, leading to more nuanced and improved coverage of U.S. issues.

How big a story is the U.S. presidential campaign in Europe these days?

I’ve lived abroad quite a few years and watched quite a few elections and this one is really creating a bigger stir than any election I can remember. There are many reasons for this but probably the greatest one, the starting reason, is that George W. Bush is easily the most hated president in modern history. The disdain for him has been sometimes quite extraordinary, so the interest in the election began with the notion that somebody new is going to come in and something will change. And so, there’s been huge expectations and therefore a lot of interest.

Why is Bush so hated?

There are several components to this but the key component is arrogance, a sense that Bush looks so dismissively on the rest of the world. This view holds that almost from the start he looked on the world and its needs, its opinions, and its history as something far below his attention. Almost everybody speaks of his arrogance. There is also a notion of Bush as a “cowboy” who was going to do it on his own and the rest of the world is either with us or against us and ultimately we don’t care which they are. This negative view is really quite impressive. I sat next to a diplomat who may be the next secretary of state, so I won’t name him, but he was listening to a conference and just leaned over and said, “Is it always like this?” I said it is always like this and he found it hard to believe.

With Bush so disliked, I guess in the first instance, most people anticipated or at least hoped that a Democratic candidate would win?

Most people did anticipate that. But we should look at the Obama phenomenon. This stems, in part, from a sort of global love-hate view of America which I’m sure that you’ve found in your life abroad. America is a country blamed for everything. It is also a country that everybody looks up to. There is an ideal image of America that is very strong in Europe, an almost utopian America that everybody believes in and everybody has a favorite memory of in the past—some smiling GI saving someone in World War II or [President] Jack Kennedy, who was very popular here. This kind of idealism has focused on Barack Obama. Obama here is always “the black candidate”—he’s going to bring back this great era of pure America. The wiser editorials step back from that but the fascination of Obama as kind of a new face of America that everyone wants to believe in has been quite strong.

Does it resonate for instance in Paris in the suburbs, where the Algerians and people of color live?

Very strongly, very strongly. Not only among people of color but also among the rooted, so to speak, those Europeans who feel that America is once again doing something that we in Europe are still not capable of doing, even though France does have the son of an immigrant as president.  They see that America is a country that is capable of electing an African-American, something that Europe still sees itself as incapable of doing. There is a sense that there is a certain hurdle being cleared here—a historic hurdle—which is very strong. Obama is on the cover of so many magazines that Der Spiegel actually wrote a cover story about that. The headline was “Messiah Complex,” about what Obama has come to represent in Germany especially and elsewhere as well.

What about Hillary Clinton?

I would say this is really getting into generalities. McCain and Hillary come in pretty much as equal seconds. Hillary has some popularity but less as a woman than as a Clinton. [President] Bill Clinton was very popular here and remains very popular. She does continue to carry the Clinton aura. They were happy with Clinton as president. He was popular in Europe ; he came to Europe , he laughed with Europeans, he was perceived to understand them. There is a hope she would be the same. She goes over well; there is no antipathy towards her but also no magic.

McCain is perhaps more interesting. Actually in Germany , if not elsewhere, he’s quite well-known. He used to always come to the annual Munich security conferences and got a lot of coverage. His story is told, retold, and retold. The photograph of him on crutches, being greeted by President Nixon [after his release as a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war] has been in every publication. His legend has played big. He is also seen, in many ways, as championing some very positive policies. For example, his strong stance against torture is hugely applauded here. He is seen as the man who stood up to the White House more strongly than anyone else on torture. And his policies on other issues basically resonate with European businessmen and governments.

McCain was recently in Germany, France, and England. Did meeting with President Sarkozy of France get much coverage?

He does get attention and everybody is aware that he has a huge advantage now that he can act presidential. He is not feared. He is definitely not seen as a continuation of Bush. He is seen as a popular figure. McCain has a fascinating history. Obama is this kind of messiah. Each one attracts interest in his or her own way. I was at a meeting at the Frankfurt Chamber of Commerce and moderated a panel. One of the questions that everybody asked was why would Clinton and Obama not form a ticket. It’s hard to explain to Europeans why two people so strong and so close on all issues would not combine to create the strongest possible ticket. That part is not entirely clear to people and I know that I failed to explain it adequately.

Let’s talk a bit more about Obama because to me it’s absolutely inconceivable that a person of color could ever run for highest office in any European country. I guess in Europe the whole story must fascinate people.

It fascinates people, definitely. You know it does raise exactly the kind of thinking that you mentioned—“Is this possible in my country?” Europe may be coming there, but in this kind of continent of nation states where states were formed around ethnic nations, the whole notion of an outsider becoming president is in itself quite new. Sarkozy, whose father was Hungarian, whose mother is Jewish, that in and of itself was an enormous novelty and is discussed endlessly. He was the first president not to come out of the French elite system and I think many countries are getting ready but they are not there. They have different national histories; they’ve had different relations with their colonies and the degree to which their former colonial subjects have been allowed to come to the mother country and how they are perceived.

All of that is very different from American history. America has always been a multiethnic society and country. The notion of somebody who is different becoming president is a threshold we’ve crossed with the Catholic Jack Kennedy, and with other thresholds. Here it’s more difficult but it may happen. I think personally that Obama just by demonstrating it, by showing it, by forcing the notion of a black man becoming the head of a major country will accelerate the process here as well.

Was there much attention to the whole episode with his preacher?

That was not so big here. His speech on race did get considerable note. But here the notion that some preacher said some things, in particular, an African-American, does not create quite that stir. It’s not seen as being so horrible, it’s seen as “Hey, that’s part of the culture he comes from.” The little things that become such big news in America are not the big issues here. Here it’s more the broad outline of their stories and their positions then the small little tactical moves that we focus on. Obviously from a distance you see a slightly bigger picture.

There has also been considerable fascination with the whole political process and an effort to explain what all this is about. There’s also one more phenomenon that is worth noting. In general, the European correspondents in America stick close to Washington and get a lot of their information from Washington and the American press, television and Internet, of course. One thing that was always lacking was an appreciation of the rest of the United States . I’ve been to conferences where this is discussed. They talk of budgets and pressures and this and that. Occasionally some European will go and do a tour across America . People will be amazed by the descriptions of Idaho or wherever. This campaign has gotten correspondents out there. They’ve just found that there’s no other way to try to explain the primaries than to go out there. There’s actually been reporting from across the major states and cities and counties, where reporters have actually gone out and gone to Chicago , gone to Iowa and talked to people. This campaign in a way has helped create a far more accurate picture than the one you usually get which is very, very Washington-centered. That is something that I hope will last.

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