It is exasperating listening to the news as we approach this most important election. The coverage is all about comparing the length of the candidate’s sentences. How many big words do they use?


It is exasperating listening to the news as we approach this most important election. The coverage is all about comparing the length of the candidate’s sentences. How many big words do they use? Who’s on Leno or Letterman? Whose jaw is more like Richard Nixon’s, rather than whose deceptions… In resolving these pressing issues, cameras are breathlessly focused upon the inscrutable thought processes of the latest pollster chimera, the Republican-leaning, formerly staunchly Democratic blue-collar “security mom.” Since she is a statistically average but politically swinging kind of girl, she is a much sought-after media date. Journalists are stationed in coffee shops and Wal-Marts across America hoping to flush her out and capture her angst about which man is manly enough to guarantee her children a place on the planet. The three-second soundbites, alas, always make her sound like Olive Oyl trying to decide between Brutus and Popeye.

There is no such angst beyond our borders. With near unanimity, newspapers around the world–even the most conservative end of the British press–are wondering what is going on in the inscrutable thought processes of Donald Rumsfeld. The elections in Iraq may be “not quite perfect,” he says; it wouldn’t matter to him if parts of that country were not included because of the ongoing violence. Indeed, opines Rumsfeld, some American cities are as dangerous as some parts of Iraq, and hell, we carry on with our elections.

While we are left to surmise, with some apprehension, which American cities are so dangerously imperfect as to risk being left behind, the international media ponder the upside-down, if sunny-side-up priorities in George W. Bush’s speech to the United Nations. They worry about the doctrine of pre-emptive warfare as a dangerous model and legally unprecedented global standard. They focus on the ideological inconsistencies behind American neoconservatives’ endorsement of “freedom” without stability in Iraq, of “justice” without regard for conventions against torture and of “democracy” without human rights.

It is fascinating to skim the headlines of the world’s press. I recommend it–anyone can do it, just go online, where you can get English-language versions of most major papers. One gets an ominous sense of our media searching for a Monica/OJ moment with which it can spin a little sensation, while the rest of the world, feeling its own future hanging in the balance, wrings its hands in despair at the dereliction.

A month or so ago, I was in rural France, visiting some old friends who have moved there. I went to a store that is the French equivalent of Circuit City to see if I could infuse my son’s hippity-hop inclined brain with a few foreign-language computer games. As I stood before a wall of offerings trying to decide, I asked the opinion of a fellow shopper, a young French boy, 12 years of age. He promptly handed me the French version of Medal of Honor–“C’est super!” he crowed. When I groaned, we fell into conversation about why I didn’t want to give my son war games. When he discovered I was American, he said that yes, he could understand–war was “more than a computer game” in America. Then he volunteered that he loved all things American, but he wouldn’t want to go there. Too dangerous. Besides, his parents wouldn’t want him traveling someplace where human life was “valued so little.” Guns, he said. The murder rate. “And you execute children, don’t you?”

We talked some more. He was from Nantes, and when he discovered I was born in Boston, he asked, “Where Mr. Kerry is from?”

“That’s right,” I said, impressed–and was more impressed yet when he observed that Kerry’s foreign policy was very close to “that of Mr. Clinton, no?” and then went on to compare them in some detail.

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation since. Perhaps he was an exceptional child, but I don’t think so. In my limited travel experience (to Western Europe, South Africa, Canada and Australia) almost anyone I run into has a better sense of our political system and its carryings-on than any given audience member of The Tonight Show. What struck me with great force as I chatted with that boy was the way our media keep saying that Kerry “hasn’t defined himself.” Yet here was a random kid in a random shopping mall in suburban western France who could define Kerry–and Bush for that matter–better than some American news anchors.

From this perspective, therefore, the problem seems less Kerry’s ability to communicate–in however many dense sentences or in whatever idiom–than how much of what he says is actually being conveyed to the American public. Why, I wonder, is our political life so marginal to daily life and to average citizens? Why is our educational system so dismal, our civic discourse so diminished, that schoolkids abroad sound as though they have better-informed opinions about our wars than the “security moms” whose sons are marching off to fight them?

We remain so obsessed with who is more “commanding”–in an adjectival sense, as though command were an aura or an aftershave. Where is any analysis of the actual chain of what has been commanded–in a verbal sense, in the sense of a path that tracks the recent history of real directives, real executive orders? Who commanded what part of the trajectory that has led us not just into an unnecessary and illegal war but from an all-time high of prosperity and surplus to an all-time low of debt, deficit and domestic divisiveness?

A few days after that trip to the CD store, I went to EuroDisney with my son. It’s an odd place, this Disneyfied world on the edge of Paris. We’d been before, about five years ago, but that was before they had soldiers pacing around the gates. This time there were big men in army uniforms carrying very big machine guns. It was odd and alarming and sad, this sight of soldiers guarding the ultimate Fantasyland and symbol of American innocence–as though Cinderella’s castle and Alice in Wonderland were under house arrest.

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