I remember thinking, while stationed many years ago at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) in Belgium, that my European friends seemed disappointed in me for not living up to their image of an American: a big, jovial man in a ten-gallon hat, a little crass, largely unread, and out of his depth in Europe – but good-hearted, a figure almost larger than life. It was an image straight out of the movies, but grounded in the enormous gratitude Europeans still felt for their American liberators 25 years after the end of World War II. By contrast, my New England understatement and diffidence made me seem like a junior-varsity Englishman, although without the English arrogance that so annoyed the rest of Europe. To many Europeans then, America was a magical place – perhaps even “a city upon a hill.” An Irish emigrant, who set sail from his homeland long ago, once said to me, “I actually believed New York’s streets were paved with gold.”
A friend who has lived in Europe for many years and is an astute observer of cultural nuances recently told me he thought the European romance with America ended for good in 2003, when a faux Texan with a twang and a cowboy hat invaded Iraq and put the last nail in the illusion of American exceptionalism. Now, he said, Europeans are watching, with a combination of horror and disbelief, as Hollywood’s good-natured cowboy morphs into a snarling demagogue who inflames his followers' basest instincts. They have seen it before.