Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber is the last American.
He is French, this dernier Americain, the French having made an intellectual cottage industry of telling us who we are.
Alexis de Tocquieville, etc. plus ca change, etc.
You have the greatest computer scientists in the world -- Stanford, MIT . . . And you don't listen to them!" says JJSS, as he likes to call himself, in the American style of FDR or JFK. (JJSS are "the most famous initials in France along with BB for Brigitte Bardot," he'll tell you.)
JJSS, at 56, has hair that vectors up on the sides, then flattens, out on top, a style reminiscent of the sort of guy that Playboy was designed to reach back in the 1950s; the style of, say, the first electrical engineer in Milwaukee to own a British sports car.
He is the author, lately, of a book called "The World Challenge," which promotes the ideas that: the Arabs have all the money, the Japanese have the organization, and the West has the technology, especially American with its computers.
This is not what you'd call news, but the book is the rage of France he says, now in his hotel suite, with that odd accent that lifts the lips off the teeth in a sort of kissing gesture.
Furthermore, he's done the "MacNeil/Lehrer Report," National Town Meeting and a lecture at the National Press Club as part of a big publicity swing. He's hoping for another success like his 1968 book, "The American Challenge," which warned that Europe was about to be taken over by superior American business acumen. That wasn't quite the way it worked out in the '70s, but that wasn't JJSS' fault. Instead, he'll take the credit.
"They listened to my warning, they did what I told them," he says. He wears a zip-up sweat shirt with the collar flipped up, as if for action of some kind. The blue pants are part of the blue suit he always wears for more formal occasions, along with the blue shirts and the black tie. Always. Very practical. Technological man. Never eats lunch, never goes to big dinner parties, always insists on knowing who the guests are at small ones before he accepts.
"I don't care anything about food or wine," he says. How un-French. How American-of-the-1950s, that decade when it was "the American century."
"I don't care anything about food or wine," he says. How un-french. How America-of-the-1950s, that decade when it was "the American century."
He acquired his fascination with the American way during World War II when he fled France to become a fighter pilot for the Free French under de Gaulle.
"The American flight training was so thorough," he says. "It was fantastic, the massive scale of it, they had to invent new methods of moving the people through."
After the war, he finished his education at the Ecole Polytechnique, one of what the French call the "grandes ecoles," roughly equivalent to our Ivy League. This was all part of being from a large, rich and well-connected publishing family, a background that has contributed to him being called "the French John Kennedy." Nobel-Prize novelist Francois Mauriac once dubbed him "the Kennedylet."
His next career step was a job writing editorials for Le Monde, the newspaper that is the voice of the French establishment. Then, in 1953, he founded L'Express, a leftist weekly that would ultimately tone down its militance to become the Time or Newsweek of France.
"We had Mauriac, Malraux, Sartre and Camus writing for us," he says.
Around that time, too, "I became the youngest assistant to Pierre Mendes-France. I was the one who named him PMF." Mendes-France was the prime minister remembered in this country largely for his doomed campaign to persuade the French to drink milk instead of wine.
"He was the most exciting politician since World War II, he still is. He made peace in Vietnam in one month! One Month!"
The month being . . .
And when was the catastrophic defeat at Dienbienphu?
JJSS' opposition in L'Express to the French colonial war in Algeria prompted the government to draft him and send him to Algeria in 1956.
"I refused to go back into the Air Force. I said, 'I'm not going to bomb those people. But I'll go as an officer in the Army.'"
Which he did for a year and a half, winning his revenge not only with his book "Lieutenant in Algeria," and his revelations of French torture tactics, but with his acquittal after a courtmartial that dragged on for four years.
Fighter pilot, journalist, persecuted anticolonialist, and all-'round bright young man . . . JJSS had fame, glamor, money and charisma on his side. He was modern man in a France still rooting around in worn-out glory for its identity. He could attack a popular de Gaulle but still be part of the mainstream because of his service as a fighter pilot in World War II. He could be a leftist who nonetheless opposed socialism, a French intellectual who nonetheless admired America.
In the era of the American century, he seemed to be the Frenchman of the era.
Such drama: "I am a little bit like Gen. Patton -- he was a bit of a radical. He liked to forge ahead."
The problem being that Patton's career ran into some rough road, as has Servan-Schreiber's. Some observers in France have wondered if he isn't self-destructive. In 1970, having won his first election as the representative from Lorraine, he turned around and ran for another seat in a by-election against Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas. It wasn't illegal, but it was considered bad form. He lost, but claims now, "I never expected to win, I was merely registering a protest against his politics." After an on-again, off-again ride as editor of L'Express, during which the staff sometimes wasn't sure who was running it, he finally sold it to Angle-French industrialist Sir James Goldsmith in 1977. He spent three weeks as a member of the Cabinet of Giscard d'Estaing, resigning over his disagreement with nuclear testing in the Pacific. He was also known for such flamboyant gestures as flying to Athens and bringing back Greek composer Theodorakis from the jails of the right-wing junta. When he lost his Lorraine seat in 1978, in a run-off election, he was left with no firm power base. He began "The World Challenge," which he would put together with a staff or four, who are not mentioned in the book.
JJSS likes to call the book "a novel. Yes, of course. It's about human beings and adventure."
The style is breathlessly anecdotal, in the style of, say, the old Saturday Evening Post: "High in the mountains of Jejaz in Saudi Arabia, before the land drops sharply to the Red Sea, sits a quiet little village lost to the outside world . . . "
The prose glints with private jets, secret conversations and, above all, big names, from Churchill to Castro. JJSS seems to have been hunkering at the keyholes of all of them.
"Nasser was fond of Guevara . . . Pensively he looked at his friend. 'You really surprise me. What's happened to you in Cuba? You haven't quarreled with Castro, have you?'"
JJSS is also a master of the steely-eyed overview as practiced best in American by Time magazine. Lines like "Hitler was a gambler, but a shrewd one" litter the book. It's as if he sees everything as a movie, which is to say he sees it American-style, shoot-out style.
As, for instance, now in the hotel room, he says, "I said to Pompidou, 'You will not sell 10 Concordes.' He said, 'We will sell 350 Concordes.' They sold none. none!"
Asked about his preference for describing everything from oil shortages to microchips in anecdotes, he quotes Lenin's dictum that "truth is always concrete."
It is suggested that his quixotic career is reminiscent, too, of Eugene McCarthy's.
"McCarthy!" he cries. "I like him."
He is not concerned about the future. "My parachute is my sons. I cannot end life in the body because they are there. I am not interested in what happens to my career. My relationship with the public is always there. I am a public man. I enjoy the public debate."
He gets up and grabs a pile of glossy papers.
"Would you like to see the dust jackets!" he says. He deals them out on the bed, "The World Challenge" in Arabic, Japanese, Italian, Urdu, "El Desafio Mundial," "Sujetski Izazov," and so on, his own personal empire, his Pax JJSS. Certainly, they don't make Americans like that anymore.