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World Press Tries to Unknot Tale of Bush and the Pretzel

Reaction: Some papers are skeptical or sarcastic. Others delve into the history of the salty snack.

January 16, 2002|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Was it an Al Qaeda plot? An Enron end run? Or was it, as President Bush said, just a wayward pretzel that briefly felled the leader of the free world?

With the only witnesses to the presidential fainting spell two canines, the international press has been left to speculate about what happened and whether Bush can watch TV and chew pretzels at the same time.

"George Bush attempted to taste the biscuit with his attention focused on a football game--a combination of actions that, it appears, proved difficult," said the Greek daily To Vima.

The media responded to the pretzel pratfall with jokes, queries about Bush's mental and physical health and detailed explanations of the knotted American-style pretzel.

"Though not to everyone's taste, they are not considered a health hazard," London's Independent newspaper informed readers dryly.

True to form, the Germans consulted pretzel experts, the French contemplated Americans' "complicated relationship with food," and the Italians looked to the religious roots of the pretzel. The Saudis worried that the scare will prevent Bush from focusing attention on Israel's oppression of the Palestinians, while Britons offered Bush a few backhanded compliments.

The incident proved Bush is "a man of the people," London's Daily Telegraph said in an editorial. "This is exactly the sort of accident that befalls Homer Simpson, night after night."

The conservative paper noted in its news pages that the president "was not eating something foreign or in any way fancy when he passed out." The paper was cheered by the fact that the leader of the international war on terrorism still has time for Sunday football. "He has shown himself, once again, to be completely in tune with the tastes and instincts of the people he leads," its editorial said.

Of course, most Americans didn't end up prone with facial bruises at the end of the game--at least not from pretzels. The Independent labeled the official story "Hard to Swallow."

"Was he poisoned perhaps? Has the stress of fighting the war on terrorism while fending off inquiries about the collapse of his friend Ken Lay's Enron overwhelmed him? Was there maybe some family tiff?" the paper asked in an editorial. It concluded that "the vanquisher of Al Qaeda may have met his match."

Germany's mass-circulation Bild, the daily of choice for blue-collar Germans, also asked if there wasn't more to the story: "Has the president's alcohol problem been taken up again?"

Expressing concern for the president's health, Saudi Arabia's English-language Arab News said that while no one believes there is anything seriously wrong with Bush, his pretzel mishap has led to speculation about the impact of an ailing president on the world.

"These are particularly dangerous times internationally. The United States has assumed considerable responsibilities and powers in its campaign against global terrorism. In order to bring together a coalition of support within the Arab world, the White House had to focus its attention more constructively on Israel's oppression of the Palestinians," the paper said in an editorial.

"If, however, Bush's unusual collapse is a symptom of more serious medical problems, we can be absolutely sure that, lacking any clear direction from a troubled White House, Washington's foreign policy will click back on its traditional Zionist track. Palestinians will continue to choke on Israeli aggression while the U.S. president may again choke on a typical Yiddish pretzel," it said.

No, no, said the Italian press. The American-style pretzel was invented by a 16th century German monk as a reward for children who memorized their prayers, La Repubblica newspaper said. The word derives from the Latin prex, or prize, it said.

Leave it to the British tabloids to challenge the Italians on Latin. London's Daily Mail declared that the word "pretzel" comes from pretiola--Latin for "little reward." The dough is folded to look like a child's arms in prayer, and the three holes represent Christianity's holy Trinity. And it was German and Dutch immigrants who took the pretzel across the Atlantic when they settled in Pennsylvania in 1710, the paper said.

Pretzel is brezel in Germany, where the Berliner Morgenpost sought out the opinion of a master baker on the safety of the U.S. snack food--and the likelihood that it could have caused the president's swoon.

"I have no reason to doubt the quality of the American pretzel," opined Eberhard Groebel, speculating that Bush's spell was due to his ignoring "the 50-gram rule." That is a German etiquette adage that holds that one should not try to talk with more than 1.75 ounces of food in one's mouth.

"Even in his wildest dreams, Osama bin Laden couldn't have managed what one tiny pretzel did this weekend," began a story in the Berliner Zeitung daily. "According to reports from the White House, it not only brought the mightiest man in the world to his knees but flat out on the floor."

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