Financial Times Gerard Baker: A callow cowboy stumbles By Gerard Baker Published: May 29 2002 19:50 | Last Updated: May 29 2002 19:50 For a moment it looked as if Jacques Chirac had swallowed something unpleasant. The French president gazed uncomprehendingly at George W. Bush, his lips pursing and then opening in what looked like a Gallic gasp for air. It was halfway into a press conference in the Elysée Palace on Sunday afternoon and Mr Bush had just stumbled his way through another answer, forgetting part of the question and joking at his own lack of focus. "That's what happens when you get past 55," he cracked. Not only is Mr Chirac about to turn 70 but his advanced age was, for a while, a sensitive issue in the presidential election campaign just finished. It was as though Mr Chirac had gone to Washington a few weeks after Mr Bush's inauguration and made flippant remarks about the unreliability of recounts and the role of patrimony in American presidential politics. Mr Bush's insult was unintentional, of course, but it was not the only jaw-dropping moment in Sunday's performance by the travelling American president. Earlier Mr Bush had said he was looking forward to trying some French food, because "[Jacques] is always telling me the food here is fantastic", apparently indicating that he had not heard about the quality of French cuisine in his previous 54 years on the planet. Later he got into a peevish exchange with an American reporter who had graciously asked Mr Chirac a question in French. "He memorises four words and plays like he's all intercontinental," Mr Bush sneered. Reporters shuffled their notebooks and looked at their feet, embarrassed by this spectacle of an American president jeering at a fellow American for speaking their host's language. Mr Bush's clownish performance was attributed by some to fatigue. It was Day Five of his European trip and for the past three nights he had been up way past his normal bedtime of 9.30pm. But there had been other moments, earlier in the trip, when his comments and demeanour had been a little less than that normally expected of visiting schoolchildren, let alone heads of state. On Day Two in Berlin, he had declared that he wanted to "securitise" dismantled Russian nuclear weapons. On Day Three in Moscow, he said retaining a strategic nuclear force was necessary at least in part for reasons of "quality control". In St Petersburg, taken to see the magnificent art collection at the Hermitage Museum, the president had looked gloomily at his watch as the tour rolled on past 20 minutes. He seemed to perk up only when his guide stopped to talk about a portrait of a semi-naked Venus, causing Mr Bush to smirk as he tried to catch the eye of each of the reporters accompanying him. The St Petersburg tour provided an intriguing contrast. When Vladimir Putin came to Texas, he was treated to a barbecue and a hoe-down on the ranch. In the old capital of the Romanovs, Mr Bush got the Hermitage and the ballet. Since September 11, we have got used to seeing and appreciating the serious, inspiring side of Mr Bush's plain-spoken simplicity. His simple moral leadership and evident compassion and strength shoved aside snobbish doubts about whether he was up to the job. But this last week was a reversion to the troubling callowness of the campaign aeroplane. It was hard not to see in the performance a barely concealed, swaggering Texan contempt for Europe and all its high-flown diplomatic niceties and high-brow cultural sensibilities. And it was revealing, perhaps above all else, for what it said about the strained relations between western Europe and the Bush administration. For all the talk - justified talk - of substantive transatlantic differences over Iraq, the "axis of evil", the environment, trade, multilateralism and the global system, onlookers were reminded that a large part of the issue is Mr Bush himself. Europeans - not just the elites but much of their populations - simply find Mr Bush irredeemably uncouth, a walking, talking version of every American cliché they love to hate. In cartoons, this figure plays any number of roles: the loudmouth at the restaurant, haranguing the waiter because his hamburger is insufficiently well done; the man who sits next to you on the transatlantic flight with endless stories about the size of his car, mispronouncing the names of European cities. It is an easy step to make between the First Tourist displaying vast chasms of ignorance about the world beyond the Bible Belt and the unilateralist president pursuing American hegemony in ways that Europeans do not like. Such attitudes, of course, betray the same sort of unsophisticated chauvinism on the part of Europeans as was on display at times from Mr Bush this last week. There are forces and arguments driving US foreign policy - many of them deserving of the sort of serious hearing they do not get in Europe. But those arguments have a hard time getting through to Europeans when it is Mr Bush who is putting them. Europe's leaders may understand the difference - but with agitated electorates on the Old Continent expressing dissatisfaction with their own and American leadership, these popular caricatures transmit quickly through the media and opinion polls into policy constraints. In the end, painful though it is to admit it, this is Europe's problem, rather than Mr Bush's. The American president is not going to become suddenly a model of cosmopolitan sophistication, putting an urbane case for US conservatism as he sashays, Kennedy-like, through the drawing rooms of Europe. Europeans are just going to have to get over it and display the kind of sang-froid Mr Chirac so admirably demonstrated last Sunday.
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