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Europeans are puzzled by America's peculiar political morals

Come on, let's admit it. How many of us knew much if anything about Bill Clinton until a month or two ago? How many of us had ever even heard of him before then?

And while we're being honest with ourselves, how many of us might still be in the dark about the Arkansas governor if some flashy nightclub singer hadn't claimed to have been his mistress for the past 12 years?

Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey or Paul Tsongas haven't been accused of messing around with a nightclub singer lately and look where it got them _ you probably know less about them than you do about Clinton.

In case you tuned in late, each of these previously obscure politicians wants you to help him become president of the United States. Come November, one of them may be our only alternative to George Bush.

What do we know about these guys? Come to think of it, what did we know about Michael Dukakis before he ran for president in 1988? Or Jimmy Carter in 1976?

What I'm getting at here is that every four years Americans are asked to look over a bunch of politicians they never heard of before and choose one of them to run the country. If this were some third rate sheep farm, it might not be such a big deal.

But this is the United States of America, the most powerful nation on the planet, the leader of the rapidly expanding free world. And every four years, we're asked to choose between various pigs in a poke to be its president.

It's a peculiar situation and you probably won't be surprised to learn that most big league countries don't do things this way.

In places such as France, Canada, Britain or Japan, by the time a politician is ready to run for national office, the people have a pretty good idea about what they're voting for.

Everybody in France knew about Francois Mitterrand and his Socialist Party philosophy before they elected him president in 1981 and the French have been more or less satisfied with him ever since.

Before Brian Mulroney became prime minister of Canada, he'd been a nationally known politician for years. People knew what he stood for and either voted for him or against him because of it. (The fact that a lot of Canadians have had second thoughts in the meantime, doesn't change the basic argument.)

Some countries overdo things a bit. In Italy, the same small group of politicians has been running the country for most of the past 44 years. The current prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, has had the job so many times that Italians can not only tell you what he thinks on any given subject, but can imitate his convoluted speech patterns and gnome-like mannerisms.

How many Americans can imitate Tom Harkin? Or would even know him if they ran into him in the supermarket checkout line?

What all this means is that Americans are asked on a regular basis to anoint the world's most powerful leader without having a clue about what the candidate really believes.

There are exceptions, of course.

You can make the argument that George Bush was a known quantity by the time he ran for president four years ago. He'd been a congressman, an ambassador to the United Nations and China, head of the Central Intelligence Agency and vice president for eight years. If we didn't know what he stood for after all that, the argument went, then we'd never know.

Well, as it turns out, quite a few people are wondering to this day what Bush really stands for. Many wonder if he stands for anything at all beyond the basic notion that getting elected president again is a lot better than losing to a Democrat.

"How about Ronald Reagan?" I can hear somebody asking. Yes, we knew a lot about Reagan before he ran for president. But it's not because he was once governor of California. It's mainly because he was in all those World War II and cowboy movies and spent years selling 20 Mule Team Borax soap powder on TV's Death Valley Days.

I was living in Europe when Reagan was elected president and remember well how the Europeans felt about it. Most of them I knew were horrified, convinced that America's voters had gone bonkers and elected a trigger-happy gunslinger. I guess they'd seen his movies too.

But it turns out the Europeans were wrong about Reagan. He didn't blow up the world as they thought he would. And he even got along, after a fashion, with the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand and Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Europeans, by the way, are once again horrified over our presidential election process. Americans, they're convinced, have got themselves so fascinated with sex and morality that real issues don't matter anymore.

On the way back from the Middle East last week, I had a one-day layover in London and noticed that all the big British and French newspapers were outraged by the way the American media were picking on Bill Clinton over the Gennifer Flowers business.

"There they go again," read the headline in one British paper, which went on to compare the Clinton-Flowers story to the media destruction of Gary Hart's presidential candidacy four years ago. How could America ever get a competent leader when all the people heard about was sex and morality, the newspaper asked?

It's a good question, but it's also one that betrays Europe's traditional blind spot about America and its peculiar sense of values.

Most Europeans I know still don't understand what the Watergate scandal was all about and why Richard Nixon, Europe's favorite American president in recent years, had to resign.