I am talking to the camera in a TV studio, responding to the voice in my ear that comes from Toronto. It is asking me questions about the movie "Rambo," which I have written about and which I loath. Suddenly, my tone changes: Oh, "Rambo" -- What's the big deal?
The voice in Canada seems perplexed. I want to tell it that this sort of thing happens all the time. I get interviewed on foreign television as a critic of the Reagan administration. But then a funny thing happens. This critic of the administration turns into John Wayne. The Duke can find hardly anything to criticize.
I have given some thought to why this happens. Partly it's due to my reluctance to criticize my own country abroad. I have no intellectual justification for not doing overseas what I do all the time at home, but the fact remains that when someone brings up Jane Fonda's by-now notorious trip to Hanoi, I know just what is meant. The very mention of it is like nails on the blackboard.
But there is something else at work, too, and it has nothing to do with me. Foreign interviewers invariably ask about a United States and a president that are more mythical than real -- caricatures of the real thing. They often ask about a United States that is reckless, that is full of cowboys and governed by people with the cowboy mentality.
The country they have in mind is willing to risk nuclear war and the end of civilization in the name of either anticommunism or a darn good time. I say as matter-of-factly as I can that I don't know the country they are talking about.
President Reagan, of course, has been a true gift to foreigners who already have a love-hate relationship with the cowboy image. The man actually has a ranch. Better than that, he has been a Hollywood cowboy, which is, after all, the only cowboy these foreigners know anything about. Maybe for that reason, they persist in seeing him as the Wyatt Earp of international relations, even though, save for a little shoot-out in Grenada, Reagan has thus far been just another hombre mouthing off in the saloon.
I understand that as a superpower the United States has the capacity to take the world into war. But that's not precisely what bothers these interviewers. It is our supposed national character or personality. They think we are a bit unstable, immature, warlike and yearning all the time for a good fight.
Sometimes I want to yell back. I want to ask these journalists why they think the United States is reckless and not, say, the British or French. Our history is not one meaningless colonial battle after another -- a litany of fights that are now nothing more than tombstones in churchyards or poems in old books. We did not attempt to regain the Suez Canal in 1956 or fight down and dirty in Algeria.
Vietnam is nothing to write home about, but God only knows what questions I would be asked if Americans rioted at a soccer game and killed the opposing team's fans!
Enough! Who are these people to lecture to us? Who are they to call us reckless, to put a six-gun in our hands and then cringe when we ride into town? We are not the people they say we are, and our president is not the man they think he is.
That does not mean there is't something to what these foreigners say. There is. Our murder rate is frightening, our streets aren't safe, our gun laws are a rebuke to civilization and our president really does have a sound-stage vocabulary if not outlook.
But relax, amigos. We're not all that different from you. We love our children, think nuclear war would be bad for all living things and know the difference between movies and reality.
I thought "Rambo" said something about the American mood -- not everything, as my interviewer seemed to think. I tried real hard to assure Canada that it could sleep nights even though "Rambo" was a hit just over the border.
Only after the program was over did someone mention something about "Rambo" that, as Clint Eastwood would say, made my day: It was the No. 1 film in Canada.