Politics & Policy

Bill’s Nightmare Political System; Mr. American


They are keeping us very busy with panel discussions, lectures and food here at the Swiss-American foundation conference. And because I felt it was my patriotic duty to take advantage of Swiss hospitality last evening, my hangover makes a full column a difficult task. Nevertheless, as I sit here on the shores of Lake Geneva with the Alps rising into the clouds like some giant something that would work perfectly in a metaphor I am unable to come up with, I feel I must press on.

The Clinton Administration has been terrible in its diplomacy toward Switzerland.

Full disclosure: I actually would believe that if the wine, cheese and pâté the Swiss are serving me weren’t fantastic. But since this trip is far from over and I’ve much more to be indoctrinat . . .er, much more to learn, we will postpone a full-throated conversation about Switzerland until another time.

So, as I was saying, the Clinton Administration has been terrible in its diplomacy toward Switzerland. One suspects it is derived from a willful ignorance of the country. But maybe not. There are many aspects of the Swiss political system the Clintons would hate and they may have studied this place enough to actually put a rationale behind their antipathy.

Here in Switzerland, for example, bureaucrats can’t really do anything without the approval of the people through a national referendum. Local communities (they call them cantons) have incredible autonomy on most issues. Indeed the Federal Government of Switzerland is almost ceremonial in its powerlessness. Most Swiss cannot tell you who their president is. Considering Clinton’s addiction to polls and attention this must be horrifying. Imagine if instead of answering “yes” or “no” to the poll question “Do you think Bill Clinton’s pants should have a surgeon general’s warning?” people instead answered “Bill who?”

But there is one aspect of the Swiss political system I learned about today that at least Hillary would love. In Switzerland there are no rules about residency and representation. A politician from Bern can run as a representative from Basel with no paperwork to fill out. And if and when she does so, she doesn’t even have to retroactively adopt the local soccer team as her own.


Most of the Swiss guests at this Youth Leader conference are youngish business executives. They work for companies like Nestlé or for banks like Credit Suisse. In other words, these are people with lives. Obviously, they have never heard of me and most would think that National Review is a comprehensive accounting audit. So when I try to explain to them what I do, they are polite, even interested. But many of them make the same face I might make if a geek from a travelling freak show explained to me that he hammers three-penny nails into his septum for a living.

Still it’s quite nice to be considered an expert on all things American. As a dilettante, this is the best of all possible worlds. They know just enough about America to think that what I tell them is interesting, but not enough to challenge me. If only Goldberg File readers had the same attitude.

But there was one gentleman who gave me a glimmer of hope. During introductions at the bar last night, he said, “Ah Jess. You are zee van who writes zee ‘Goldberg File.’”

Inside I was ecstatic — a Swiss reader! Nevertheless, I assumed a calm if not blasé or perhaps even Swiss pose. I replied, “Why yes, that’s me.”

turned out he had gotten my name from the list of attendees and decided to look me up on the web. Oh well, it was still better than total ignorance, I thought. He read some of my columns and he said “I have only van question for you.”

“Yes,” I replied in a tone reminiscent of Faulkner looking up from his morning paper.

“Vaht is this ‘Urinal Mint’?”

What? “What?”

“In your column, you say President Clinton has the morality of a ‘urinal mint’ or somezing like this. Please, what is it?”

I didn’t remember writing it, but yeah, it sounded like me. “Well, um, a urinal mint is something some of us in America call the ‘deodorant cake’ in the urinal, you know, in the bathroom.”

“I zee,” he said looking at me intently.

I could literally see the thought bubble over his head with a picture of me driving a nail into my septum with my shoe.


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