Ursula Carlson: The Latvian take on Hillary, Sarah, and Vaira
You may not know it, and who would blame you for not knowing, given the fact that Latvia has rarely made an appearance on the world’s stage, but Latvians elected a woman president in 1999, and she served two four-year terms. Electing a woman was no big deal. It’s not my intention to crow about it, either. In fact, I’m going be completely honest and tell you point blank that Latvians are, in my opinion, incorrigible braggarts. (Just so you know, I’m only a pure Latvian on my father’s side. Mother’s side is a mixture of Latvian, Swedish, Polish, and German. I have often wished we’d had a dollop of Finnish or Estonian ” but I don’t want to get off the track here).
Just because Latvians don’t have hang-ups about women in politics, doesn’t mean they are free of prejudice, bigotry, or just plain weird thinking. For instance, most Latvians I know did not and do not like Hillary Clinton. They felt she was not supportive of her husband, wanted his job, and had a screechy, yet monotone speaking voice. (How, they wondered, could she be an effective lawyer and yet such a dull speaker?) They also did not care for her taste in clothes or hairstyles (a big item, there, let me tell you). As if that were not enough, they did not think she was sincere, nor was she clever enough to act as if she were sincere. They did like her law degree ” no surprise about that ” since Latvians are very big on education.
You can imagine what the Latvians I know are saying about Sarah Palin. “She is so natural, so down-to-earth. And she obviously does her own hair!” For the debate, they thought, she should have worn her hair up on top of her head, not down ” not only would that be more presidential, but long, loose hair at any age is suspect. They think it’s rather cute that she doesn’t know much about issues; after all, it’s not as if she’s running for president. It’s such a “delight,” they say, to just hear her chatter, to see if they can guess when she’ll wink next or bite her lower lip in that endearing way she has. She could be an actress, they say, the way her face expresses emotion. And they like the fact that she’s not ashamed to wear glasses, even though she would be more attractive with contact lenses. The only reservations they have about her is her willingness to kill wolves and the fact that she and her husband made $170,000 last year, plus the $17,000 she got for expenses. Latvians can’t imagine the Palins sitting around the kitchen table worrying about how much the price of milk has gone up in the last month.
Latvia’s woman president ” Vaira Vike-Freiberga ” was 62 when she was elected. As you might expect, she’s long on credentials. She speaks Latvian, French, English, Spanish and German and has a Ph.D. in psychology from McGill University in Canada. She has written 10 books, authored at least 160 articles and essays, and two years ago was designated by Forbes as the 64th most powerful woman in the world. She was in the running for Secretary General of the United Nations, after her presidential term of office was over, but her candidacy was vetoed by Russia (no surprise) and she withdrew. And of course she’s a wife and mother.
What can I say? Latvians are ivory tower kind of people. They probably hold the record on most books per household in the world. So … I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but Vike-Freiberga didn’t belong to any political party. Not that there weren’t plenty of political parties to choose from ” at least 18, if I remember correctly. I recall the telephone wires buzzing all over the U.S. as the Latvian-Americans tried to figure out which parties were actually “for Latvia” and which ones were “secretly Communistic” since all of the names sounded ambiguous: “The Way Party,” the “People’s Party,” “The Nation’s Party,” “The First Party,” etc.
Clearly, the Latvians in Latvia have a long way to go before they reach the political sophistication of Latvian-Americans. Those native Latvians have got to look beyond a person’s credentials and focus on the candidate’s private life: Has he or she been unfaithful? Has he or she indulged in unsavory sexual practices? Did he or she suffer child abuse or poverty in childhood? Can he or she speak like your normal, high school graduate?
So, can I predict how the Latvian-Americans are going to vote this November? It’s a hard call. Much as Latvian-Americans (and native Latvians) value the three E’s: education, eloquence, and elegance, and therefore Barak Obama would be the natural choice, I am ashamed to say that Latvians are not above being prejudiced, especially the older generation.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches literature and writing at Western Nevada College.