America the Beautiful

With Barack and Michelle Obama headed for the White House, the Countess gives a cross-Atlantic cheer.


Finally, it’s over! At last we get the chance to defend ourselves from all the criticism the world has thrown at us during the past few years.

Sure, some of it was much deserved, but we have suffered enough. With a new president and a new optimism among many Americans (despite the economy), there’s hope again.

Sitting and looking at the quiet of the Swiss Alps, I was listening to the BBC World Service and its American editor, Justin Webb, before the election. In comments he would later reprise in a column in The Times of London, Webb said, “It doesn’t matter who wins! Seriously, guys”—I do wish the English would stop trying to sound American—“America is about to become, once again, the coolest place on earth.”

Thank God someone was saying nice things about us! I took a big sip of Swiss coffee to calm my excitement.

“An era is ending,” Webb continued. “If you still think the U.S. is home to all that is fatty and unwholesome and militaristic and cloth-eared and generally low-grade, and not much else, it may be time to give the Yanks another chance.”

Americans have always been resilient, inventive and generally fair. So let’s not go overboard the way Webb does when he says that we are “being born again.” The question is, born into what? America has been blamed for so many things lately, it has been unfair. It’s irritating to hear Europeans claim that the global financial crisis began with the U.S. when the European banks jumped in headfirst and were just as greedy—if not more so. Hello, UBS! Hello, Iceland! Hello, Northern Rock! They all wanted a piece of the action.

But now that we have President-elect Barack Obama—and don’t forget his wife, Michelle, an intellectual bombshell—watch out! Now no one can say we aren’t truly a democracy in which anyone can be president.

As Webb said: “Suddenly we are reminded of why 55 million people have chosen to come to America in the roughly 400 years since that journey became possible. We are reminded of why Americans are so deeply, annoyingly attached to their nation and their system. We are reminded of how vibrant that system can be.”

It’s great to think that we are not divided but united and that we have proved the world wrong about what we really are and what we really can be. When the chips are down, we are not, unlike the French, negative about ourselves.

But American politics isn’t really my bag, especially since I’m an old Austrian countess (which means I have to bow my head in embarrassment when I think of some of my country’s past political leaders). Still, you can’t beat the Obamas: their youth, their vibrance and their optimism. That’s what America is.

As the new first family gets ready to move into the White House, comparisons to the Kennedys swirl. But all I have to say is: Who cares what she wears and how she decorates? The stupid ones who compare Michelle O to Jackie O miss the point. Camelot is so far in the past it’s another history. And even the Kennedy Camelot wasn’t a paradise, as we’ve come to learn. The Obamas have their own agenda, and the only real question is whether the Washington swamp will suck them in and ruin things.

Our next president is not only eloquent but elegant in the way he carries himself. And his wife is a wonderful mother to their daughters—as well as much, much more. But I’ll always have a soft spot for Laura Bush, whom I once criticized for wearing colored sneakers when she visited Nantucket. She sent me a note that read, “Every time I open my closet I see those sneakers dancing around the floor.” Isn’t that the role of a first lady—to have a sense of humor and be charming?

My only advice to the Obamas—if I can be so bold—is: Don’t go for the lowest common denominator. Raise the standards—from education to the country’s infrastructure (speaking of which, before the pooh-bahs at New York’s Port Authority hang the president’s picture in the international arrivals hall at JFK airport, they’d better clean the place; it’s so filthy, it’s fourth world).

So good luck to the new first family and to the U.S. And now let Europe and the rest of the world eat crow.