When it comes to Donald Rumsfeld's "old Europe," it doesn't get much older than Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president who is the head of the Convention on the Future of Europe, a body working toward drafting a European constitution. Giscard, who delivered the second annual Henry Alfred Kissinger Lecture at the Library of Congress last night, says he saw his first glimpse of German soil through the scope of his tank in the Second World War; now he's attempting to forge an unprecedented consensus among the 15 (and soon to be 25) European governments that make up the European Union.

When he was appointed to the convention in December 2001, his detractors dredged up the old complaints: that he is imperious, aloof, arrogant. The Economist called him "cadaverous" and "yesterday's man," and other writers (with good memories) recalled his missteps of two decades ago, including some ill-advised public partying with an unsavory African dictator. Rather as some Americans sigh whenever it looks like Henry Kissinger is going to have another public act, there was audible grumbling about bad pennies when Giscard was selected.

He is a tall man who, in his mid-seventies, has lost none of the physical presence -- the straight back and curious immobility -- of someone who has enjoyed power throughout the majority of his life. With Kissinger in the front row of the library's packed Coolidge Auditorium, he addressed an audience hungry for good news about European-American comity and cooperation. He didn't offer much, though the thesis of his talk could be boiled down to this: America needs a unified Europe. Not many reasons were given.

"America needs and deserves a strong ally and partner," he said. Giscard has the ability to say the most diplomatic things while conveying the unmistakable sense that what he really thinks America needs is to be run naked through a spanking machine a few dozen times.

He also has the ability to say virtually nothing, which should serve him well in his effort to create some kind of working government, with a unified foreign policy and budget, that will keep France and Germany in the driver's seat while not alienating smaller and newer members of the European Union. Specificity can only harm his efforts as it is sure to anger some constituency. Already there have been divisive arguments about what role religion (specifically Christianity) should play in the document, which has angered Jews and Muslims. Even the name of the new entity -- United States of Europe? United Europe? -- has proved contentious. When a draft constitution was made public last October, it read more like a plan or a map of a constitution than a constitution (imagine all the sticky points glossed over with "language about enumeration of powers goes here").

Giscard made the inevitable comparison between efforts to draft a European constitution and the framing of the U.S. Constitution. Supporters of a strong European constitution see the parallel with the United States as a strongly legitimizing precedent. And some of the mechanics of constitution-building are the same, especially the stumbling blocks: how to create a government that balances the prerogatives of a few very large countries with the needs of smaller, less populous ones, and how much individual identity the nations should retain.

"In some ways our task is trickier," he said. There is no clear agreement about whether Europe wants to be a strong federation, or a loose confederation of states; and the cultural diversity that must be bridged is even greater than that faced by the authors of the U.S. Constitution. Europe already has several bodies, including the European Union, that answer some of its collective needs; not everyone (especially the Brits) feels a burning desire to create yet stronger ties.

And then there's history. Imagine how much more rancorous the 1787 debate in Philadelphia would have been if, say, Virginia had tried to take over the world twice in living memory, or if New York had coughed up a Hitler or a Napoleon. That Europe has already moved toward a single currency, and is even discussing the idea of unification, is a political miracle.

So Giscard rankles a bit when Americans (or anyone else) presume to find some of the ideas emerging from his convention downright odd. There has been a proposal for a system that would include two presidents, perhaps one to represent Europe on the global stage, and a second to deal with messy internal affairs.

"The people who say you need to have one single president are killing the system," said Giscard in a rare flash of what might be pique. Seen from the outside, he suggests, the American division of power, among branches of the government, and between federal and state governments, might look just as odd. And, he reminds the audience, it took this country decades and a civil war to get the kinks out of its founding document.

Only once in the evening did Giscard directly address one of the touchier subjects to bedevil the constitutional process. Asked about whether Turkey should be a part of the new constitution, he said, "I will answer frankly, which is rare."

And the answer is no. "Are they fully Europeans?" he asked. "No."

Mostly, he wielded English like a scalpel. When asked about the "Franco-German axis" he repeated the phrase as "the Franco-German team." He clearly doesn't like the word "axis." But when asked what the debate about war in Iraq would do to European unity and relations with this country, he was masterfully evasive: "We don't know. There will be an effect. It would be dishonest to deny it. But the effect is complex."

Former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing gave the Library of Congress's Kissinger lecture.Henry Kissinger and wife Nancy listen to Valery Giscard d'Estaing speak at the second annual Henry Alfred Kissinger Lecture at the Library of Congress last night.