Sauli Niinisto, the president of Finland, was exceedingly polite during his interactions with Donald Trump yesterday, even as the Republican struggled to keep his emotions in check. But the Finnish leader also took advantage of the opportunity to make some subtle points his American counterpart may have missed.
"We all know Europe needs USA," Niinisto said at a joint White House press conference. "But I say that USA needs also Europe. We know the price of everything. We should recognize also the value of everything."
As Fred Kaplan noted, the comments seemed to be a reference to "a well-known line from Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windemere's Fan, in which Lord Darlington defines a cynic as 'a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.' It seemed pretty clear that the Finnish president was calling his American counterpart a cynic."
The Finnish leader also said at the same event:
"Ladies and gentlemen, before meeting, I had some spare time, so I visited a couple of museums here -- Museum of American History, Museum of American African History, and Museum of American Indian History. And in addition to that, I had a possibility of attending ceremony in Arlington."Mr. President, you have here a great democracy. Keep it going on."
Toward the end of the press conference, Niinisto added, "I'm impressed what American people have gained during these decades -- a hundred-so years -- building up very impressive democracy. So, keep it going on."
I don't know the Finnish president and I won't pretend to have any special insights into his point of view. But under the circumstances, as Niinisto repeated his message for emphasis, it seemed as if he were somewhat concerned about the future of the American experiment.
Those who have unreserved confidence about the endurance of a political society don't generally feel the need to urge its leaders to take care to preserve it.
Trump, however, lacks the ability to appreciate the subtext.
"And please remember [Niinisto's] last remarks: that we are a great democracy," the Republican declared in response. "We are a great -- the United States is a great democracy. And I'm airing what I'm airing because we are, in fact, a democracy. And if the press were straight and honest and forthright and tough, we would be a far greater nation. We would be a far greater when we don't have the CNNs of the world, who are corrupt people."
Perhaps the Finnish president should've dumbed down his point a bit.