Posts Tagged ‘politicians’

Rumors have been flying that both France President Nicholas Sarkozy and his wife, singer/model Carla Bruni, have strayed. By American standards, things are pretty far along: Bruni is said to have fallen in love and moved in with popular French singer Benjamin Biolay. Meanwhile Sarkozy has supposedly taken up with right-wing politician (and former karate champion) Chantal Jouanno.

But between strict national privacy laws and the notorious French indifference to the personal pecadillos of political figures, no one seems inclined to confirm these rumors, least of all, the French mainstream press.

The whispering, such as it is, is taking place in — where else — the blogosphere. Three French-language blogs are reporting on the supposed affairs, though the one I read did not seem to constitute confirmable information. Besides, why would a mainstream editor risk angering public figures to follow a story that does not, in the French version of politics, relate to the political? As the French themselves might say,  “Ca ne fait rien.”

Contrast this attitude with the United States, whose tabloid culture permits pusuit of almost any public figure. Ever since Presidential candidate Gary Hart challenged journalists to “catch him in the act” with  model Donna Rice, the personal lives of politicians have become fair game for former celebrity-chasing papparrazzi. The National Enquirer is being considered for a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the John Edwards affair, a turn of events which must have mainstream editors of old spinning in their graves.

The cultural difference is clear. The French, as one reporter noted, believe public figures should be judged not on their “sentimental lives” but on their work. He observed that former presidents Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac both had mistresses without suffering any political fallout. Sarkozy is different: a highly public and flamboyant figure whose apparent need for the spotlight and lack of discretion might lead voters to conclude his private life has impeded his ability to fulfill his public duty.

Then again, it depends on how public he chooses to make his supposed affair, because this is not a story that will be printed (or confirmed) without Sarkozy’s tacit approval. Not so in this country, where our journalists feel an almost sacred obligation to follow the rumor and pull the story out into the light of day. Their reasoning, which we have frankly provided for them, is that the private doings of public officials become our business when they take an oath to serve us.

Clearly, we have cultural differences with the French. A “man on the street” interview in Paris found that most people, whether disappointed or not (no one seemed particularly shocked), didn’t automatically see a worrisome connection between the private activities of the first couple and the political necessities of the job. That view is anathema to many Americans, who hold that knowing how public (or spiritual) leaders conduct their private lives will tell us how honestly and effectively they will conduct their public ones. Viva la difference, one might say.

Of equal interest is what publishers, editors, and journalists feel needs to be reported. In France, the press tends to be in a laissez faire mode when it comes to covering the personal comings and goings and doings of the ruling class, a frame of mind not usually challenged by its readership. In the United States, scandal sells, especially scandals involving elected officials.

In the end, we may all agree that politicians are scoundrels but in France, that non-newsworthy item is greeted with a shrug; here, it’s greeted with both righteous indignation and the sort of pruient interest that can earn a tabloid a top journalism prize.

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churchlady02 copyMy next door neighbor’s son Jason was crestfallen when he got the memo  from school about this year’s pc Halloween celebration: no vampires, no zombies, no monsters, no devils; no swords or stakes or axes or ropes or hockey masks with breathing holes. Forget the fake blood or the green slime or the dripping claws or the sticky cobwebs or the black goo or dressing like his horror film namesake. “Positive images only,” said the school memo, with helpful suggestions like “Winnie the Poo,  Cinderella, Tinkerbell, or Marley” (presumably  before his death scene). To make things worse, no weapons of any kind, even for the heroes. I understand school is supposed to be a safe place, but what’s a nine year old boy to do? vamp

I volunteered to brainstorm with the boy one afternoon, little suspecting that Jason had already assembled a list of potential figures he could impersonate.

I felt a kind of sickening dread as I scanned the list. My heart pounded against my ribcage as my breath caught in my throat. The sound of blood roared in my ears and for a moment I couldn’t see.

“How did you come up with these names?” I managed to whisper.

“Pretty good, right?” Jason asked slyly.

These are the list of possible Halloween costumes each and every one designed to strike fear into the hearts of most sane…adults.

The Financier Bernie Madoff       Madoff

The Balloon Boyballoon-boyjpg-f36e89c1e27f427f_large

an airline pilot with a laptop  pilotlaptop

Mark Sanford or Rod Blagojevich

Blago Sanford

Sarah Palin as an author or Kate Gosselin as a talk show host

Palin Gosselin

At the end of the day, Jason decided to go as a 401K plan.

Pretty scary.

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My high school English teacher detested the “passive voice,” viewing it as a weak and even cowardly form of expression. Although I’ve never been able to muster her level of outrage at a sentence that reads, say, “There were seventy people present” instead of “Seventy people attended,” I prefer my nouns clear and my verbs active, the better to know who did what to whom. Which is why I’m tempted to tear my hair out whenever I hear the phrase “mistakes were made.”

You’d think a sentence that is fast becoming a parody of itself would have the good grace to retire but no, the damn thing seems determined to stay the course. Even the Coast Guard threw out those passively potent words in addressing accusations that it was slow to respond to the recent and potentially catastrophic oil spill in San Francisco Bay.  The phrase seems to have originated, at least in its present almost aggressively passive incarnation, with none other than Richard Nixon (more on that later). You’ll find it in Ronald Reagan’s address to the joint session of Congress in 1987 in regard to the Iran arms-for-hostages situation, and even earlier as an all-purpose explanation for the ethical imbroglios that plagued Bill Clinton’s first term. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales relied on it to explain away the firings of eight U.S attorneys. Several members of the current Administration use the phrase regularly as a way of talking about the process by which the U.S government has, um, er, processed the war in Iraq.

Author Charles Baxter, writing about recent influences on fiction in his book “Burning Down the House” contends that Richard Nixon is “the inventor, for our purposes and for our time, of the concept of deniability. Deniability is the almost complete disavowal of intention in relation to bad consequences.” Baxter’s thesis is that fiction is more challenged because, in the public arena, politicians and leaders feel free to alter their “narratives” to be misleading or confusing or vague.

Actually, public confidence is what is challenged. Whenever a prominent figure in a position of importance says “mistakes were made,” you can be sure that responsibility is evaded, accountability is denied and the buck is passed.

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It’s the time of year when we get geared up to artificially scare each other in the annual and peculiarly American festival known as Halloween (although Parisians have taken the fete to heart, what with costumes and parties and pumpkins in and around its most venerable monuments. As Parisians have also taken to riding bicycles in and around their city en masse, I will overlook their odd choice of American pastimes to emulate). This year, there is an added contretemps attending the festival having to do with what the hanging corpses signify, or are meant to signify or have come to signify. It’s all about the noose, which, having been appropriated for the purpose of intimidation at both a high school and an esteemed university, is, for the moment off-limits. Honestly, I don’t think the vast majority of people who include hanging corpses in displays that also feature tombstones, haunted houses and headless horsemen straight out of a mid- nineteenth century novel have been thinking about the offense that particular image may cause. But they are now.

Not so with the politicians who are also seeking to scare us, courtesy of a growing proliferation of nuance-free catchphrases that were previously the province of rabble-rousing talk shows. In keeping with the spirit of the season, I’m going to list some of those vying for the title of most frightening. I’m not suggesting that these issues don’t need to be addressed, only that perhaps the phrases are getting thrown around for the purpose of frightening rather than educating the public. Feel free to scream or at least, depending on how long your memory is, to go out and buy lots of duct tape.

Illegal immigrants: undocumented would-be citizens or criminals and potential terrorists who are stealing our services, lowering our wages and affecting our quality of life?

War on terror: a battle of good and evil or a misapplied fight against fear?

Islamofacism: a movement whose adherents seek to take over the globe or a simplistic, not to mention insulting catchphrase that happens to roll off the tongue?

World War III: well sh-t, who wouldn’t be ready to bring on the bombs; never mind diplomacy?

Global warming: no question we’re screwing up the planet but can we move into solution mode instead of crisis mode?

Scared yet?

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I don’t obsess about death, well, at least not much more than any normal midlife person who’s experienced several very personal losses over the past few years. But today’s papers seemed to showcase more than a few significant obituaries – renowned filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, talk show host Tom Snyder, and coaching great Bill Walsh. Although 71 (Snyder’s age) may seem a little young compared with Bergman’s 89 years, both men, as well as Coach Walsh, could be described as having reached and passed the pinnacles of their professional careers. Still, Snyder and Walsh were felled by cancer, which makes it seem as if they were stopped just short of the finish line. But if the deaths of formerly public figures catch me off-guard, the health concerns of active public figures definitely pack a punch. That’s why I was startled to note (also in today’s paper) that Chief Justice John Roberts, at fifty-two the youngest member of the Court, suffered a mild seizure of unknown origin over the weekend. Yeah, I admit I wondered for a minute what it meant for the future of the judicial branch, just as I have speculated in the past about the state of Dick Cheney’s heart or George Bush’s colon and the state of the nation. I’m only human, after all. So are our public figures, subject to the same unpredictable variables that catch us all off-guard.

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