I’m over here in the US now, and clearly where you are determines what you hear and what you cover. Or perhaps “what you couldn’t escape, even if you tried,” since President Bush’s State of the Union speech last night dominated the airwaves everywhere and the on-line American press this morning.
But I reside in the Netherlands, so let’s take a look homeward: How did the President’s speech go over in the Dutch press? I ask that in full awareness of the inherent asymmetry at the bottom of all of this: there’s of course a yearly, regularly-scheduled policy speech delivered each year on behalf of the Dutch government too (called the troonrede, or “throne-speech,” it occurs on the third Tuesday of September, and happens to be delivered by the Queen), but there is naturally hardly the same attention – if, indeed, any at all – devoted by the American press to that. All completely understandable: just speaking of events of this past year, it’s not the Dutch who have thrown the geopolitical structure of the Middle East on its ear, together with the whole web of post-World War II Western Alliance relations, by invading Iraq.
Still, this example of the sovereign actually reading the speech (as also happens yearly in the United Kingdom, of course) might be something worth transferring over to American practice, if the royalty-less American society could somehow come up with an appropriate analogous figure (the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, perhaps?). My reason for suggesting that is that in that case perhaps – just perhaps – the sitting President would be deterred from delivering, for public reading by another, any text that ultimately amounts to a mere electioneering stunt, rather than a sober, candid view of what the government has done and what it intends to do. The former is at least the overwhelming impression Dutch writers and editors took away from Bush’s performance last night, as reflected even in headlines such as Het Parool’s Bush’s State of the Union Mainly an Electioneering Speech (verkiezingsrede).
CONSPICUOUS BY ITS ABSENCE
Actually, let me first mention what isn’t there when it comes to Dutch coverage of the State of the Union address. Being headline news across-the-board in the States won’t necessarily give something the same status in the Netherlands, where the story is driven out of the Algemeen Dagblad and Trouw entirely by other, more-local reporting (mainly, if you can believe it, the resignation under a cloud of scandal – sex! drugs! but no detectable mention of rock-n-roll – of a certain Amsterdam town councilor). Now, De Telegraaf does devote a prominent article to Bush’s speech, but when I read it I got this strong sense of déjà vu; sure enough, it was a word-for-word copy of Het Parool’s article on the subject. (You might object that it is rather Het Parool borrowing from De Telegraaf, but I strongly suspect the opposite: the rather non-serious newspaper, that is, is borrowing from the rather more-serious one).
Right, then, how did the Dutch like Bush’s speech? Let’s be sure to hit the most-serious Dutch newspaper (general interest) of them all, the NRC Handelsblad. (Bush Warns America to Finish Off Its Work in Iraq) Its summary: The terrorist threat to America continues, so the struggle in Iraq and elsewhere must go on; on the other hand, the American economy is nicely on the rebound, but you need to make my tax-cuts permanent to make sure it stays that way. But journalists only get really good when they take a page from Sherlock Holmes and develop that keen ear for the dog that doesn’t bark, i.e. the mention that isn’t made in a certain setting when you might perhaps think it would be. The contrast with last year’s State of the Union address couldn’t be more clear: that one had all sorts of fire-and-brimstone from the President about Saddam Hussein’s presumed WMD capabilities, but, the (unnamed) NRC correspondent notes, there was nary a presidential peep about that last night.
From the particular Dutch point of view, it was nice for the President to mention the Netherlands specifically as a country that has “committed troops to Iraq,” as the Dutch indeed have. But that bit of pleasantness is nearly drowned out within the paper’s treatment of Bush’s foreign-policy pronouncements which the Dutch audience would naturally be most interested in. Bush actually used this mention of the Netherlands, among other countries, as a rhetorical weapon against those arguing that the effort to pacify and rebuild Iraq should be more “internationalized”; the NRC writer even uses to describe Bush’s address here the verb bespotten, or “mock.” And he takes special note of the President’s assertion that no “permission slip” will ever be needed by America “to defend the security of our country.” (“Permission slip”: now there’s a uniquely-American phenomenon, derived from public school practice, that defies translation. The NRC handles it rather awkwardly with goedkeuringsbriefje: “note/slip of approval.”)
THE STANDAARD TREATMENT
As long as we’re in search of thoughtful treatment of Bush’s speech, let’s not let mere country boundaries deter us and head on over to what amounts to an “honorary” Dutch newspaper anyway, Antwerp’s De Standaard. (State of the Union in the Sign of Bush’s Re-Election) De Standaard plays the “Sherlock Holmes” game mentioned above even better than the NRC manages to do it; it adds to the list of topics that Bush somehow didn’t address the 2.3 million American jobs lost since his elevation to the presidency three years ago. (It also comes out ahead in the translation department: for “permission slip” it uses simply toestemming, or “permission.”) The Flemish paper notes that the President managed to direct heavy criticism at those countries that opposed him in undertaking the War in Iraq – France, Germany, China, etc. – without actually using any names. And it also is willing to devote considerable space in its article to an examination of Bush’s domestic policy proposals, as in what its writer calls the “coded language” (bedekte termen) the President used to, in effect, call for privatization of Social Security, and the several paragraphs examining his defense of “traditional marriage” (the latter perhaps stemming from the writer’s sense that, in Europe at least – certainly including Belgium – the trend is clearly in the other direction).
Finally a look at that much-copied reporting from Het Parool. With an eye to those upcoming presidential elections (this was, after all the last State of the Union speech scheduled before they come along), the President attempted in his address to profile himself as an international leader, a protector of traditional (American) values, and as a good custodian of the American economy. (Actually, that last, in Het Parool’s treatment, was aanjager: someone who can drive that economy onward.) What’s more, in this paper’s view the President made full use of the occasion’s potential to drive attention back to Republican accomplishment’s and plans (his own mostly, of course), and away from the Democratic goings-on that had previously dominated the nation’s attention with the unexpected results of Monday’s Iowa caucuses.