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For the Scots, the Democrats Rank Right Up With Dolly

August 16, 2000|Ann O'Neill

Cairan Byrne just might be the only journalist covering the Democratic National Convention who doesn't have a cellular phone or a laptop computer at his fingertips. He sits in the nosebleed seats of the press stands--Section 118, Row 8--specially reserved for reporters from the foreign publications.

From here, he can't really see the speakers, and even the television monitors meant to bring the action up close and personal seem miles away. When he goes back to his hotel room in a downscale section of Los Angeles, the amenities are even fewer. No laundry service, no restaurant, no room service and worst of all, no bar.

All this for $160 a night, Byrne groused.

Byrne, 28, is the foreign editor of Scotland on Sunday, the national newspaper of, well, Scotland. You know, home of bagpipes, men in plaid skirts and Dolly, the cloned sheep.

The top story in the most recent edition of Scotland on Sunday dealt with Dolly. Her cloners are abandoning their attempts to do the same with pigs. Pigs, it seems, carry too many diseases to be of any use to humans as medical spare parts.

Here in Los Angeles, Byrne has been working outside of the official loop of the convention press pack. He made his own reservations, scored his own credentials. That he's even here is a story in itself. It has a lot to do with how much the Yanks' political processes amuse the Scots.

In Europe, Byrne said, the American presidential election "is the biggest foreign story every four years." And not just because Scots are fascinated by all things American. Our politics, in particular, are a great source of wonder and amusement.

"It's so bizarre," Byrne said. "American politics is a circus."


Here's how we look through a tartan plaid filter:

"A lot of mainstream issues here would be considered extreme in Europe," Byrne explained. The death penalty, for one. Gun control. Abortion.

Byrne spent six years covering "the troubles" and the treaty in Northern Ireland. President Clinton is widely admired in Scotland for his efforts to bring about the peace, he said.

"I think he did very well. That's why he's popular, despite his personal life," Byrne said.

In Scotland, few had heard of George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, until the GOP convention in Philadelphia. They'd heard of his father, of course, and assume the elder Bush got Dubya the job, Byrne said.

Interviewing a Scotsman in a loud, crowded place is not easy. We totally understand how international snafus can develop.

During Monday's warmup speeches, Byrne mentioned "a lot of cuffing and spiffing."

What's that? You mean everybody is all dressed up? No, he repeated, "cuffing and spitting." Ah, spitting. On their sleeves? "Cuffing," he said. "C-o-u-g-h. Cuffing."

He meant it was taking them a while to get to the point down there on the podium.

Having overcome the language barrier, Byrne continued to fill us in on how the presidential race was playing in Scotland.

"It's a very cynical way of electing a president, because there's no race. Our impression is, the man with the most money wins. It's all about money and spin and show biz."

As for the convention, "it's so stage-managed," he said, "so choreographed."

Have you checked out our coughing and spitting protesters?

"Even with them, it's scripted," he said. "The designated protest space, it's a car lot. To us, that's funny."

As he watched events that unfolded while his countrymen slept, Byrne focused on an American president whose survival in office puzzles the Scots, considering a certain intern.

"It made America a laughingstock," he said. "People can't quite grasp the process by which Clinton was able to hang on. Why didn't he resign? In Britain, it would have destroyed him. The sex--he would have been out."

In Scotland, there's no love lost for the Republicans and their role in the impeachment hearings. "That whole process came across to us as extremely odious," he said.

"And Whitewater--what was that all about? I don't think people here in America even know."

Byrne, who comes from a region where 72% of the voters turn out to elect their prime minister, has a hard time understanding Americans' political apathy. He is puzzled by the fact that, even with a convention going on in their midst, so few people in Los Angeles seem to care.

He finds Los Angeles to be "a beautiful city" but a threatening one. All those concrete barriers, chain-link fences and razor wire around Staples Center doesn't give him a case of the warm and fuzzies. The police presence is daunting.

"I find it oppressive," Byrne said. "The LAPD, the few we have spoken to, have been very rude."

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