Munich’s Mad Magazine

The fourth and last of the debates of the 2004 presidential campaign has now come and gone. For the most part European newspapers have successfully dealt with the fact that, just like the other three, this debate actually took place from 2:00 AM to 3:30 AM their time, so that newspaper reports are popping up together with even the occasional analytical treatment already.

The Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung is among those already featuring some of that analysis, or Kommentar, and I think it is worthwhile to turn to that.

You’ll discover the real reason for that choice shortly; it’s not really about the Kommentar, although that piece (Duel of the Miracle-Healers) is pretty good. Writer Marc Hujer forms his theme around the insight that the claims of both presidential candidates that they intend to seriously address the US federal budget deficit have to be fraudulent, in view of all the various ways they have indicated they will want to spend money during the 2005-2009 presidential term, contrasted with the rather spotty plans they have so far revealed for actually saving money or cutting back on programs.

You could call that cynical; or you could call it pretty sharp-eyed, a sign that even foreign commentators far away have gotten over any civics-textbook naïveté they might have once had concerning the political process in the world’s greatest democracy. In fact, Hujer’s instant-replay observations about the debate are pretty good. It was George W. Bush’s best debate by far, he says, “after the weak performance in Miami and the average performance in St. Louis.” Unluckily for Bush, though, not only did John Kerry continue to exhibit his self-assured debate form, but also this time the actual content of what was being argued about – mostly domestic policy, of course – turned out to be of dominating importance. And with his mastery of that brief, according to Hujer, Kerry once again showed himself to be the more-credible candidate for the presidency.


Still, the problem that neither candidate could overcome was money. The Clinton years are far away, a time of budget surpluses when the funds were there to spend, “this time for a new tax-reform,” he writes, “that time for a new social program.” Now the deficit already stands at $415 billion, and that hampers – or should hamper – both candidate’s ambitions for new programs. And here Hujer comes up with an argument that seems just plain weird to me: the “small but yet decisive difference” between the two candidate’s programs is supposedly that, while Bush is promising lower taxes for 100% of the American population, Kerry promises that for only 98%. That remaining two percent – the very rich, of course – mean that Kerry is ever-so-slightly more credible with his spending plans, because he’s at least willing to cut 2% off of the tax-cutting largesse to get some new money in to start to pay for what he’s promising.

Anyway, that’s the Kommentar. But now for something completely different – or perhaps I should have found some way to work “What, me worry?” into my text instead, since the truly fun part of the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s coverage of that last debate is a series of photos, each with its own subject-title, pairing Bush and Kerry, with dialogue balloons showing what they’re saying out loud – and captions below showing what they are really thinking, a schtick straight out of Mag Magazine back in its prime.

Of course, everything is in German, so maybe I can give you here a selection of some of the best captions. First, though, a warning: this is German humor, and we all know that “German comedians” join “British cooks” and “Portuguese IT technicians” in those jokes about what an “EU Hell” would be like. But here goes:

  • Greeting: Kerry says “Mr. President, I’m happy to be here again with you to show our similarities and differences to the American people,” but thinks “This time I’ll put you away!” In this one Bush “says” nothing more than “…” while thinking “I won’t make it against him – he’s after my job.”
  • Vietnam: Kerry says “I won’t allow my readiness to defend this country to be put into question by those who refused service when they could have done it.” He thinks “I’m a hero, I’m a hero, I’m a hero.” Bush says “I think that Senator Kerry service in Vietnam in an exemplary way and can be proud of that,” while he thinks “Oh come on, a little sailing up the Mekong . . .”
  • Taxes:Kerry says “Under Bush the tax-burden on the middle class has risen and that on the rich has fallen,” and thinks “And by the way, thanks a lot, also from my wife.” Bush says “He promises a so-called tax on the rich. But guess who pays for tax shortfalls? The middle class,” and thinks “You’re fouling our nest!”
  • Wives/Families (and here the speaking-order changes): Bush says “Strong families are the foundation of a healthy society,” and thinks “And hey, we Bushes are a really strong family, right?” Kerry says “Strong families – blessed with opportunity, bound to responsibility, filled with dreams – are the heart of a stronger America,” and thinks “Man, that moves even me to tears.”
  • Religion (switch back the order): Kerry says “My beliefs influence everything that I do, really,” and thinks “I think I needed to say that now . . .” Bush says “My beliefs play large role in my life. I pray a lot for strength, wisdom, for the troops, for my family,” and thinks “Hasn’t got me anything, though – except those prayers for my family.”

(By the way, there’s no guarantee that either candidate actually said any of the above out-loud, “formal” quotes, quite apart from the differences from the actual debate transcript that might have crept in since I had to translate them back from the German. Kerry’s alleged saying about how “I won’t allow my readiness to defend this country to be put into question by those who refused service when they could have done it” in particular doesn’t sound right to me.)

I know: Leno and Letterman are routinely more funny. But just the sight of a leading German newspaper letting its hair down this way – even if it is probably only on-line, although I wouldn’t know for sure – is something to behold. Now if someone could only get the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to crack a smile; it still refuses to show photos on its front page, a straight-lacedness that in America even the New York Times gave up a long time ago. And, as anyone can readily discover, the Times now delivers comic strips, or cartoons as it calls them – at least in its on-line edition.

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