Saying I met a news reporter in Washington is like saying I met a guy with an F-150 in Vermont. Meeting this one reporter, Poul Funder Larsen, though, was interesting and it gave me an idea.
Aside from being a nice guy, Poul is the Washington bureau chief for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Think of it as the Wall Street Journal of Denmark.
Poul has been bureau chief in D.C. for nine months. Before that, he was bureau chief in Moscow for four years. Before that, he worked in London, Denmark, and an earlier stint in Moscow.
He files three to four stories a week about America and American politics, and tries not to simply replicate what the U.S. papers and cable channels cover. Poul and a reporter based in San Francisco cover all of America for the paper. Slouches.
One of Poul’s pieces came from a drive from Kansas City to Washington, photographer in tow. He talked with people along the way to get a sense of his new beat. He works out of the U.S. Capitol, rather than the White House (given that they don’t brief the press at the White House anymore), and gets around town to find his stories, burrowing like a rabbit into the administration, congressional offices and think tanks. He’s a tall, quiet Dane, taking in America from a unique perch.
So I decided to share Poul’s take on our Alice-in-Wonderland times.
Poul and I met for coffee to talk about the job of covering Washington for a European paper, what Danes think of America and Americans during these strange times, and what Poul thinks of us — and of Congress — from his seat.
According to Poul, the good will of Europeans toward America runs deep and is strong. “The U.S. is a very important ally. Britain and Scandinavia especially maybe like America more than does Germany and France, but then we need America more than does Germany and France,” he said.
He told me people distinguish between Trump and America. There is a strong appreciation of America, but Danes — prepare for understatement — think Trump “quite outrageous in many ways.”
He added, “The perception of America is very contradictory. Individual Americans can be so articulate, thoughtful, open and friendly, but the politics are so strident. It is difficult to reconcile the two views. Some days I think the country is going to split right down the middle,” he said, making a downward slashing gesture with his hand.
Poul noted the strange and loud tone in America. “For instance,” he said, “walking to meet you just now, I walked by a man standing by a bank. He seemed harmless and was leaning against the bank, and someone inside must have called the police, because he was surrounded by six police officers in menacing stances and all of their cars with the flashing lights. In Denmark, if the bank had called the police, if they even came, they would send one unarmed officer on a bicycle.”
On Congress, Poul finds the divisiveness troubling. “When I can talk with a member of Congress off the record, they might be more conciliatory toward the other side, but on the record not at all; much more divisive. It seems quite counterproductive but things seem to get done. The government and institutions are very strong and seem to function through it.” The divisiveness is too bad because it is creating wedges between people.
Denmark is a centrist country. The current government is center-right, but Poul believes in the upcoming elections it will swing again to center-left.
“Ninety-nine percent it will switch. That is how it goes,” he said, “first one and then the other.”
In talking about what he covers, Poul admitted, “Trump is a godsend.” Readers want “crazy, sexy, controversial” in the paper. “Everyone loves it,” he said. “As the saying goes, ‘if it bleeds, it leads,’ meaning the crazier the better.
In that sense, then, Trump is fantastic, but it is waning. It’s becoming ordinary.” On Mueller, he said “the detailed stuff is just not interesting to people. Readers feel it is all just droning on now.”
He told me Trump and the current atmosphere in Washington present the U.S. press with a profound challenge, which he believes the press is failing. Rather than dealing with the facts and laying out the story evenly, “we end up with these two internally consistent but completely different versions of the same story,” he said. “The two different realities are mutually exclusive and miss the main point,” he said.
“Trump tapped into something very important affecting the dispossessed in America, and now the economy is very strong. His pushback on Europe and Asia is in some ways right even if his language and actions are wrong.
“His theme of pulling out of Afghanistan after so many years is seen as logical, too, to most Danes, even if his way of doing it is seen as clearly ridiculous.
“We don’t see the two sides of the story reported in the same place here, however,” he said. “There is a deep, bedrock support of this president in America and the supporters are not crazy people, just people,” he said. “Democrats seem to do a very bad job of understanding that and countering it.”
He was most animated when we talked about his drive from Kansas City to D.C. He told me he met interesting people, not caricatures, all across the land and the political divide. They showed the traits Europeans love about America — openness, friendliness, warmth and curiosity — regardless of their politics.
There was not stereotypical Red State/Blue State American. Just America.
This dichotomy between the country and its voluble politics clearly struck him.
“I enjoyed that trip across the country so much,” he said. “What I see happening here in Washington, and in politics generally, it’s sad,” he said. “You are losing something. It’s sad.”
David M. Rocchio lives, works and writes in Stowe. Email letters to email@example.com.