The closest presidential race in a century left a lot of splattered egg on the faces of international leaders and media organizations around the globe yesterday.
One of the lessons of the 2000 presidential election as seen from afar: Don't place your trust in the US media.
In their eagerness to be first in the diplomatic line to wish George W. Bush congratulations, many leaders (relying on the unofficial television reports) later found themselves wishing they'd remembered the old American adage warning that it's not over "till the fat lady sings."
That might have stopped Swedish premier Goran Persson from calling a Republican victory "sad," since Al Gore is "someone who stands for a modern, left-oriented policy" closer to Swedish traditions. It might also have stopped the Belgian foreign minister from worrying aloud on national radio that Bush's victory would "relaunch an arms race" because of his position on defense spending.
Most European political leaders have only privately expressed a preference for Mr. Gore, on the grounds that he represents continuity with current US policy, and on fears that Washington might take an isolationist turn under Mr. Bush.
As confusion spread over the results yesterday, on BBC television, Professor Anthony King, a leading British election analyst, covered his face with his hands and told viewers: "This is impossible. The only thing we can be sure of is that we can't be sure." American TV networks "would have a lot to answer for," he said, after reporting that Al Gore had won Florida, then retracting it.
Similarly, Japan's most powerful business lobby, Keidanren, blamed the US media after it e-mailed congratulations to Bush. Later, a spokesman of Keidanren explained that the lobby issued its congratulations "trusting three major US television networks, namely ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as CNN ... based on the announced 'final' result."
Newspaper editors faced similar backpedaling. Daily papers hitting doorsteps Wednesday morning in London left the impression that Gore had prevailed. Later, it was Bush. "Bush Wins," declared London's Evening Standard. A later edition of the same paper used the headline: "Bush was president for 84 minutes."
Mexicans awoke to an assortment of Bush victory headlines, including "The US Decides: Bush!" by the Mexico City daily Reforma, while El Financiero business daily announced: "Bush, in Dramatic Finish."
In Russia, where a recent poll showed 40 percent of the public could name the two US presidential candidates, the confusion over Tuesday's results sparked some discussion about the quality of American democracy and the Electoral College.
Ilya Lepekhov, a journalist who covers political issues for the daily Segodnya newspaper, says the current imbroglio is a testimony to the strength of American democracy. "It's a very progressive system, which protects the prerogatives of states over those of the whole country," he says. " We need a similar system in Russia to prevent the tyranny of Moscow over all regions. If there is deadlock, it seems to me the cause is a divided society, not a bad system. The productive thing for Americans to do is ask why they are so deeply split, not whether anything is wrong with their brand of democracy."
Olga Yumasheva, a professor of modern history at Moscow State University, counters that "Bad systems breed bad results." She adds, "Maybe the Electoral College system made sense two centuries ago, but today the technology exists to accurately reflect the popular vote in the final result.... Americans are always ready to preach democratic reform to the world, but after this is over, they might consider the need to make some progressive changes of their own."
In China, the spectacle of the fate of the most powerful nation on earth dependent on the few hundred votes of average citizens, may serve to dispel the widespread cynical belief in China that America's democracy is a sham of big money politics where only the Bill Gates of the world matter. "It's the kind of democracy we've never seen before," says a Chinese journalist who requested anonymity. "I hope China can one day have the same."
In the Middle East, and elsewhere, the discussion largely focused on one question: What does it mean for us?
Many Africans are wary of Bush's ties to the oil industry, which has a history of supporting repressive military dictatorships. But Africans are encouraged that a Bush cabinet might include two African-Americans (Condoleeza Rice and Ret. Gen. Colin Powell).
In India, where local TV networks sent correspondents to the US to cover the event for the first time, Indians took a sudden interest in the specific demographics of Florida counties - wondering, for example, what it means that many conservative evangelicals live in something called the Florida panhandle. And news anchors in New Delhi today wondered why Gore could not turn the Clinton approval rating and charisma to his advantage.
For many Israelis, there was unanimity across the political spectrum, summed up by newspaper columnist Avraham Tirosh: "Even before we know who he is, we already know that the new leader is a bland president who doesn't excite anybody. There is no doubt that if they could, the citizens of the US would have voted Bill Clinton for another term in office, which would have been echoed in Israel."
* By staff writers Peter Ford in Paris, Nicole Gaouette in Jerusalem, Howard LaFranchi in Mexico City, Robert Marquand in New Delhi, and Ilene R. Prusher in Tokyo; and contributors Alexander MacLeod in London, Shai Oster in Beijing, Rena Singer in Johannesburg, and Fred Weir in Moscow
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society