It wasn't exactly "High Noon" when George W. Bush stepped up to the microphones with Jacques Chirac at their joint press conference at the Elysee Palace, in a room rich with gold leaf and red velvet. Our president wore a coat and tie, but French cartoonists nevertheless satirized him as a cowboy in a 10-gallon hat, casting a long shadow. That's what they don't like about him. He blocks out their sun.
In Berlin, the image of President Bush, the defender of the West against an "axis of evil," is depicted with two six-shooters, the tough guy quick on the draw. The cartoon is pasted all over lamp posts that line Unter den Linden, the grand boulevard that Hitler widened for marchers celebrating the Third Reich.
Before I knew it, I found myself in the middle of one of the Berlin marches before the president arrived, and a demonstrator tried to shove a poster on a stick into my hand, reading: "Achtung. Bush Kommt." This was decorated with a caricature of the president with a thick black line drawn diagonally across his face.
French and German memories are short. When Jacques Chirac spoke at the beaches of Normandy, drawing parallels between the Americans who liberated France in 1944 and Americans fighting to liberate the world from Islamist terrorists, there were few Frenchmen who understood, much less agreed, with the comparison.
A young generation of Germans wants to forget Hitler and the Third Reich, but Berliners at least recall with appreciation the Berlin airlift that Harry Truman ordered in 1948 when the Soviet Union blocked rail and road routes to West Berlin. Photographs at the Bernauerstrasse Berlin Wall Museum document the gratitude, of children cheering the American planes that dropped more than 1.7 million tons of food, coal, and medicines. John F. Kennedy also remains a hero, for his ringing promise: "Ich bin ein Berliner."
But George Bush is the man young Germans and French love to hate. Berliners, in general, are more cordial to Americans than Parisians, stressing sharp distinctions between their affection for "the American people" and their dislike of the president and his policies.
When I arrived with friends in Potsdam to visit a German orthopedic surgeon, he greeted my family by translating the headline across the top of the front page of the Berliner Zeitung: "Germans don't like Bush." Then he laughed and told us how delighted he was to entertain Americans. He cracked open a bottle of champagne and asked for news of our country as we walked through his beautiful 19th century Italian garden.
Berliners turned out to protest the president's visit in much higher numbers than the French in Paris, but the German protesters speak English to visitors as though they welcome the opportunity to use it; the French, as always, speak it with contempt and condescension.
The leftists in both cities, of course, are quick to recite the litany of their arguments against U.S. policies. They dislike America's unilateralism and take-charge stance. They mock as myth the American cowboy as a defender of innocents against the bad guys (think Alan Ladd against Jack Palance in "Shane") as a simplistic anachronism in today's world.
They're livid over American shunning of the Kyoto agreement, our refusal to join the International Criminal Court, and what they perceive as arrogant American exploitation of "globalizatiion," a catchall word that ranges from employing Third World labor to exporting McDonald's. (The French nevertheless cheerfully line up for Ben and Jerry's ice cream and both the French and the Germans flaunt their Nikes and Levis.)
The post-Sept. 11 American strategy to fight terrorism exposes the weakness of the Europeans, both economically and militarily, leading them to emphasize "morality" over might. They know the Americans are the only good guys who can respond with high-tech weapons and willing soldiers to threats against them. "Wishful thinking," George Bush reminded members of the Reichstag, "might bring comfort but not security."
Europeans, having lost real political importance, fall back on moral posturing, the notion that they are the "better people" because they keep international agreements. This leads to notions of false superiority. The Washington correspondent for the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel compares the Europeans to the ascetic who claims to be acting on discipline and character in abstaining from alcohol when he's merely rationalizing his inability to hold his liquor.
The Europeans are terrified at being marginalized in the war against terrorism, but they contribute mightily to that perception. "What Europe needs to do," writes Roy Denman, a former representative of the European Commission in Washington, in the International Herald-Tribune, "is to stop whining about U.S. unilateralism and make itself a creditable heavy-lifting partner." Otherwise they're going to be watching a lot of re-runs of "High Noon."