BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, after examining our own media, we wondered how the debates, in fact the whole campaign, was playing overseas. Slate contributor Ed Finn has been reading the foreign press, and he joins me now. Ed, welcome to OTM.
ED FINN: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, first of all, how did the most recent presidential debate play over there?
ED FINN: Well, it was very big, very important, a lot of editorials and a lot of focus.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are any of the articles written in terms of "winner" and "loser," like they are here?
ED FINN: People tend to avoid that in Europe. They would report the polls that said that Kerry was successful, but in their analysis, they tended to say more that there is a big conflict and clear differences. Let me give you an example here from Le Monde. In their main article on the debate coverage, they titled it: "deux projets radicalement opposés pour l'Amérique," which is "Two plans, radically opposed, for America." And that was really the main thrust of a lot of European coverage was that these are two very different men, but we, as the European commentators are not really ready to say there's a clear winner in this. European papers tend to be more comfortable either quoting American sources or even interviewing bona fide Americans to find out what's going on in the U.S. One great example of this was from Der Spiegel, the very popular German magazine, in their interview of Woody Allen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They interviewed Woody Allen about the American election?
ED FINN: That's right. And their first question was, "Mr. Allen, do you see your president as a comic or a tragic figure?" Allen said that "Bush himself is rather comic. When you listen to him speak, you sometimes just have to laugh out loud. But if he were to be re-elected, that would be a tragedy."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So as you read through the press, are you detecting a rising level of anxiety?
ED FINN: I think actually that people are slightly less anxious now that Kerry has pulled ahead in the polls, because for most of the world, they really want Kerry to win. I think one of the quotes that summarized global opinion about this election best actually came, ironically, from the Arab News, which is an English-language daily in Saudi Arabia. They said, "Of all elections on the face of this earth, the American presidency is one of global importance. Even a mountain goat on the backside of the Himalayas is interested in the outcome, since it might mean certain death from carbon monoxide or life under a healthy ozone."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I understand that the left-leaning Guardian newspaper has taken a very participatory approach. They're urging their readers to "adopt an American voter" in a swing state and actually to write to them.
ED FINN: That's right. They moved straight past anxiety, right into activism. They're encouraging their readers to send in their emails, and in return the Guardian will give them the name and address of a particular voter in Clark County, Ohio. They're all registered independent, which, as the Guardian says, "somewhat increases the chances of their being persuadable."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They were very careful about saying how you should approach that prickly beast known as the American voter.
ED FINN: They say: "Keep in mind the real risk of alienating your reader by coming across as interfering or offensive. You might want to hand-write your letter for additional impact, and we strongly recommend including your own name and address. It lends far more credibility to your views, and you might get a reply." [LAUGHTER] "Finally, post your letter soon."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the overall impression of the process - the American presidential debate circus, so to speak?
ED FINN: I think in Europe, people were surprised at the debates -- at the level of passion that both candidates showed, and also almost confused, because it's so strange for Europeans to see an America that has been so determined, so forthright with George Bush often going its own way, to see that strong single voice be caught in, in debates where Bush often looked flustered or upset, and both candidates were really fighting, and it was remarkable, I think, for a lot of Europeans to see an America so polarized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Polarized, but also perhaps democratic?
ED FINN: Absolutely. One Australian editorial in the Daily Australian really brought that point home. The editorial said "Anybody who likes to flatter themselves that we focus on issues while U.S. politics is all about personalities would have been brought up short by three debates in which two articulate spokesmen for their respective causes distinguished themselves carefully on myriad issues, domestic and foreign, over a total of 270 minutes of live television." And when you think about that, that really is remarkable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One last question, Ed. There's been a story that's been floating around a lot on the internet, and it's even gotten some traction in the mainstream press, and it involves a bulge that was detected under the president's suit jacket during one of the debates. The president's bulge is something between a rumor and a mystery, and I wonder how it's playing in Europe.
ED FINN: It's pretty exciting for the Europeans, [LAUGHTER] and it's really been playing actually all over the world. A quick google search shows you websites in Japan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Australia -- most of those papers added nothing to this story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ed, thank you very much.
ED FINN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can find Ed Finn's blog at EdFinn.net.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, more on the battle of the bulge, and is texting making us dumber?