Germans at the DNC Push Beyond Mere “Translation”

John Kerry delivered his acceptance speech last Thursday night to bring the Democratic National Convention to its culmination, and the German press was certainly paying attention. But this should have been no surprise to readers of the Economist (subscription required), which this week reminds us how Germans massively dislike George W. Bush, and so are presumably very interested in the personality and prospects of the alternative candidate who can send him packing to Crawford, Texas. (That Economist article, unfortunately, also dwells on Germans’ current dislike for the US generally – but, like the country or not, they surely cannot be under the delusion that the result of November’s presidential election has no impact on them.)

Unfortunately, most of the articles I surveyed in the German press covering Kerry’s acceptance speech were happy to limit themselves to a mere “translation function,” i.e. explaining to their readers what Kerry said. Most disappointing was such a “translator” article in Die Zeit (Kerry Wants to Restore the USA’s Prestige), from which we ordinarily can expect better – and that article itself was borrowed from the German business newspaper Handelsblatt. EuroSavant readers presumably had plenty of opportunity to read in English what Kerry said, if they didn’t already see the speech on TV live, so such articles are not so useful.

Handelsblatt wisely chose to keep its higher value-added materials for itself, though, as we can see from its editorial on Kerry’s speech (Bridge-Builder Kerry) from correspondent Michael Backfisch.

Backfisch first notes Kerry’s efforts to “fully play-out his military experience” at the convention, in order to try to demonstrate that he can be just as tough on national security as President Bush. (No kidding; do I detect some second-hand “translation” happening here, namely of what every American has already figured out?) But then he starts to fill in more why he calls Kerry a “bridge-builder” in the piece’s title. Kerry’s deliberate policy of avoiding a confrontational tone against the present administration was a sign that he was trying to profile himself as a reconciler (Versöhner) between the two sides of a divided nation. He invoked John F. Kennedy by appealing to America’s pioneering spirit; but he also invoked Ronald Reagan when he asserted that America’s best days still lie ahead. Still, although Backfisch calls Kerry’s speech “one of his best,” he also notes that it was far from concrete and specific on a number of important points. In particular, in Backfisch’s estimation Kerry’s Iraq policy is just as schwammig (“spongy”; “porous,” if you will) as that of President Bush.


Even better commentary comes from Frankfurter Rundschau correspondent Dietmar Ostermann, who attended the Boston convention and had the time to file an article of personal reflections (Candidate Kerry) in addition to his straight-forward dispatches of what was going on there. Ostermann pulls few punches. He finds that salute and “reporting for duty” line that Kerry began his speech with “somewhat childish”: “The man wants to become president. Commander-in-chief, in other words. There he stands, grinning and saluting like some private.” And you might have heard that Kerry served in combat in Vietnam; Ostermann is quick to complain that the Democrats brought forth this particular fact of John Kerry’s life “again and again, until one knew it by heart and simply could not stand to hear about it again.” Out of that eighteen-minute biographical film shown, a full half was devoted to that Vietnam service. “Kerry was a mere four months in the Mekong Delta back then,” Ostermann writes. “Then he let himself be pulled out of the line of fire, and Vietnam, with three light wounds. Four months of hell, that’s supposed to justify a claim to the White House in 2004?”

That is some rather harsh evaluation – and the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper for which Ostermann writes is supposed to be rather “leftist” and so predictably on the side of any US Democratic candidate. But as Ostermann writes, the problem remains, even after the convention, that the only convincing filling-in of the sentence “I support John Kerry because . . .” is that he is the anti-Bush. And he is that in more ways than one; here Ostermann cites (but misspells the name of) Thomas Oliphant, columnist for the Boston Globe, who has known Kerry since the 1970s. John Kerry is certainly no “Mr. Charisma”; he is no Kumpeltyp (= roughly “man of the people”) like George W. Bush.


In his acceptance speech, Ostermann reminds us, Kerry spoke for a full 50 minutes, much against advice from media professionals, who warned that, in the age of the MTV attention-span, no one would listen to him all the way through to the end. But they did nonetheless, by and large, and in Ostermann’s eyes Kerry thereby succeeded with this speech in making seriousness (i.e. earnestness) the hallmark of his campaign for president. It’s Nachdenklichkeit statt Sprüchen: Thinking/reflection instead of sound-bites.

The question then is: is America ready for such a candidate, for such seriousness, even for a “Brezhnev” (as conservative columnist David Brooks has christened Kerry due to his long, heavy speeches)? At least the New York Times seems to think so; as Ostermann quotes the judgment of that newspaper, “In difficult times the country loses interest in the President as celebrity-figure and longs [instead] for solidness, trustworthyness, and sensible judgment.”


Finally, a recurring theme in EuroSavant’s own blog-coverage of the Democratic convention has been that of foreigners-in-attendance, often as representatives of foreign political parties. The correspondent sent to Boston by the Financial Times Deutschland, Hubert Wetzel, comes up with a fascinating article (with a fascinating title: US Democrats Discover Little Green Friends) about how Democrats these days show more interest in working together with Germany’s Green Party than with what you would ordinarily regard as their more natural partner, namely the trade-union-oriented Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands or SPD. (The SPD happens to be the party of Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder and so is currently in power, although it most certainly won’t be after the next elections. But the Greens are also in power; they are the junior member of the current “Red-Green” governing coalition.)

One important reason for this alleged development is that the American labor movement itself dominates what goes on in the Democratic Party less and less. But it’s also because, as Will Marshall of the Democratic Leadership Council puts it, “Interest in innovation, modernity, and practical solutions is stronger with the Greens than with other German parties.” This is apparently more in line with the business-friendly, pragmatic attitudes of the “New Democrats” whose pioneer in the Democratic Party was Bill Clinton. In particular, Wetzel cites the common interest in reducing dependence on oil imports (although for the American Democrats this is a national security issue, while for the German Greens it’s a matter of ecological policy), and the promotion of democracy in the Middle East.

Accordingly, current Green Party leader Reinhard Bütikofer (the Greens rotate their leaders on a regular schedule) had by all accounts a great time visiting the Democratic convention in Boston, meeting if not with the candidate himself, then with his environmental adviser. And he was accompanied on his schmoozing with the unfortunately-named Ralf Fücks, who however is quite a VIP himself as head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, basically the Greens’ own think-tank, whose Washington office, Wetzel reports, has taken up an important liaison function between these American and German parties.

So if it was not so cool to be a Frenchman in Boston – you had to stifle your accent and keep your head down – apparently it was still A-OK to be German, even if you sport a name that tends to turn American heads in amazement much faster than any French name would. Maybe that’s because Americans can always be sure that, deep down (and as that same Economist article reports) the Germans will always love us. They can’t get enough of American movies, for one thing. Among the best of the pack of “translation” articles reporting Kerry’s speech was the fact-filled contribution from Die Welt: you knew that Steven Spielberg worked on that Kerry film biography, but did you know that Morgan Freeman provided the voice-over, and that the whole thing was directed by Oscar-winner James Moll?

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