The scene was brief but striking: At last week's G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, United States President George W. Bush stepped behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reached for her shoulders, gave her a brief massage and then kept walking. Visibly startled and uncomfortable, Angela Merkel threw up her arms. A moment to be remembered, it seems: Within hours, links to photographs and video footage of the surprise neck grab were already racing across the Internet -- from YouTube to Technorati. "Bush: Love-Attack on Merkel!" read the headline in the German tabloid Bild. Several Web sites denounced commander in chief Bush as the "Groper in Chief."
Though the neck rub happened nearly two weeks ago, Bush is still feeling the rub today. A vocal debate is brewing in several US newspapers and blogs about whether the president has simply made a minor faux pas or whether he may even have sexually harassed his colleague. "You could use this video for sexual harassment training," Democratic Party activist Martha Whetsone told the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. "It's something you'd show and say: 'No one in a boss' position should be doing that.'"
The Seattle-Post-Intelligencer even researched United Nations diplomatic guidelines on sexual harassment to see if Bush's behavior was kosher. It wasn't. "Unwelcome behavior is the critical word," according to a UN diplomatic handbook. "Neck massage" appears halfway down on a list of objectionable actions cited in the guidelines. "Ewwww. We're embarrassed again," the paper wrote, adding that what Bush did wasn't just inappropriate -- it was inadmissible behavior at the workplace.
Bush did, however, find support in some quarters -- namely Fox News, where political analyst Karen Hanretty argued that the president just can't win, no matter what he does. Commenting on outraged feminists in the US, Hanretty asked: "Aren't these the same women who have been angry about cowboy diplomacy? Do they want a kinder, more sensitive Bush -- or a cowboy? Once again, there's no pleasing these women."
The debate in the media has been far more civilized than the tenor in blogs, where hundreds have taken the president to task for "Massage-Gate". "Shouldn't Merkel file sexual harassment charges against Bush?" asked one blogger, "Uncle Dave," adding that Merkel certainly didn't seem to want to be touched. "There have been plenty of court cases over less," the blogger wrote. "Bush has got to have a screw loose somewhere to pull this kind of bullshit." "
"Our president, the drive-by-harasser"
"Our president, the drive-by-harasser," wrote outraged blogger Lindsay Beyerstein. "Like any practiced groper, Bush stares right past Merkel as she recoils from his touch," Beyerstein wrote in her blog. She also complained that by walking on after Merkel raised her arms, he was acting is if the episode had been "her problem." Blogger Greg Tinti summarized the event in an entry under the header "Gropergate."
Beyond the press and blogosphere, Bush's antics have also angered women's rights activists and political analysts alike.
"He behaves like a frat boy," said Olga Vives, vice president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). "This is definitely crossing the line." Vives said she believes that Bush would never have treated a male colleague in the same way. "Was he flirting with her, not treating her like an equal?" she asked. "Of course he was." The president is setting a bad example and damaging the reputation of the US with his behavior, Vives argued. Bush's demeanor, she said, "reflects a man who is insensitive to women. I'm personally embarrassed by the behavior of the president of the United States."
Oddly, people in Germany have been largely indifferent to "Massage-Gate" and there have been few signs of indignation here. And those pesky accusations of "sexual harassment" are nowhere to be found. Most commentators here seem more inclined to view Bush's miscue as a simple and classic case of bad manners.
So why have reactions in Europe and the US been so radically different? "Feminism is now mainstream in America," said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "In an effort to avoid sexual harassment, we've also ruled out any genuine, non-sexual human gestures that involve physical contact." Sabato said he only meets with students of both genders in spacious rooms with the door and blinds open, "so that anyone can pass by and see what is taking place." In the US, Sabato said, Bush's behavior might even be subject to a lawsuit. "Those are the facts in 2006 AD," he said.
"Grimace and bear it"
Should Angela Merkel have behaved differently than she did? Should she have run away screaming? Should she have made light of the matter or slapped the president on the wrist? Hardly. "I'm sure she didn't want to humiliate him, but you don't give her many options," Janette Gitler, a Marin County-based media and strategic planning consultant told the San Francisco Chronicle. Of course, "There is always the Merkel option," columnist Joan Vennochi noted in the International Herald Tribune. "Just grimace and bear it."
And what does Merkel herself have to say? She's keeping quiet. A government spokeswoman contacted by SPIEGEL ONLINE said chancellor did not want to comment on the issue, and that the debate was obviously an American, not a German one.
"Gropergate" might even help Merkel achieve renewed popularity in Germany. A commentator writing in Sunday edition of Germany's conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung expressed sympathy for Merkel. "Then, after a brief moment of deliberation, Bush lowered his head with determination, like a ram, and placed his paws around Merkel's neck from behind, startling her, making her cringe and raise her hands -- profoundly horrified and defenseless to such an extent that we immediately felt lasting sympathy for her."