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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 December, 2003, 21:13 GMT
US diary: Flu, fun and fever
BBC Washington correspondent Matt Frei
By Matt Frei
BBC Washington correspondent

In his latest column for BBC News Online, Matt Frei reflects on two diseases currently obsessing Americans and meets a president brimming with seasonal cheer.

man blowing nose
A flu jab is a good idea - if you can get it
Christmas is over and so, thankfully, is the season of fever, coughing and wheezing that turned the Frei household into something sounding more like a TB clinic over the holidays.

Santa Claus may have come down the chimney wearing a surgical mask but flu marched right through the front door of our house in Cleveland Park, striking down one family member after another.

At one stage the children all had cheeks as red as Russian dolls or Vermont apples and brows so hot you could fry an egg on them.

Black market?

I survived because I managed to get my flu jab early enough to kick in. This left me free and well to go on a desperate cloak-and-dagger search for the vaccine.

Conversation with Ned, the neighbour:

"Hey, Matt, have you heard? They still have some vaccine over at a clinic off Rockville Pike. I don't have the number but ask for a woman called Marie and say you're a friend of Gene."

I find the right number of the clinic. I ring and ask for Marie and am told that "she no longer works here".

Is it because she dished the goods on the vaccine? Did she run off with a few precious shots? Is she now selling them on the black market?

In the capital of the free world it is easier to find hard drugs or uranium these days than the humble flu vaccine.

The government had ordered too little for a year which most experts agreed would be prone to an epidemic.

But even if you are lucky enough to get a jab, it won't necessarily protect you against the strain of flu - Fujian, I believe - that is wreaking such havoc.

White House Christmas

Apart from seeing the expression of febrile wonder on my children's faces as they unwrapped their presents, my most gratifying Christmas moment came in, of all places, the White House.

Tree in Washington DC with White House in background
Americans know how to do Christmas
Americans know how to decorate their homes for Santa and no one does it better than the White House.

From the trees festooned in red and gold swirls, to the "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" sculpture, to the cascades of Poinsettias and the giant Nut Cracker effigies, it was all done with impeccable taste.

I know the words don't do it justice but even the most cynical Santaphobe would have felt a warm glow. I wish my kids could have seen it.

A friend of mine had invited me along to the annual TV Christmas party at the White House.

This involves queuing up to have your picture taken with the First Couple. I managed to grab 35 seconds of in-depth small talk with the president, 10 more than I was allotted.

Smiles, all smiles

He was brimming with good cheer, clearly still buoyed by the Baghdad bounce in the opinion polls after the capture of Saddam Hussein.

You have to admire his and her stamina. We were number 150 or so in line and there were at least another 450 guests after us.

And yet the smiles never faded and the vigorous Texan hand shakes never loosened. And this was just one of 22 Christmas parties.

Pity the Democrats who have been tying themselves into rhetorical Pretzels ever since Saddam Hussein's bad hair day.

Their responses were variations on the theme of:

  • "Yes, we are so pleased...but America is no safer", which is probably true

  • "Iraq is no less dangerous for coalition troops," which is also probably true

  • Or "judging from the continued attacks and casualties, the Middle East is no closer to an outbreak of democracy".
But it all sounded unavoidably ungracious. The American public certainly appreciated the capture.

President Bush at Christmas
President Bush seemed relaxed over the holiday period
Mr Bush ended the year with a 62% approval rating, a third successive quarter of economic growth and, as the icing on the Christmas cake, a pledge from the former Bad Boy of the Middle East, Colonel Gaddafi.

He has run Libya since 1969 - even longer than Saddam Hussein had ruled Iraq - and he pledged to show and tell all his dirty secrets about home-grown weapons of mass destruction.

No doubt he didn't want to end his career in "a spider hole" even though the Colonel had started his transformation from pariah to pal some time ago.

But the fate of his Iraqi colleague may have provided the final nudge of persuasion.

President Bush hammered home the lesson in a television address.

To paraphrase: "If you confess your sins you too will be embraced by the coalition of the willing. If you don't, you'll get your teeth checked and your hair deloused on prime time TV."

Big beef

This is the Bush doctrine in action. Tyrants beware - unless your governments are already helping the US in the open-ended "war on terror".

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Bush administration in 2004 will come not from live Democrats but from dead animals.

US beef
The cattle industry is a major political backer for Bush
Mad Cow Fever has hit the US. America and Canada are at each other's throats about whose cow harboured the deadly protein.

Japan, South Korea and Canada have temporarily banned US beef.

Government officials are force-feeding their children steak to reassure a worried public. And the cattle and ranching industry are up in arms.

They also happen to be some of the biggest donors and supporters of the Republican Party and this president.

Mr Bush of course owns a ranch in Texas. Could this president still be felled by the demise of the Texan ribeye? Dream on Dr Dean!


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