Politics & Policy

Old-World Embrace

Ancient lessons for Obama.

Barack Obama is about to receive a great, big hug from the people of Europe. He is their candidate and they love him to death. Not only are his approval ratings sky high there, but in Germany, France, and Italy he is favored over John McCain by more than a 50-percent margin. Europe’s newspapers and airwaves are filled with giddy anticipation for the event. As the London Observer summed it up “The world is waiting to love America again.”

There is no doubt that the throngs of adoring fans who will pour out to see the freshman senator from Illinois will make for good TV. But how will it play in Peoria? Four years ago I was living in Italy when Teresa Heinz Kerry gave her convention speech studded with European languages. The Italians (whose language was among the included) were beside themselves with admiration. At last, they thought, the Americans would reject their cowboy president and choose someone who cared about them. John Kerry’s proficiency in French only made it that much better. European public-opinion polls showed Kerry defeating Bush by double-digit margins.

But Europeans can’t vote — and the love affair between Europe and John Kerry did not go over well with many Americans. It was not just further evidence of Kerry’s elitism, but it suggested that as president he would be more concerned with European applause than American security. The Manchester Guardian’s “Operation Clark County,” which tried to swing the vote in Ohio to Kerry’s side, didn’t help matters. In many Americans’ minds Kerry had become the candidate of Europe, leaving America to George W. Bush.

Undoubtedly, Obama’s campaign managers are discerning the historical lessons of the Kerry defeat. But they might want to look a bit further back as well. During the days of the Republic, the ancient Romans had a relationship with the Greeks very like that of Americans and Europeans today. Romans revered the Greeks for their high culture and magnificent history. Unlike Rome, Greece was filled with marble adorned cities in which art and architecture was brought to unparalleled heights. Unlike the Romans, the Greeks could boast a rich body of literature, drama, and philosophical tracts. But the Romans were strong, while the Greeks were weak. Indeed, after 196 B.C. it was the Roman military that guaranteed Greek independence, defending the Greeks against outside invaders. By the mid-second century B.C. the Romans had begun to see the Greeks as decadent elites with little common sense. They were antiquity’s postmoderns. As Cato the Elder complained, the Greek spirit questioned everything and settled nothing. For their part, the Greeks considered Romans to be intolerably arrogant and dreadfully boorish. Anti-Romanism in Greece increased throughout the century.

Like Americans, average Romans valued simple virtues and a sturdy character. Since almost all Roman politicians in the second century B.C. came from Rome’s wealthiest and most venerable families, it is not surprising that they were reasonably cultured. They could speak and read Greek and were familiar with Greek culture — many of them avaricious consumers of it. But they were also politicians, and they knew that coming off as a Hellenophile would not play with the voters. Scipio Africanus’ political opponents made a point of claiming “that he walked about the gymnasium in a Greek mantle and Greek slippers and spent his time amongst rhetoricians and athletes and that the whole of his staff were enjoying the attractions of [Greek] Syracuse and living a life of similar self-indulgence and effeminacy.” Marius, who was a “new man” (i.e. not from a patrician family), made a virtue of his low birth and his unfamiliarity with Greek ways. In speeches he relished the fact that Rome’s elites “call me vulgar and unpolished, because I do not know how to put on an elegant dinner and do not have actors at my table or keep a cook who has cost me more than my farm overseer. All this, my fellow citizens, I am proud to admit.” And as for his Greek-loving political opponents, Marius was proud to say that he did not share their passions. “Nor have I studied Greek literature; I had no interest in a branch of learning which did nothing to improve the characters of its professors.”

By the first century B.C. when Cicero (another new man) was on the stump it was political suicide to be seen as a Greek effete or dandy. Although Cicero spoke Greek fluently, he was happy to relate his grandfather’s maxim that “the better one learns Greek the worse a scoundrel one becomes.” Cicero was well-versed in Greek culture, yet he pretended not to remember the names of Greek artists and dished out contempt for Roman elites who slavishly aped Greek manners and tastes. Cicero knew well the political dangers of being too chummy with the Old World elite.

Does Barack Obama?

Certainly those around him do, and he is also getting plenty of advice from Europeans themselves. The Guardian for example, reminded the senator that “To be seen as Europe’s pet is the last thing a presidential candidate needs – especially one who wants to shed his elitist image with white working-class American voters.” According to the Los Angeles Times Europeans are “aware that anything that looks or smells like elitist Old Europe could hurt the Democratic contender with voters back home.”

No doubt Obama will follow Le Figaro’s recent advice and avoid criticizing the U.S. while on foreign shores. He may even resist the temptation to sprinkle a few foreign words into his speeches. (He should certainly avoid any sentence that begins, “Ich bin…”.) If he’s smart he will recount the successes of the NATO alliance and express a clear resolve to strengthen it.

But even if he sidesteps the potholes that crippled the Kerry campaign, will he avoid its fate? It’s a difficult question. Because no matter what Obama says in Europe, and no matter how many times he says it, there will still be the crowds. And they will be vast, ecstatic, and thoroughly European. With their cheering enthusiasm they will make abundantly clear to Americans just who they want elected in November.

And in that great, big, adoring embrace, the Europeans really could love their candidate to death.

— Thomas F. Madden is Professor of History at Saint Louis University. His book, Empires of Trust: How Rome Built – And America Is Building – A New World (Dutton), was just released in bookstores.


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