YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


From Role Model to International Bully in Three Short Years

In September 2001, Europe wept for us. Now it won't even play baseball.

September 27, 2004|Frederic Morton | Frederic Morton is author of "A Nervous Splendor: Vienna, 1888-1889," among other works. His memoir "Waltzing With My Father" will be published by Simon & Schuster next spring.

"How is your baseball team doing?" I asked my young bank teller friend in Vienna recently.

A small pause. "Tomorrow is our final game."

"Finished for the season?"

"Well, not just for the season," he said, looking down to count again, rather unnecessarily, the dollar bills he had just counted. "Uh, it's in view of what's been happening. I mean, I guess we're over that phase. We're going back to soccer. It's hard to explain."

It wasn't hard, though. It was embarrassing. He knew I was an American from the dollars I always exchanged. And from our earlier talks, I knew what he meant. As he once put it, "Wir waren alle so Amerika-narrisch." We were all so America-crazy.

Other America-crazies started jazz clubs or formed a Bruce Springsteen posse; these young bankers rigged up a baseball diamond where the Alserstrasse Yankees could suit up against the Schwarzenberg Platz Red Sox. Now, "that phase" being over, they'd packed away bats, caps, catchers' mitts.

"That phase" began some two centuries ago. Ever since George Washington thrilled the Marquis de Lafayette, the United States has excited Europe as the forward edge of the Western way, as the engine of its modernity, as the prophet of its future.

Before Iraq, America's formidable appeal continued largely unabated. I never saw it embraced more ardently, poignantly, than on Sept. 12, 2001. I happened to be in Vienna, where from my hotel window I watched the entire city cry a collective tear for the America it was still crazy about. At the stroke of noon, all traffic froze. Nothing moved except long, black mourning banners unfurling from every government building as well as from many private houses. And the "Pummerin," the great bell of St. Stephen's Cathedral -- a bell of ancient tradition that is so huge its swinging stresses the 15th century tower and is therefore rung just once a year, during midnight Mass on Christmas Eve -- tolled a special requiem. Unforgettable, those plangent, plaintive peals echoed across a thousand roofs.

That day Vienna -- along with much of Europe -- trembled for the hope breathed by the word "America." An elastic, robust hope, lasting through war and peace, through irritations and disappointments.

America has meant promise to just about every age group and political species. It could inspirit the European left because the U.S., whatever its imperial peccadilloes, was born of a revolution that cast an exemplary glow on thrusts for change elsewhere. Conservatives loved America for its entrepreneurial genius. The old admired the climate, the spryness, the optimism of cities like Miami. As for the young, the answer was blowing in the wind: It blew from the blue-jeaned latitudes of rock, rap and cool.

If this rainbow array of hopes is indeed dying now, it is not the terrorists but the recent cumulative acts of the United States itself that are the slayers. What previously could have been excused as wild oats sown by a young superpower have now, unmistakably, hardened into systematic global bullying. To Europeans of nearly every stripe, the statue in New York harbor brandishes not a torch but a tommy gun. Lady Liberty has transmogrified into an ominous colossus. Here is the ultimate Godfather, enforcing with missile and aircraft carrier a protection racket on all seven seas. Here is an America shrugging armored shoulders at the ozone hole, at collateral damage, at its own poor, an America practicing domination in the name of freedom. Here is the land of milk and honey turned into the fortress of bottom line and bomb.

Darkness glowers from a once bright beacon. Can it still change to light the way again? The question hangs over much of Europe as America's election day approaches. Its outcome will reach beyond politics; it might affect the Continent's spiritual health. At stake is the survival of a source of deliverance. Yes, in Vienna some young men are abandoning their baseball bats. But perhaps they are not quite ready yet to mothball an icon cherished for so long.

Los Angeles Times Articles