People who ventured abroad for more than a day the past five years will sympathize with former President George Bush, who heard his son vilified by one foreigner after another last week at a leadership conference in the friendly venue of Abu Dhabi. But unlike the elder Bush, other travelers would not be shocked.
If you have spent any time in a foreign land you are apt to have heard much worse than the former president had to endure in a locale where he himself is something of a hero for driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait 15 years ago. Even a reflexive American critic of George W. Bush and his administration finally finds himself taking the jibes and sober denunciations of the president not with relish but with melancholy.
So it was on my third trip to Ireland and fourth sojourn to the isles in three years, this time to glimpse again the glorious countryside of Kerry and Cork through the ceaseless mists of an Irish autumn. Fog, mist and all, a brittle November is the best time to be in Ireland. The pub hearths are warmer and so, if anything, are the Irish.
Bush 41 might reasonably have expected a sweeter repartee with an audience in Abu Dhabi, a westernized oasis that President Bush fought hard to favor with contracts to operate American ports. But Ireland is another level still in the ranks of American friends. There may be no other people that lionizes the United States and American presidents like the Irish. They still love Reagan and they have canonized Bill Clinton, who is regarded as the man who brought peace to Northern Ireland. Every bartender seems likely to tell you proudly how Clinton had played golf at a nearby links.
The Clinton stories subside, but any conversation with an Irishman or lady that gets beyond greetings and the business at hand will invariably turn to George W. Bush. Every such conversation — scores of them in some 45 days in the republic and Northern Ireland since the fall of 2003 — runs the same course. The Irish are straightforward but they do not want to be ungracious, so they may venture into the subject delicately. This time, the entry was likely to be, “Did the election suit you?” Yes was the right answer.
“How could people elect such a man?” a diner at a seaside cafe asked after hearing the Southern cadence at the next table. “I always thought Americans were such smart people.”
“No offense,” he added, probably seeing the necks redden.
Bed and breakfast hosts invariably probe, and any sign that the guest disfavors Bush looses the tide.
“Bush is a cowboy,” the salty owner of a B&B in the fishing village of Killybegs volunteered. “But what a man to follow. Clinton was an intelligent man, and such a sunny fellow.”
The operator of a B&B at Dingle town said she was bewildered by the election results in 2000 and 2004 because every single American who stayed with her — hundreds — did not like him.
An elderly couple next to our B&B in Newcastle whom we met over the fence invited us over for toast and tea in the fall of 2004 and after a few leading questions got around to the, for us, painful subject. The lady sobbed quietly when she said she feared that Bush would pull the whole world into a conflagration.
In the village of Kilkee a week after the election, the young owner of a tiny restaurant lavished attention on his only guests on an evening when gusts off the Atlantic sent hail pounding against the windows.
“Bush is a dumbass,” he said. In case we were unaware, he deconstructed the buildup to the Iraq war and other failures of the Bush administration.
“We all pay attention to American politics,” he said. “Everyone has connections to America. If America sneezes, we reach for a handkerchief.”
It is not merely the Irish who want to unload. A retired Australian lawyer and his wife, who spend weeks every year on the Kerry and Beara peninsulas, leaned across the table at a Kenmare restaurant and asked, “How did you like the election?”
“We’ve seen a lot worse” was enough to breach the barrier. His government, the lawyer said, was paying a high price politically for even the little that it had done to placate Bush on the wars. He did not think the price was nearly high enough.
Why should the world’s dislike of an American president be disconcerting when most of our voters usually turn against every president? A teacher of our acquaintance supplies the answer. She has taught in defense schools in Germany for 20 years and traveled to every nook on the continent, basking in the warm fraternity shown Americans. Attitudes have changed perceptibly. Europe is not as much fun anymore.
A Pew Foundation poll verifies it. Its periodic survey in 16 nations of Europe, Asia and the Middle East shows that historically favorable opinion of the United States and its people has plummeted over six years nearly everywhere. People do not want their countries to follow America’s lead in military and diplomatic matters any longer. The end of the Bush administration will not come soon enough for us to avoid the high price for that loss.