How did you first become interested in America?
It is as if part of my blood is streaming in the U.S, due to my grandmother. She emigrated to the U.S right after the First World War. But her parents became homesick and returned to Belgium after six years. The brother of my grandmother stayed behind in the US and formed a whole new family. One of my nieces is married to lieutenant-colonel Tim Maxwell, who suffered serious injuries in Iraq. My niece was awarded a presidential medal for the work she does for war veterans (www.hopeforthewarriors.org)
The family ties kept my interest in US affairs very much alive. Later on, I was a visiting professor in American history and current affairs at the college for translators and interpreters in Ghent. And there is nothing more gratifying than telling stories about America, the most fascinating country in the world: about the political system with all its peculiarities, the economic dramas of the moment, religion, food, health insurance, weapons, the death penalty, the nation of jailors, the Afro-Americans…
Why did you decide to write this book?
So much to tell on radio and television, but spoken words disappear so quickly. Radio and TV interviews are quite ephemeral.
So, the old motto: verba volant, scripta manent. If you write, you stay (a little bit longer).
Bits and pieces of different stories come together and form a well-told unity.
President Obama has a lot on his plate. How big is the challenge?
“Keep trying, Obama!” is the title of the book. The challenges he faces are enormous: the decline of the educational system in the public schools, the decline of the economy, globalisation, health care reform, making amends to a dilapidated infrastructure. He tries, fails sometimes, and succeeds sometimes. He has to confront mountains of resistance. His political opponents want to see him fail. But Obama is a straight shooter: he tries to do what he has promised in the campaign. And as a person and as a politician he is very fascinating in his approach to mend his country. He seems larger than life, a person with hardly any flaws (despite the fact that he is a secret smoker)
Is President Obama off to a good start?
His first year was a whirlwind of efforts and initiatives: a plan to save the banks from total system failure (700 billion dollars), a plan to save the economy (recovery program of 787 billion dollars), a plan to save carmakers Chrysler and General Motors, a plan to help people prevent foreclosure of their homes, mediators in the Middle East and Afghanistan, a surge in troops for Afghanistan, the end of Guantanamo, the end of torturing as a means to fight terrorism, repair the damage with European partners, helping to make the world nuclear free, appeasement towards the Muslim world, giving great speeches across the globe.
But he still has a long road to travel?
The climb will be steep, the road will be long. To really change the face of America, he needs 8 years. Change is coming to America, but the process involves a democratic process of checks and balances. And democracy is a very messy process sometimes: You don’t want to know how laws are made: the wheeling and dealing, the endless compromising for an extra vote here and there. Obama cannot do all of it by his own (will). He needs the support of Congress, of the people. But Obama is not a quitter. He was elected on the promise to bring about change. So he needs to get enough credit to really get things moving. He needs to be able to roll out thousands of projects for a new America. He needs to convince people. And changing the minds of a people is a difficult business.
It’s a bit early to say, but how do you rate his chances of becoming a “great president”?
Obama said himself that he has not been chosen to be a president to accomplish small things. He wants to achieve great things (health insurance for all Americans for starters). No president before him succeeded in that task. He wants to be the Franklin Roosevelt of his generation, the man who changes the face of America, and that of the world. As a watcher, as a commentator, you can only encourage him. Keep trying, Obama, keep trying. The American people elected Barack Obama, not those who want to see him fail.