MADRID - This was my first trip back to Spain since my student days, when it was the third country on the sophomore tour of Europe. We had been to France and Italy. In those days Madrid had neither the glamour of Paris nor the sensuality of Rome.
I learned to dance the "Paso Doble," or "Two Step," with a student at the University of Madrid. When I asked him earnestly about the horrors of Franco, he turned me around abruptly and with macho bravado, as though he were a matador and I were the bull, said firmly: "In Spain women do not talk politics."
Well, today everybody talks politics. Cabbies listen avidly to the news and want to talk about American politics, and most of them express similar attitudes: "Love Americans, hate Bush." Men and women of all ages sit late into the night talking politics at bars, restaurants and sidewalk cafes, sipping wine and nibbling tapas - olives, red peppers, spicy potatoes - which are often served free with the drinks. Adolescents gather in plazas to drink "calimocho," a ghastly mix of cheap wine and Coca-Cola, and it's not unusual to detect the aroma of hashish wafting over conversations punctuated with colorful obscenities whenever the name of George W. comes up, which is often.
Madrid is a wonderful city despite the politics that consist almost entirely of bravado and passion. Madrilenos lack the surly arrogance of the Parisians and the moral righteousness of Berliners. Spanish cowardice in withdrawing troops from Iraq is more complicated than that of either France or Germany, which never sent troops to deal with Saddam Hussein.
Former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's conservative government was popular a year ago even when 90 percent of his countrymen disapproved of the war with Iraq. The Spaniards saw their prime minister as leading them into the 21st century through modernization and economic prosperity, even if it meant joining George W.'s "coalition of the willing."
The successor that Aznar had chosen was supposed to be a sure winner in the national elections last March. That was before Islamist terrorists killed 200 innocents with a bomb at the Atocha train station three days before the Sunday election. What happened after that was the perfect storm of misinterpretation.
Basque revolutionaries were blamed even though it was clear to just about everyone that Islamists did the deed. Students mobilized with their ubiquitous cell phones, chanting, accurately, that government officials were lying. Graffiti depicted officeholders with long Pinocchio noses. Ten thousand Spaniards gathered outside the government palace to shout "!Aznar asesino!" - Aznar assassin. Although the Electoral Commission had designated the day before the election as "day of reflection," without campaigning, it became a day of anger against the party in power.
Television newscasts depicted thousands of demonstrators, most of them under 30, as the voice of the people - democracy at work, David against Goliath. In fact, democracy lost. The terrorists enabled the election of Jose Luis Zapatero, the leader of the craven socialists as prime minister, and the Spanish troops, many demanding to stay in Iraq, were brought back to Spain.
"At the moment when Spain most needed vigorous national discussion, her intellectual class failed her, and the students allowed themselves to be used as the proxies of demagogues," writes Michael Carlin, a Fulbright researcher in Madrid, in the New Criterion. "The terrorists saw in Spanish society the volatility and fractiousness that is the precondition for terror's effectiveness, and they took advantage of it with the foreseeable political consequences."
The terrorism carried the suggestive message that if Spain didn't get out of Iraq, there would be more terrorism, even though Islamist terrorists are permanently hostile to any country once but no longer ruled by Muslim law. To the fanatics, Spain deserves punishment not for Iraq but for the great sin of the 15th century, when Spain evicted the Muslims. Al-Qaida should blame Ferdinand of Aragon, not Aznar.
President Bush, who invited the deposed prime minister to his second inaugural, has not taken Prime Minister Zapatero's calls to make up. Zapatero is not likely to get the photo-op handshake he desperately wants when heads of state gather at the NATO summit in Brussels.
There is a bright spot or two for the Spaniards. French toast has become freedom toast on the Air Force One breakfast menu, but the Spanish omelet is still a Spanish omelet. American tourists who won't buy anything made in France are visiting Spain in record numbers. Spain will deploy most of the additional NATO peacekeeping troops to Afghanistan. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are still the signature Spaniards.
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