Jim Hoagland on Spain's Prime Minister

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, November 23, 2008

José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was an hour away from visiting the White House, a goal he had chased since taking office four years ago. The welcome from President Bush, no matter how grudging or low-key, would cement the Spanish prime minister's legitimacy as a world leader.

So Zapatero's spirits were high as we talked about the imploding world economy, U.S. problems with Venezuela and the war in Afghanistan. Nothing could dim his hopes that he would now visit 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. fairly often to see Bush's successor and his new best friend forever, Barack Obama.

The two have much in common -- and the president-elect had cleverly gone through each point of similarity in a warm telephone call to Zapatero six days earlier. If Obama needs a European to ride shotgun, as Tony Blair did with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Zapatero may be the one.

They were both born on Aug. 4, a year apart. (Zapatero is 48, Obama 47.) Tall, lithe and slender, the two men are passionate about basketball. Each has two daughters. And each has taken power in the name of a new generation and fundamental change after years of conservative rule.

But as the quick, elegant Spaniard talked on, it became clear that some aspects of personality, and of national interests, might constrain the restoration of Spanish-American relations that both leaders favor.

Zapatero is, after all, a committed Socialist whose 2004 election victory over Spain's conservatives was widely (and wrongly) viewed abroad as a fluke. He would never repeat it in 2008, it was said -- until he did in March.

Untutored by defeat, Zapatero can be brash and provocative, while Obama works at being cautious and reassuring. And Zapatero's biggest ideas concern social change -- hauling Spain out of its patriarchal and church-dominated past, as roughly as necessary -- rather than celebrating the bliss of bipartisanship.

Signature issues for Zapatero's second term are legalizing assisted suicide, liberalizing Spain's unevenly applied abortion laws and increasing church-state separation. He is proud of having enacted laws permitting quick divorces and same-sex marriages -- a step that made Spain "a much more decent country," he said through his interpreter.

Not exactly Obama's arms-length approach to same-sex marriage nor that of Zapatero's fellow European leaders, for that matter. More like that of Pedro Almodóvar, the culturally subversive director who brilliantly mocks Spain's religious, gender and sexual hang-ups in his films. When I asked Zapatero if he aspired to be the Almodóvar of Spanish politics, he grinned broadly, nodded and praised "this great director."

Spain "has a strong will to modernize itself," Zapatero told me. "We have kept our promises of change. It is not always easy, but you must do it." He returned to that theme later when asked about Obama and the U.S. presence in Iraq. "Government is powerful. Politicians can and must carry out their promises. . . . It was a war that should never have been started."

It was on Iraq that Zapatero burned -- make that nuked -- his bridges with Bush by withdrawing Spanish troops immediately after his 2004 election without seriously consulting the United States.

Zapatero was to depart for his hotel shortly for a White House dinner to begin the Group of 20 economic summit, an event foisted on Bush by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who then engineered Zapatero's invitation. But Obama and the future were on the Spaniard's mind, not rehashing the recent ice age in Spanish-American cooperation.

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