Translating US Presidential Politics into Italian

US President Barack Obama and his 2012 Challenger Republican Mitt Romney

Dear Blog Readers – On Monday I start a brief stint as a political analyst on RAI News 24, the 24-hour news channel on Italy’s state television network. My role will be to help explain the American presidential elections to the Italian public, in and around the period of the Republican and Democratic Conventions, and I need your help as I will explain below. I’ve done a lot of this in the past.

Trisha Thomas talking about politcs on Italian state Television RAI during the 2008 presidential election

In 2008 I was often a frequent guest on SKY News 24, another Italian TV channel, explaining that presidential election. I have always had a passion for US politics. I was born in 1963 in Boston, Massachusetts to two very politically-informed parents at the height of the Kennedy-Camelot era. My father was passionate about the Kennedy brothers – JFK and Bobby—and shared their dreams for the future of the United States. My parents told me they were even considering naming me Jacqueline. Just one month before I was born my mother says she remembers receiving a phone call at home telling her JFK had been assassinated. She says she couldn’t remain standing, she was so shocked.  When she was able to stand up, she left my older sister with a neighbor, and with her big, pregnant belly walked to the Harvard University Library where my father was working on his PHD, to break the bad news to him. No cell phones back then. I am not sure when they dropped the idea of naming me Jacqueline and ended up naming me Patricia.

John, Jackie and Caroline on the beach

My parents, to this day, are avid newspaper readers, and politics and foreign policy were frequently being discussed at home when I was a child. In 1972, when AP photographer Nick Ut’s famous photo of the naked girl running away from the napalm bomb in Vietnam was on the front page of the papers, I made my first political act. With some proof-reading from my Dad, I wrote a letter to President Nixon telling him to please call a halt to the bombing in Vietnam and Cambodia. I was nine-years-old. A few weeks later a big white envelope addressed to me arrived at home. The return address was in gold letters: The White House. I was thrilled and ripped it open to find a glossy magazine with pictures of the Nixon family at the White House.

Tricia Nixon with her father President Richard Nixon on her wedding day at The White House.

I was particularly interested in the glamorous photos of Nixon’s daughter Tricia. Right then and there I decided I would be “Tricia”. The war in Vietnam temporarily slipped my mind. It was my first exposure to effective political public relations tactics. I’ve wised up a bit since them, but the name has stuck, although with my spelling, “Trisha”.

Back to my stint as a political analyst. My job will not be to give my opinion but to explain how US politics work, some of the idiosyncrasies of our electoral system and how Americans view a variety of issues.

Let me give you some examples:

–Few people are aware of how our electoral college system works, and why there isn’t just a direct vote for the President.

–As a result, I often find myself trying to explain why certain states take on such importance in a presidential race (Ohio, for example) and end up receiving so much more of the candidates’ attention.

–People in Italy are interested in knowing about how money works in a US election. How do the campaigns get money and how do they spend it? What are PACS and what are Super-PACS.

–In recent years I have often been asked about the role of social media in the US presidential elections. People want to know how much Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter help to get out a candidate’s message and raise money.

–Italians want to know about US lobbies. They want to know where Hollywood puts its money and where Wall Street puts its money.

–Italians often ask me how different ethnic/religious groups vote in the United States: Catholics, Jews, Hispanics, WASPS, and African-Americans.

–I am asked about how different age groups vote – the young, the old and the middle-aged.

Then there are all the issues. I am frequently asked to explain/clarify American views on:

–Gun Control – Italians are amazed at the ease with which Americans can buy weapons and the frequency of events like the Columbine High School Massacre and the Aurora Colorado, Batman Massacre and have trouble understanding the US attitudes towards individual liberties and the second amendment. I was recently asked by an Italian friend, “you Americans don’t let people smoke a cigarette anywhere because it could be harmful to others, but you sell assault rifles to anyone and don’t consider it a risk to others. Why?”

–Death Penalty – Italy does not have the death penalty and I am frequently asked why there is so much support for it in the US.

–Abortion – Italians are fascinated by the vigorous debate in the US on the question of abortion. Although Italy is a predominantly Catholic country, and the Vatican is influential here, the abortion debate is not nearly as heated as it is the United States. Although plenty of people are opposed to abortion in Italy, a law was passed in 1978 allowing any Italian citizen to get an abortion for free under the public health system in Italy in the first 90 days of an unwanted pregnancy.

–Immigration – Italy has a huge illegal immigration problem and tends to be relatively tolerant of immigrants crossing its borders, sometimes turning a blind eye as they head north to Germany. I personally have covered the tens of thousands of immigrants who come to the Italian island of Lampedusa every year from northern Africa. Italians are often amazed that the USA, a country of immigrants, has such tough immigration policies. The US has tight border controls but makes more effort than Italy to allow talented foreign students to study in the US and remain to work.

–Healthcare – Italy has a nationalized healthcare system. Every neighborhood has its local general physician and local pediatrician with walk-in hours several times a week. The service is free. All medical and hospital care is free. I am frequently asked to explain how the United States—with the best medical care in the world—can exclude so many of its citizens. I am also asked to explain why so many people see Obama’s healthcare proposal as socialism.

–Federal System – I frequently find myself explaining that the United States is a federal system and that many of the issues mentioned above are handled on a state level rather than a national level, so that Massachusetts does not have the death penalty and Texas does, New York has tight gun control laws, Virginia does not.

Other topics:

I am expecting I will be asked to discuss several other big topics in this election with enormous interest to Europe

–The US Economy – In Italy, and all of Europe, people are not talking about much else these days. Italians believe that while they are struggling, the US has managed to pull itself out of the worst. I know many Americans feel differently. Italians often ask me who would be the better of the two candidates to handle the economy—and how would they do that differently. In the past week I think the differences have become clearer.

–Government Spending – Italy is currently divided between those who would like to lower taxes to restore growth and those who ask for high public spending to counter the current downturn. Few Italians would like to see services such as healthcare, public universities and pensions cut dramatically and are very intrigued by the debate in the United States, where the choice of Paul Ryan as Vice-Presidential candidate has raised questions about changing US entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

–Foreign Policy – Italians tend to like President Obama and Hillary Clinton and I have heard a fair amount of support for this administration’s foreign policy, although there is considerable concern right now in Italy about what is happening in Syria. Little is known about Mitt Romney’s foreign policy agenda, besides his close relationship with Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu and is strong support for Israel.

The Personalities: I expect that I will be grilled at length about the individuals involved. In the last election I was frequently asked about the backgrounds of many of the candidates and their spouses. I found myself frequently trying to explain individuals like Sarah Palin and concepts like “hockey-moms”. People are fascinated in Italy by the high-profile spouses get in presidential campaigns. I am sure I will be asked about Paul Ryan’s buck-hunting,  Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and Ann Romney’s passion for dressage horses. I will be questioned about Michelle Obama’s clothing style and vegetable garden. I will be asked about Obama’s gray hair and basketball passion.

So, dear blog readers, I need your help. Lucky for me I have family members sprinkled all over the US – Boston, Massachusetts; Tucscon, Arizona; Dallas Texas, Atlanta, Georgia, — Virginia and Florida. They have helped me learn more about what is happening in their parts of the country. But I want to know more. I would love to hear the thoughts and opinions of all of you on all the material above. It doesn’t matter if you are from the left, right or center, if you are a Republican, Democrat, or an Independent, if you live in the US or abroad. I do not have a political agenda, I am just trying to gain more knowledge so I can do my job better. I am curious to hear what Americans are thinking about the Presidential race and some of the key issues.

Please send your thoughts, opinions and comments and let me know where you are from. And if any of you happen to be in Italy, you can watch me from 1100pm -1130pm starting Monday, August 20th through September 7th.

Post in: Italiano

Trisha Thomas
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.

12 Comments

  1. Elizabeth
    2012/08/20

    Dear Trisha,
    I also was born in Boston and my family was much like yours during the Kennedy years. Who doesn’t remember where they were that horrible day? It seems like things have changed so much since then. For the most part we were a unified nation, but now you can’t talk politics unless it is with someone who agrees with your political views.

    You are a brave person to be asking such questions. This year the elections are more heated than ever, pitting people against each other in their beliefs of where the country should be going. Many like what America stands for, and others feel we should not be as powerful or influential.

    Good luck on this assignment. I look forward to watching you on RAI and reading what your subscriber have to say.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/21

      Thank you Elizabeth for your comment. AP allows me to do these Italian TV programs as long as I don’t express any of my own personal opinions. I am there as an “expert” to explain and analyze rather than give an opinion. This is so good for me, it forces me to absorb, study and try to learn what other people are thinking and not argue about it.

      Reply
  2. Penny Kirk
    2012/08/20

    Good luck with this assignment; it won’t be easy figuring out these messages!

    Reply
  3. Barbara Landi
    2012/08/20

    Nationalized healthcare used to be called “socialized medicine.” Europeans are so used to socialism that they don’t even recognize it for what it is any more. And they don’t get that the enire economic misery they are seeing is the result of socialism. It won’t get any better.

    The US has the best healthcare in the world precisely BECAUSE it isn’t socialized….yet. Where will rich Europeans go for the “best healthcare” when the US has socialized medicine just like they do? Rich Canadians eschew their own socialized medicine where they must wait months or years for elective surgeries like hip replacements and come to the US. No doubt Europeans do the same.

    Truly the US healthcare system isn’t very far off from complete socialized medicine as it is. It’s already socialized for seniors and the poor. No hospital can turn anyone away. Everyone gets care.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/21

      Thank you Barbara. I appreciate your comment. I won’t actually respond to any of these comments, I will just absorb and take note so I can use it to help me with this program.

      Reply
  4. Alan
    2012/08/21

    . . with respect I suggest you google ‘psychiatric journal’ – that will bring up a whole host of references so that you can clearly explain to your Italian audience the differences between the psychopathic incumbent and the sociopathic challenger. Hmmm! Wait a minute; is there actually any difference? ;-)

    Reply
  5. Kevin Maxwell
    2012/08/21

    Good luck with the program Trisha – unfortunately my nationality excludes me from providing any ‘expert’ opinions!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/21

      Don’t know why we can’t hear from an Australian. Go ahead, give us your opinion on the US Elections.

      Reply
  6. Lega
    2012/08/22

    Hi Trisha,
    One of the issues thats puts me over the edge and gets me seething is the Republican stance toward women’s issues. Sometimes I think they are cut from the same cloth as the Taliban!

    I consider myself to be Independant. I always vote for Republican Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins but I will vote for President Obama in November.

    I don’t want the pope, mullahs, or rabbis interfering in birth control, abortion, dress, etc. etc. I take the abortion issue very seriously and while I do believe that human life begins at conception it is a decision that ultimately should belong to the woman and her doctor. To deny birth control while allowing Viagra prescriptions is unbelieveable to me. To argue that the use of Viagra is correcting a medical condition while birth control is not tells me that Republicans are nuts. Ugh!!!!!!!!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/08/22

      Thank you Lega. I appreciate your comment. I have already been asked a couple nights in a row about the “legitimate rape” comments by Senate candidate Todd Akin and found myself trying to explain what that meant in Italian and then translating Obama’s comment immediately afterwards “rape is rape” (stupro e’ stupro in Italian).

      I have gotten several personal emails from women blog readers who prefer not to but their opinion in a comment but who share your views.

      Reply
  7. Lisa | Renovating Italy
    2012/09/07

    Well I would say that I am just as confused as the Italians by most of the American policies. I was trying to explain to my husband about the uproar on fb over the “legitimate” rape comments. He googled it, watched briefly and then announced that Americans are “fruit loops” and we (Australians) are following close behind and he can’t wait to get to Italy to get away from it all.
    I look forward to your coverage and thoughts, ciao lisa x

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2012/09/11

      Thank you Lisa! I have to say I agree with your husband, sometimes watching the elections, Americans really do seem like Fruit Loops.

      Reply

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