Sunday, March 14, 2004

It wasn’t exactly a stroke of genius. It was more a stroke of stupidity when Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and the Democratic presidential nominee presumptive, told a fund-raiser foreign leaders are pulling for him. He actually seems to believe this is an argument for his election. Listen:

“I’ve met foreign leaders who can’t go out and say this publicly but, boy, they look at you and say, ‘You gotta win this, you gotta beat this guy. We need a new policy,’ things like that.”

Naturally these foreign leaders didn’t identify themselves. They might look as if they were meddling. Because they would be.

Just who are these people? John Kerry won’t say, but his critics in the GOP are only too glad to speculate: North Korea’s Kim Jong-il? Iran’s mullahs?

Those guesses sound a little heavy-handed. I would nominate the leaders of Old Europe. Like France’s Jacques Chirac or Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder. Not Tony Blair, for sure. He stood with us. And paid the price. He has been about as popular with the BBC as George W. Bush is on NPR.

Of course it doesn’t have to be a government leader who has been whispering into John Kerry’s ear. How about an insufferably smug editor like Jean-Marie Colombani of Le Monde, France’s snootiest journal? The French press really hasn’t changed all that much since the capital of France was Vichy. And that country’s leading newspaper still tends to favor appeasing the threat du jour. As the French say, plus ca change … . The more things change, the more, alas, they remain the same.

Messr. Colombani has been visiting America, and every time he sneers at George W. Bush and cheers for John F. Kerry, he might as well be on the Republican National Committee’s payroll, considering the effect he has on the American public. Americans haven’t much cottoned to foreigners telling us what to do since at least 1776.

Let it be said for these unnamed foreign leaders that they had the sense to speak to Mr. Kerry on the QT, knowing how their endorsement would go over with American voters in this, the 228th year of the independence of the United States of America.

It was Sen. Kerry who had to go blabbing it about. Not very smart. It’s George W. Bush who is supposed to be the dummy in this race — if you believe the president’s critics. The big problem with running against someone you consider a dummy, or want the voters to, is how easy it is to misunderestimate your opponent. That’s been George W. Bush’s great advantage in politics.

Mr. Kerry’s latest tactic — bragging about his confidential foreign support — makes you wonder just who’s the dummy.

At times like these, when the bien-pensant are explaining how crude, arrogant and generally untrustworthy American foreign policy is, some of us tend to drift off. (We heard that line a lot during the Cold War.)

Soon we’re daydreaming about the what-ifs of history. Suppose, for example, John Kerry hadn’t been born in the United States but in Paris a generation or two earlier. What with all those Czech Jews in his family tree, would he have been rounded up with the other Jewish children and handed over to the Gestapo for transport to Buchenwald?

And today, would John Kerry’s name and memory be as forgotten as the rest of France’s collaborationist past? Instead of France’s favorite candidate for president of the United States, would he be just one more part of a forgotten era? And one the French are only too happy to forget.

On hearing the distinguished editor of Le Monde lecturing America on its sins, my reaction is much the same as the one on Claude Rains’ face when he throws away that bottle of Vichy water at the end of “Casablanca”: revulsion.

Now that Messr. l’editor has let it be known France’s candidate in this presidential race is John Kerry, it occurs that, with friends like that, Mr. Kerry doesn’t need any enemies to pull the rug out from under him.

And when French intellectuals, or intellectuals in general, speak of this fascist American administration, do you think they’ve noticed this same American administration has just toppled two fascist regimes, one each in Afghanistan and Iraq? It was the French who helped build Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in the 1980s, and were profiting from his corrupt, U.N.-approved oil-for-palaces scheme right up to the day he was chased out of power.

L’envoi — the more things change, the more curiously the same the French remain.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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