By Dana Milbank
Thursday, November 8, 2007
When the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat and Revolutionary War hero, visited George Washington, he presented the father of our country with, among other things, two golden pheasants, two hounds and some mules.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy carried no livestock with him to Mount Vernon yesterday, but he brought what for President Bush has become a rare and valuable thing: the affection of a Frenchman.
While large numbers of Sarkozy's countrymen regard the American president as the devil incarnate, the new French president described Bush as "open-minded" and "warm." With Bush at his side on the lawn of George Washington's mansion yesterday, Sarkozy gushed about his visit: "So much friendship, so much love."
Indeed, Sarkozy seemed to fancy himself a modern-day Lafayette, retracing the steps of the French noble who became Washington's aide-de-camp. This cast Bush in the supporting role of George Washington, a performance Bush was delighted to give. The result was an extended historical reenactment by the two world leaders.
"In 1777, another George W. welcomed to America another Frenchman; his name was Lafayette," Bush said Tuesday night in a toast to Sarkozy. Sarkozy answered with an anecdote about John Quincy Adams, "who was welcoming Lafayette in these selfsame walls, in this selfsame house."
The toasts done, White House aides sent in the after-dinner entertainment: a professional Washington impersonator toasting an actor playing Lafayette.
The Lafayette figure called Washington "the father of liberty." The Washington character called Lafayette "France's bravest son." The Washington character invited the Lafayette character to join him on Wednesday at Mount Vernon -- precisely the day Bush and Sarkozy were scheduled to lunch at Washington's mansion on Chesapeake Bay crabs, seared rockfish and apple tart. A la mode, of course.
Sarkozy continued his Lafayette tour yesterday morning as he addressed a joint meeting of Congress. "I speak to you as I stand before the portraits of Washington and of Lafayette," he said. "Lafayette was the first to speak to both chambers."
Bush resumed his George Washington duties at the afternoon news conference. "Welcome here to George Washington's old home," the new George Washington said.
"I especially enjoyed the skit of the dialogue between George Washington and Lafayette that we witnessed," the new Lafayette replied.
As the French say: Trop c'est trop. The theme could not have been any more over the top if the two men wore powdered wigs and false teeth.
On the other hand, it was a welcome diversion for two leaders in need of an escape from the trials of 21st-century life. Bush, after nearly seven years on the job, struggles to secure the support of three in 10 Americans. Sarkozy, after just five months on the job, lost the support of his own wife, who refused to join him on an earlier visit with Bush and divorced Sarkozy last month.
On his Washington trip, the French leader has been all about winning back love -- America's, not his wife's. "I wish to reconquer the heart of America," he announced at the White House.
"The imaginations of my generation were fueled by Hollywood, by the great conquest of the western territories, by Elvis Presley," the Frenchman told Congress. "It was Duke Ellington, Hemingway, John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe."
Later, with Bush at Mount Vernon, he testified: "When I say that the French people love the American people, that is the truth and nothing but the truth."
American lawmakers, delighted to be in the presence of a friendly French leader, crowded the House floor to shake hands with Sarkozy. They interrupted his speech 28 times to applaud, many times jumping to their feet. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), proud of his French-language skills, sat in the second row without using his translation device, nodding regularly to show his comprehension.
Even the Francophobic Bush got into the spirit. Bush, who once chided a reporter for asking President Jacques Chirac a question in French while in France, spoke the forbidden language himself. "Bienvenue ¿ la maison blanche," he told Sarkozy on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he dubbed his secretary of state "Madame Rice."
"Our two nations are honoring their legacy of Lafayette by helping others resist tyranny and terror," Bush said in his toast to Sarkozy. He reminded the audience that the two would meet at Mount Vernon, "where George Washington welcomed his friend Lafayette."
Sarkozy picked up the theme yesterday. "What could possibly have brought together two men who were so different in terms of age and of origin, Lafayette and George Washington? It is their common values," he declared. Sarkozy was so eager to please his hosts that he neglected to mention a word about Iraq.
From there, the neo-Lafayette left for Mount Vernon, where the stage for the press conference was as cold as winter at Valley Forge. Fortunately, the two leaders, unlike Washington and Lafayette, had propane heaters to keep them warm as they traded platitudes.
"We want a democratic Iraq," Sarkozy said.
"Freedom's happenin' in Iraq," Bush said.
Bush liked what he heard from the new French leader. "I have a partner in peace," he concluded as he cut the press conference short.
Departing in Marine One, Bush and his entourage spewed dust and fumes on Sarkozy and his entourage as they took off.
It was a 21st-century end to an 18th-century day.