Monday, February 25, 2008
The Political Value Of Wit
In case it doesn't make the American news, Nicolas Sarkozy caused a new uproar yesterday at the Agriculture Salon when he responded vulgarly to an insult from a passerby. As Sarkozy was making his way through the Salon, reaching out and shaking hands with those headed in the opposite direction, a man in his late-fifties or so objected, saying "Don't touch me," in a very hostile tone of voice. He added an expression that translates poorly into English but which roughly means "You'll contaminate me." (Literally it translates as "You'll dirty me".) To which Sarkozy without hesitation responded, "Then beat it, you pathetic bastard." The actual French, pauvre con (which more literally translates to "poor cunt"), is a vulgar expression of absolute contempt. The entire incident (neither man stopped walking, so it can't properly be described as a confrontation) was of course captured on video.
The episode is revealing for yet again demonstrating Sarkozy's "man of the people" bona fides, for better or worse. But it also serves to set up this great passage that Art Goldhammer over at French Politics flagged from Marianne's online edition:
Older folks will remember that, confronted with equally difficult situations, presidents in the past adopted a more regal bearing. Take Jacques Chirac, for instance, to whom an onlooker called out "Bastard!" while he was leaving mass at Bormes-les-Mimosas. "Nice to meet you," replied the former Head of State. "Jacques Chirac, here." Compare that Cyrano de Bergerac-like riposte with General de Gaulle's inspired response when confronted with a vibrant cry of "Death to the morons!": "A vast undertaking." (Translated from the French.)
The passage made me realize to what extent Barack Obama represents a return of wit to the American political arena. Every time he is attacked, he manages to respond in a way that impresses with its cleverness, and that is perfectly lethal not despite, but because of the absolute lack of venom in the parry. I'm thinking in particular of his, "I'm looking forward to having you as one of my advisors, too, Hillary." But there are other examples.
As a reflection of character, it contrasts favorably with the brittle reactivity of the Bush administration, as well as the rapid response tactics of the Clinton era. In fact, I hate to say it but I think you'd have to go as far back as Reagan to find its equivalent.