The World Puzzles Over Palin on a Motorcycle

Swedish and Japanese media merely note the event; Germans find it vulgar

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Ever wonder what our nation looks like to folks from afar? Here we look at how a uniquely American story--the kind of news we have trouble explaining even to ourselves--is being told overseas. Want to see a particular topic covered here? Let us know.

In America, folks jump on a motorcycle on Memorial Day to honor veterans. Yesterday, Sarah Palin did this, too, tacking it onto her will-she-or-won't-she bus tour as the 2012 presidential primary field heats up. Why, exactly, should an ex-governor showing up in leather on a Harley be a significant moment in campaign speculation? Good question. The foreign press seems fascinated by the entire event.

"The capricious Sarah Palin again called attention to herself by arriving Sunday, the 29 of May, on a Harley-Davidson in Washington," says the French Le Monde. She "began the day surrounded by bearded and long-haired 'bikers,'" the article continues. "These [bikers] each year take possession of the American capital on the eve of Memorial Day, officially celebrated Monday." Pointedly in comparison to other writeups, Le Monde adds: "According to a poll by Quinnipiac University published at the beginning of May 58% of polled persons affirmed that they would 'never' vote for Mrs. Palin."

Look to the slight liberties and linguistic variance in Die Welt's running of a Reuters story to get a sense of the German view of the event. After an introductory paragraph, the German paper adds:

Her husband Todd as well as her daughters Bristol and Piper rode along. "There is no better way to see D.C. than on the back of a Harley," she clarified later. On Monday during Memorial Day the war dead are remembered.

John Whitesides's original story for Reuters, to contrast, puts the quote third paragraph from the end, the verb is "said" instead of "clarifies" (the German version uses "erklärte," which can mean variously "stated," "explained," or "clarified," but does not use "sagte," perhaps the most literal translation of "said"), and skips the juxtaposition of Palin's somewhat unfortunate soundbite with the explanation of Memorial Day. Coincidence? Probably not. Consider the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung's writeup of the event, similarly illuminating when it comes to German view on the subject, although the article also relies on Washington Post reporting. It leads: "Sarah Palin has even stolen the show from American war veterans ... The former governor of Alaska rode through Arlington and Washington to wave graciously to onlookers on the side of the street."

Other, somewhat tamer explanatory articles showed up everywhere from Japan to Sweden, with the help of wire services. The Spanish El Pais merely ran a Reuters photo with a relatively unclarifying caption, while videos abounded in Germany. "Leather-clad Palin on HD-turn," read the headline for the AFP writeup on the Swedish Göteborgs-Posten site. "Palin's appearance has caused the media to go wild in speculation about an imminent announcement," reads the Danish Jyllands-Posten, which notes the "American press" frenzy over the event, as well as a few bikers' irritation that Palin's appearance overshadowed the actual Memorial Day ride. Russian online news site Lenta focuses on the entire phenomenon of the motorcycle memorial: it's "held annually on Remembrance Day (celebrated in the United States on the last Monday in May), arranged by the bikers from the organization 'Rolling Thunder,' dedicated to fighting for the rights of war veterans and prisoners of war," explains the site to its Russian audience, adding that George W. Bush joined the ride a few times and is an honorary Rolling Thunder member.

Heather Horn is fluent in written German and French, and proficient in written Arabic. All other languages are muddled through with the help of Google Translate.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.