KANANASKIS, Alberta – Make that a big Canadian, "Oh dear." These nice Canadians, whom George W. Bush once managed to triumphantly identify as "our most important neighbors to the north" are famous for their reticence. Canada, Land of the Understatement. I once proposed their national motto should be: "Now, Let's Not Get Excited." Not that I would ever generalize. I attribute their commendable phlegm to being too cold to waste much energy, and also to regular ingestion of oatmeal.
Nice, polite, calm, reserved, chock full of common sense and living next to us – what a fate. For them, it's like having the Simpsons for next-door neighbors. A few years ago, during the height of our national meltdown over Monica Lewinsky, a host on the Canadian Broadcasting Co.'s evening news program began an interview by gingerly asking me, "So, having another of your little psychodramas down there, eh?"
This year, the American psychodrama, eh, is the election, and Canadians are taking unusual care, even by their standards, to try to phrase their questions delicately. "You couldn't possibly..." they begin, only to break off. "Are you not aware of what..." "Surely you realize how..." But they can think of no polite way of asking if we are such freaking idiots we haven't noticed the damage that has been done by the Bush administration to the American reputation all over the world.
One tries to explain that, "Who cares what the rest of the world thinks?" is a common American reaction, leaving the poor Canadians to quietly mutter, "Oh dear."
Just FYI, of the many allies the Bush White House managed to gratuitously insult on the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, we miffed the Canadians by blowing off their last-minute attempt to work out a deal for continued inspections under a strict timeframe – we not only blew it off, we went to the trouble of being rude and arrogant about it. Among its other unpleasant traits, bad manners rank quite high on this administration's list of failings. In addition, some right-wingers weighed in with juvenile taunts along the intellectually brilliant lines of "nyah-nyah-nyah."
The National Review published a cover story headlined "Wimps!" Bill O'Reilly of Fox News got all huffy over something a Toronto columnist wrote and decided to appoint himself our national spokesman. Diplomacy is not O'Reilly's forte (he called Canadians "dishonest pinheads").
Of the many stupid things our country has done lately, alienating the best neighbor any country ever had ranks fairly high on the All Time Stupid list. So I have been at some pains to try to answer the ever-so-delicately phrased questions: Are you people actually going to re-elect that nincompoop? (I doubt a Canadian would ever actually ask an American that question – this is free interpretation on my part.)
What makes the delicacy even more interesting is that Alberta is the province of Canada most like West Texas and the American Mountain states. Lot of ranchers, oil-and-gas men, conservative if not right-wing, a big anti-environmental movement – just like home. Same deal – timber industry, mining, all the extractive industries and hunters all lined up against environmentalists, who are outmanned and outgunned but perceived to have the federal government on their side.
You can find Albertans who think John Kerry would ruin the U.S. economy because they are under the impression that Democrats are all deficit spenders. When our economy catches cold, theirs gets pneumonia, so this is a source of real concern here. Pointing out that Bush is already doing trillions in deficit spending, and that he came into office with a huge surplus, draws sad agreement.
What is most striking to me every time I visit this country is how much more Canadians know about the United States and the rest of the world than many Americans do. Because they are generally less provincial than we are and certainly pay more attention to world news, they are acutely aware of how much the Bush administration has increased anti-Americanism around the globe. That's why so many of them are stupefied at the idea he might be re-elected – they perceive him as having done great harm to his own country.
So, here I am trying to explain to these politely astonished people how Americans could vote for George W. Bush. Some days are much tougher sledding than others.