Like Noam, I also caught Sarkozy this morning, in his appearance before a joint session of Congress. First impression: What an incredibly short world leader – his stature, combined with a weathered tan, gives him the look of a walnut. Second impression: This was the most patriotic speech about America I have ever heard -- and given by a Frenchman!
It wasn’t only that Sarkozy is such a famous Americaphile, the second coming of le cowboy. He also had a stranger’s freedom to praise America for its strengths in phrases that would be condemned as jingoistic or exceptionalist if they came out of the mouth of a native; say, Rudy, or even the eloquent Obama. Sarkozy’s language was the language of a suitor, who can shower a woman with the praises she always hopes are true but can never quite articulate for fear of becoming vain. “My generation did not love America only because she had defended freedom,” he said, soaring higher and higher on a cloud of adoration:
We also loved her because, for us, she embodied what was most audacious about the human adventure; for us, she embodied the spirit of conquest. We loved America because, for us, America was a new frontier that was continuously pushed back—a constantly renewed challenge to the inventiveness of the human spirit. … What was so extraordinary for us was that through her literature, her cinema, and her music, America always seemed to emerge from adversity even greater and stronger.
In a genuinely moving passage, he noted the unique mission inspiring the American soldiers who landed on Omaha Beach: In France,
fathers take their sons to see vast cemeteries where, under thousands of white crosses so far from home, thousands of young American soldiers lay, who had fallen not to defend their own freedom but the freedom of all others. Not to defend their own families, their own homeland, but to defend humanity as a whole.
Needless to say, in a chamber full of weary lawmakers jaded by the year’s partisan bickering, the speech went over like gangbusters. (Well! the mood went. I guess we are beautiful!) This diminutive walnut of a fellow got ovation after ovation, led by those members – Tom Lantos, Senator Norm Coleman, a gleeful John Kerry – who understood the French. Sarko’s political genius was that he had something for everybody: A little hawkishness on Iran got a smile going on Joe Lieberman’s face, while an exhortation that “those who love the country of wide open spaces expect America to stand alongside Europe in leading the fight against global warming” caused Rahm Emanuel and other Democrats to shoot to their feet, yelling, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and looking around at each other in bewildered joy: We actually like this guy!
His very best moment came in the form of a warning: His love for America is conditional. To stake a country on principles is a dangerous thing, because if you forget those principles, you cede your very claim to nationhood. No one understood this better, asserted Sarkozy, than
a black pastor who asked just one thing of America: that she be true to the ideal in whose name he—the grandson of a slave—felt so deeply American. His name was Martin Luther King. The world still remembers his words—words of love, dignity, and justice. And the men and women who had doubted America because they no longer recognized her began loving her again. What are those who love America asking of her, if not to remain forever true to her founding values?
It was moments like this one that led the very liberal, very dovish Congresswoman Barbara Lee—whom I wrote about last week—to fight her way ahead of Rahm Emanuel and other Democratic leaders when the speech was over and give the slightly alarmed-looking Sarkozy a hug. Think about that for a second: Barbara Lee and Nicolas Sarkozy, locked in an embrace. Forget Obama. Sarkozy to unite America! The waves of good, bipartisan cheer after the speech wafted all the way up to the press gallery, where the American reporters chattered, praising his appearance. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, if we’d all been just a little bit played. Turning to the French reporter next to me, I asked: “Did you like the speech? A great speech!” He rolled his eyes and laughed. Silly Americans. “We’ve heard it a million times before,” he replied.