Letter From Europe

By Larry King

Very little happens in Europe in August, except for the occasional German invasion of a neighbouring country. Nothing so interesting occurred this year.

Even less than usual was going on in the U.K., Monday being the final bank holiday of the summer, more or less analogous to Labor Day. The main event in London was the Notting Hill Carnival on Monday, which contrary to what you might expect is not a celebration of the recent Hugh Grant film (as it's referred to locally; I would assume in the states it's called a Julia Roberts vehicle). Rather, Carnival is a massive festival-street party-amiable riot, imported from the Caribbean and enthusiastically embraced by the locals.

In practical terms, Carnival means several hundred thousand people gather in the streets of the Notting Hill neighborhood to party. A parade occurs at some point. If you like hanging out with several hundred thousand people, many of whom are drunk and many of the rest of whom are pickpockets, purse-snatchers, and general miscreants, you'd enjoy it immensely. Like the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York, it's worth seeing once, if only for the impromptu distance-and-volume projectile-vomiting competitions. It's also marvelous to see just how little clothing a young Englishwoman can wear and not get arrested.

The other notable event here is in the nature of Sherlock Holmes's dog that didn't bark -- the quite remarkable lack of public breastbeating about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, two years ago today. You have to admire the innate equilibrium of the Brits; they simply cannot take leave of their senses for very long.

The emotional outpouring when Diana was killed was the most intense reaction to the death of a public figure I'd seen anywhere since Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both killed in 1968. But after the burial, the Brits wiped their eyes, dusted off their hands, and -- aside from a bit of sniping at the royal family for being, oh, shall we say, not so demonstratively sorrowful as one might have hoped -- as much as said, right, now for a spot of tea.

Aside from their instinct for moderation, I suspect the Brits are a little embarrassed by Mohammed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrod's and father of Dodi, Diana's companion, who died with her in the car wreck. Al Fayed is storming around the U.K. ranting that Di and Dodi were in fact murdered by the royal family, or rather by MI6 at the direction of the royals. How MI6 was supposed to have engineered a high-speed crash that was witnessed by a couple of dozen paparizzi, he has not yet said. The spectacle Fayed is making of himself is discomfiting, and I get the impression a lot of people feel that joining in any sort of public show of grief would just encourage the poor man.

The same tendency to revert to the sensible is not shared by our cousins across the channel. The French have got their knickers in a twist about the U.S. again, this time because of American gastronomical imperialism, or something like that. A herd of them just smashed a McDonald's to protest . . . it's a little hard to work out what they're protesting. There was a lot of talk about how France would not stand by while Americans standardized the cuisine of the world, establishing hegemony over the tastebuds, stomachs, and livers of la belle France. Given the hordes of Americans who flock to France every year, more than a few of them not half so interested in its cultural heritage as in finding something decent to eat, the charge seems misguided. Given the hordes of French converging on the McDonald's of Paris, it seems downright perverse.

In fact, lurking beneath the high-flown oratory is hard-eyed self-interest, as is so often the case. The French farmers are fighting U.S. tariffs on Roquefort cheese, foie gras, and other delicacies. They were imposed in retaliation for a European Union ban on beef from U.S. cattle that were injected with growth hormones, part of the continent-wide revulsion against the U.S. tendency to genetically modify, artificially enhance and generally screw around with its food.

I cannot quite see the justice of the complaint, since the French are willing -- eager, in fact -- to tinker with their own livestock if the outcome is something they want to sink a fork into. Foie gras is perhaps the foremost example. Farmers get the raw material for foie gras by stuffing fistfuls of grain down the gullets of geese until their livers swell to grotesque proportions. The goose livers, that is -- the farmers have livers of normal proportions, or normal for Frenchmen at any rate.

People who ram food into geese are hardly in a position to criticize U.S. hayseeds for re-weaving the DNA of a stalk of corn. They may call the super-corn unnatural, butI would say forcefeeding a goose is every bit as unnatural, at least to the goose.

One good thing about the August torpor is that even the politicians respect it. Or, to put it another way, they're just as determined to have their holiday as everyone else. Germany has six elections in the next six weeks, one local one in North Rhine-Westphalia, the biggest lander, or state, and five for the Bundesrat, the equivalent of the U.S. Senate. The first is this coming Sunday. So far, virtually no Germans have appeared in public to campaign for any of them. Can you imagine not one Democrat or Republican getting up on his hind legs and braying for attention if, say, California was electing a governor and a state legislature, and New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Ohio were electing senators, and those elections were going to start in less than a week?

I have never been able to decide whether the relatively low-key, unemotional approach to political campaigning in Europe is a sign of good sense or deep-seated cynicism. I suspect the latter. It's hard to credit good sense for the political situation in any continent that includes Italy. I've lost count of how many governments Italy has had since the end of World War II, but it's close to sixty. Of course, you could argue that a propensity to throw out the government on a moment's notice is the epitome of good sense. But if you start ascribing good sense to Italy, you have to come up with an explanation for opera, Venice, and the traffic in Rome, which are, reading from left to right, charmingly detached from reality, a breathtaking defiance of all the usual rules governing the best place to build a city -- few recommend the middle of a lagoon -- and downright deranged.

So my vote goes to deep-seated cynicism. Europeans tend to assume elections are straightforward grabs for power. They vote for whoever's self-interest seems to coincide with their own. The odd treehugger in the Green party or goosestepper on the far right aside, you don't get a lot of ideological posturing. On a continent where modern-day political excitement started with the French Revolution guillotining the aristocrats, and most recently led to far more enthusiasm in Germany than anyone was prepared for, a certain cold-eyed realism is both understandable and a relief to the rest of us.

As a result, you see a lot less of the sheer silliness you get in the U.S. Gerhard Schroeder, for example, the chancellor of Germany, is on his fourth wife. Not right this moment, I assume, but I could be wrong. And he's widely presumed to have something going on the side, given his disappearances from view during slow afternoons down at the Reichstag. Nowhere will you see the Hun equivalent of William Bennett huffing and snorting and spouting great clouds of bilious nonsense about public morality and the virtues of, uh, you know, virtue.

The exception is here in the U.K., which is the only country I can think of where people and particularly the press get as loopy about sex and sin as they do in the U.S. Not for nothing did Thomas Macaulay say he knew of no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality. If he'd been paying attention, though, he might have realized the Yanks were going to give his countrymen some stiff competition one day.

But even the Brits get it over with fast. Some time ago, one of our politicians, a member of the Labour government, found himself in a sticky situation: he'd gone for a stroll on Clapham Common late one night -- the equivalent of dropping by the Ramrod leather bar down near the Hudson River docks in New York for a quick drink -- and ended up trying to persuade the police he'd been carjacked. The police were skeptical. He revised his story, several times; eventually, he was forced to acknowledge that he'd been cruising for a bit of rough trade and found some that was rather rougher than he'd bargained for.

He was gone in a week. The rank and file of the British press -- and never has the term ``rank'' been applied more aptly than when it is used to refer to a British newspaper -- had great sport while it lasted, but it lasted very little time at all by American standards. The Prime Minister's spin doctor heard him out and then said, right, we'll have none of that, or rather we won't have any of that if you're going to get caught at it, you silly bugger. A letter of resignation by the end of play today would be most welcome. My best to the wife and children.

Incidentally, one reason relatively few upper-class twits and high-ranking political figures come out the closet in the U.K. is that their wives won't let them. So a steady stream of upper-class twits and high-ranking political figures are caught in back alleys, public loos, and hire-by-the-hour hotel rooms doing an Oscar Wilde imitation. They are then forced out of public life, ensuring fresh faces and new thinking constantly enrich British political discourse. The system seems awkward to an outsider, but it works well.

Better than the U.S. system seems to be working, at any rate. The sight of George W. Bush running around the country obfuscating madly on the issue of when, how, and if he ever snorted coke is highly entertaining but sheds little light on what kind of president he might be. At this point, can anyone possibly doubt that at some point in his youth, he hoovered the occasional line? More to the point, does anyone care?

All right, granted the poor suckers locked up in Huntsville for possession of less than a gram of Peruvian magic dust because of Bush's vicious drug laws may well take some interest in the subject. But hasn't it sunk in yet that going one toke over the line from time to time is no big deal for most people? The biggest single population bloc over voting age comprises us babyboomers. We like drugs. Some of us more than others, and for most of us the attraction at this point is purely nostalgic, but few of us find the thought of a little recreational usage repugnant (although we're probably a bit queasy on the subject now that we have sons, daughters, nephews, and nieces entering the prime drug-taking years).

Personally, I know the thought that George once took more than a casual interest in whether he had a full supply of Kleenexes handy makes him slightly more likeable. I also like the fact that he could knock back a few shots with the best of them, and that he chased women and caught his fair share. He's grown up and settled down now, sure, but he wasn't one of those dreary student-council types who could think of nothing better they'd rather do on a weekend than settle down for spirited discussion of zoning reform. I wouldn't vote for him, but not because of his hellraising. It's because I think he combines the intelligence of Dan Quayle with the vision of his father and the deep-seated personal integrity of his father's mentor, Richard Nixon.

Anyway, I'm starting to ramble. More later, once everyone gets back from holiday and life starts revving up again.

There are more Larry King Letters available.