Thursday, March 18, 2004

Queen Latifah may or may not be the only “foreign leader” to actually endorse John Kerry, but it’s clear that the Democratic campaign so far is working better abroad than it is at home.

Monsieur Kerry, the rage of Paris, the toast of Berlin, sprouting in Brussels and boffo in Brittany, continues to insist that a lot of world leaders have endorsed him, but only privately. He told one citizen with an inquiring mind the other day in Pennsylvania that it was none of his business who those world leaders are. Officials of the governments of France, Germany, Russia, Canada and Mexico have said they’re as puzzled as the rest of us about who these mystery leaders might be. No word yet from Lower Volta, Upper Slobbovia or Grand Marnier. Late-night comic David Letterman says Queen Latifah, the bountifully busty big-booted movie star, is the only Kerry-mad world leader he can find, but Her Royal Highness, actually as American as Chicago, is said to be vacationing in Tahiti and could not be reached to say whether she gets the joke.

Nevertheless, it’s true that Monsieur Kerry is a man for all European seasons. The French, as you might expect, are gaga and it’s not even April. His haughty Gallic face is spread across newspapers and newsmagazines, and radio and television talk shows can’t get enough Kerry talk.

“People are going crazy,” the chairwoman of Democrats Abroad tells the New York Sun. “My phone is ringing from morning to night because everybody wants to know about Kerry. I’m even getting calls from French people asking if they can contribute to the campaign.”

The French generally think about as much of the Americans as the Americans think of the French, which is usually not very much, and these early spasms of delight are not about America, but about Monsieur Kerry, whom our French friends regard as more French than American. (Can 60 million Frenchmen be wrong?) He was educated, after all, at a boarding school in Switzerland, where he learned to speak fluent nuance, and this skill naturally endears him to the average French official who has been taught to say “I surrender” in several languages. He spent his boyhood summers with French cousins in Brittany, and can order snails or chitlins (which the French call tripes a la mode de Caen) in several dialects. He can sneer at “the Anglo-Saxons” at war in Iraq with the fluent elegance of Jacques Chirac. When he vows to restore the glory of France all Europe cheers.

“There is no question the Bush administration is unpopular in France, as it is across Europe,” Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States, tells the Sun. “Bush himself is deeply unpopular. He is perceived as being nonpresidential; even his demeanor makes Europeans uneasy.”

The chairman of Democrats Abroad, who seems to have been abroad too long, agrees. Kerry “is the closest thing that you will have to a French politician, with a certain diplomacy, a certain elegance,” she says. “He is more like a leader would be in Europe. He doesn’t look like a Texan.”

Indeed he doesn’t, but it’s not clear how French frenzy, German gaga, Belgian delirium or partisan hysteria in Luxembourg will help Monsieur Kerry and the Democrats at home. Taking solace in foreign approval when things go sour at home has become a Democratic disease. When even his Democratic friends took offense at Bill Clinton’s enthusiasm for the oral in the Oval Office pantry, he consoled himself with the sympathetic clucking of admirers abroad, who never understood why Americans regard lying about sex, even under oath, as grounds for impeachment.

The Democratic yearning for European approval surfaces in dangerous ways. Stephen Breyer, one of the Democratic justices on the Supreme Court, is eager to submit the Constitution to European editing. “Our Constitution and how it fits into the governing documents of other nations,” he says, “will be a challenge for the next generation.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Clinton legacy on the court, goes further. She and her colleagues, she says, “are becoming more open to comparative and international law perspectives.”

Thomas Jefferson admonished us to entertain “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” but cutting the Constitution down to European size, like measuring a man who would be president by European standards, would puzzle the dead white men who wrote the Constitution. Monsieur Kerry might be the most puzzled of all, when he discovers that he’s swimming up the wrong mainstream.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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