Scandal getting big play abroad

European reactions range from anger to laughter

January 17, 1999|By Sam Greene

WHAT IS becoming quite serious for Americans is, for many outside the United States, still a subject of suspicion, ire and humor.

The impeachment and Senate trial of Bill Clinton can be justified as big news by American reporters and editors. It is, after all, likely to be the "trial of the century" in the United States. But, for many Europeans, it is a foreign story they've grown weary of.

A luxury of being a U.S. journalist abroad is that I rarely have to write about impeachment. I rarely have to hear about it unless I want to. But as I worked my way to America for the holidays, from Hungary to Germany and finally to the United States, impeachment was the top subject at most newsstands and inspired many conversations.

"We do get a bit too much of it," said John Evans, an Englishman living in Muenster, Germany. "Everybody does [questionable] things. I believe [Clinton's critics] stuck the knife in a bit too much. They should leave the bloke alone."

But as long as Clinton is in trouble, Evans and others are likely to keep hearing and talking about it. Barb McCallum of Ottawa, Canada, discussed the scandal with her Hungarian colleagues on a recent business trip to Budapest.

Her colleagues "think it's really silly," she said. "In Canada, the whole thing is being blown out of proportion. And most Americans I talk to are pretty embarrassed about the whole thing."

In Europe, Americans have reason to be red-faced. What is a nightmare of public shame for Americans fuels the public jokes of Europeans. In the Czech Republic, billboards for the Czech energy drink, Erectus, feature the slogan "We're with ya, Bill" superimposed on the Stars and Stripes. On posters in Poland, a cartoon Monica Lewinsky pushes a soft drink and exclaims, "From now on, I put only this in my mouth."

Hungarian newsmagazine HVG displayed a cover illustration of a nude Clinton behind the presidential podium and a headline reading, "Naked before the nation." Though most European television stations and newspapers stayed away from the more intimate details of the scandal, they haven't shied away from the story. Leading French daily Le Monde runs reports on the scandal frequently on the front page. Britain's Financial Times has used headlines nearly as big as those in U.S. papers.

It's often the second or third story on British TV's Sky News and plays prominently on France's TV5 and Russia's biggest nationwide network, ORT.

"It's interesting to watch," McCallum said. "I was watching CNN and the British coverage. The British coverage is pretty frank about the whole thing. ... It comes across as a Republican vendetta. I don't know if they're saying that in the States."

The story plays differently in different nations. Anchors for Sky News chat at length about the scandal with their Washington correspondents, hemming and hawing and bowing their heads. Germany's Deutsche Welle TV is almost pedantic in its coverage, harping on the historical angle and trying to explain strange terms such as "impeachment" and "subornation of perjury."

There is no French word for impeachment, forcing Le Monde to insert "l'impeachment" in italics throughout its articles. But, some say, understanding the words doesn't necessarily mean comprehending what's going on.

Most Germans "don't understand the situation," said Hans Letzner, a businessman from a town near Cologne, Germany. "It's just stupid, funny. Most people don't believe what is happening. It's such an important country, and it's the president. You get afraid at how important these things are to people in the U.S."

The angles taken by different newspapers and cultures also are revealing. In France, where sexual dalliances in high places are de rigeur, Le Monde writes, "How long can this process ... go on? A few weeks, or a few months?"

In Russia, where Moscow students rallied to Clinton's cause when the story broke, carrying signs reading, "To the sexual freedom of Bill Clinton," opinions have shifted, because many Russians felt that the attacks on Iraq were a diversion. The leading daily Izvestia wrote, "For the American president, Saddam Hussein is very much on time" -- a reference to the notion that the White House decided to attack Iraq to distract from the Lewinsky scandal.

While Russian newspapers assail Clinton, and French newspapers attack what they see as American puritanism, British papers -- generally supportive of the U.K.'s involvement in the Iraqi strikes -- have been castigating Clinton's adversaries. The Financial Times writes of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, "He is the man who said Michel Camdessus should resign as head of the International Monetary Fund because he was 'a socialist from France.' He believes homosexuality is a 'sin.' But this week, Trent Lott ... may have gone too far, even by his own outspoken standards, when he criticised a foreign military operation even before President Bill Clinton had formally announced the air strikes against Iraq."

Other British papers dropped the scandal issue. When Clinton traveled to Israel, the front-page story in The Independent didn't mention impeachment. The Guardian needled the American press corps traveling with Clinton for asking too many questions about impeachment.

The British attitude might have something to do with the fact that a U.S. leader is being scrutinized. If Prime Minister Tony Blair were hauled before the House of Lords for similar allegations, it might be a different story. "The British are a bit more disciplined, old-fashioned," Evans said. "It they found anything like that out, that would be it. He'd have no chance."

Sam Greene is a reporter in Budapest.

Pub Date: 01/17/99

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