by Jeff Fleischer(Sydney Morning Herald, October 23, 2003)
Today’s brief state visit by US President George Bush has inspired a range of reactions from Australians, and Americans living here have heard just about all of them.
“I have felt that people here are pretty anti-George Bush,” said Erin Reagen, who has lived here about a year. “I spent 10 years in Washington DC in the political arena, so I guess I’ve been a little surprised at how upfront Australians can be in their opinions.”
Australians can be brutal in their assessment of politicians, even booing their own prime minister at the opening ceremonies of the Rugby World Cup. That can be jarring for Americans used to a more restrained discourse.
Ms Reagen said people here don’t lump all Americans together politically, but often take the opportunity to knock Mr Bush to his constituents.
“It can put you in an uncomfortable situation,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to criticise Bush to an American, but I would never think to sit down and criticise John Howard to an Australian in that way.”
Fiona McNally, principal at the American International School in Carlingford, said she hasn’t personally heard any jokes or criticism because of her origins in the States.
“I hope the visit improves relations with Australia, though they’re not bad,” said Ms McNally, who is originally from Houston. “Generally in Australia, we’re thought of as not too bad.”
Sherrie Gavin of Jannali, originally from upstate New York, witnessed the September 11 terrorist attacks and Iraq War from Australia, and has seen perceptions of Americans change during that time.
“Particularly during the war, it was ‘all Americans believe this, all Americans believe that,’ as though we all have one singular opinion,” she said. “But that’s only during periods of high tension. Since the war, it’s been much different, much more open.”
Ms Gavin said she’s witnessed negative reactions to the Bush visit by Australians – but with far more criticism of the president’s short trip than his policies, with Australians comparing Mr Bush’s stay of less than a day with former President Bill Clinton’s two-week trip.
“It seems like people here were bothered that President Bush was only making a puddle-jump stop,” Ms Gavin said. “I understand that. Australia did go and help the US during the war, and he just stops by for a day and is on his way. He’s obviously busy, but I understand why regular people might feel a little slighted.”
Mark, who asked to go by his first name only, has lived in Australia five years. He witnessed Mr Clinton’s visit, and contrasted the two presidents’ styles. “It’s typical of George Bush that he flies in on Air Force One and gets whisked away to the ambassador’s house. Bill Clinton spent his time around people since the minute he got here,” said Mark, who holds passports for both countries and has fielded many a question about Mr Bush from Australian friends.
“They always try getting me to defend him,” he said. “And I tell them basically that ‘I did not vote for him, don’t take it out on me.”‘
While Mr Bush leaves town tonight, Americans know there is another subject they can expect ribbing about from their Australian acquaintances.
“”I’ve honestly heard more people making fun of the American rugby team than anything relating to George Bush,” Ms Gavin said.