US Vote Through Foreign Looking Glass

THE United States of America: It's the home of baseball, apple pie, and political ads where candidates depict their opponents as liars growing a long Pinocchio-like nose. It's the nation where Thomas Jefferson declared all men created equal, and where male Senate candidates can blame their biggest mistakes on their wives.

As this year's midterm elections made clear it is hard enough for US citizens to follow their political culture. What must people think of it in, say, Slovakia?

``They feel relieved that they are not the only country where the candidates are throwing dirt at each other,'' says Peter Susko, Washington correspondent for Slovak Radio.

To foreign journalists in America, the US can be a strange and wonderful place. That is never more evident than at election time, when US politicians can seem seized by a strange mix of high principles and low-mindedness and the nation becomes one big show that editors as far away as India position high on Page 1.

The citizens in many other nations follow events in the US far more closely than Americans study foreign politics. Few American newspapers carried extensive accounts of Slovakia's Sept. 30 parliamentary vote, for instance. Part of the reason for this imbalance of attention may be the US's historic tendency to look inward. Part of it may be a simple reflection of the world's balance of power.

``You affect us more than any one other country can really affect US policy,'' says Raja Mohan, US correspondent for the Indian newspaper The Hindu.

Thus journalists from overseas have covered events this election season with a thoroughness that puts much US reporting from overseas to shame. Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun, for instance, ran a seven-part preelection background series, with each part looking at one large issue through the prism of a single political race.

The theme for a story on the Texas gubernatorial contest was the impact of talk radio and the mass media. The impact of money was studied via the historically expensive California Senate race.

The rise of the Christian right is a favorite topic of Japanese journalists - as it is for many foreign reporters. Japan is essentially a ``nonreligious country,'' says Yomiuri Shimbun staff correspondent Mikio Ikuma. ``For us it is hard to understand the tension surrounding issues like abortion rights'' that are targets of Christian-right activism.

Economic impact

The Yomiuri Shimbun also covered the Michigan Senate race extensively. Retiring Sen. Don Riegle (D) from the auto-dominated state was well-known as a fierce critic of Japanese economic practices.

But in general it is getting harder to focus on areas of the US where Japan has a particular economic interest, says Mr. Ikuma. ``The US and Japanese economy are more intertwined than they used to be,'' he says.

The foreign press has devoted much attention to the high-profile races that were also closely studied within the US. Of these, the most popular with foreign readers was the Virginia mud-fest between Sen. Charles Robb (D) and Oliver North.

The very concept of a man once convicted of lying to Congress running for that body was amazing to many overseas reporters - even though that conviction was later overturned. The process seemed, somehow, to reflect the essence of American politics.

``He's parlayed prosecution into political attention,'' says Ian Brodie of the Times of London.

Immigrant candidate

Other overseas reporters focused on less-known races that had some connection with their own country. Raja Mohan of The Hindu traveled with Peter Mathews, a Democrat running in California's 38th House district who is a first generation Indian American.

He also followed the reelection bid of Ohio Rep. Sherrod Brown (D), who as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has been active on South Asia issues.

US campaigning is much less theatrical than that in India, Mr. Mohan says. US candidates also must have more knowledge about legislative detail.

``Our legislature does not have the same powers'' and thus candidates talk only about broad themes, Mohan says.

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