French media were slow on the uptake but coverage of the Iowa caucus has been pretty exhaustive, and exhausting, over the past two days. As I plod through articles, profiles, editorials, and explanations in print media, and strain to capture a few salient details in hasty TV and radio coverage, my mind wanders back across the Atlantic. I was following the primary campaigns during a recent visit to the United States a few short weeks ago. Why do the candidates and the phenomenon as a whole disappear in the light of French media coverage? It’s something more than a different angle, a different evaluation, a different language–it’s the lack of focus typical of French journalism. No candidate comes through sharp and clear. Specifics are blurred, issues are clouded, a kind of lazy haze obscures the high octane energy of a primary campaign. The candidates become theoretical constructs, frozen in a timeless dimension created by an all-knowing journalist who has an axe to grind but even the axe is not sharp and glinty, it’s soft and slow. It’s not a personal axe, more of a stale consensual gripe. Ideas that curdled in the 2003 Villepin glory days seem to be shaping the sagging opinions of an outdated declining journalistic caste.
Le Monde sets the tone in a January 2 editorial:
The Democratic Party, which holds the majority in Congress since 2006, seems today to be the favorite for the White House. The Republican record is weighed down by the war in Iraq, where the United States is being beaten as never since Vietnam, more than thirty years ago. Added to this deficit is a creeping economic crisis with a sharp drop in the real estate market and the subprime crisis….One might hope that this election-hard to predict after the disaster in Iraq and the moral conflicts provoked by the choices of Mr. Bush in his “war on terrorism” –will lead to self searching and redefinition of America’s role in the world….For the first time a woman, Hillary Clinton, and a black, Barack Obama, are in position to be nominated by the Democratic Party to run for president with a reasonable chance of winning. It’s a good reason to believe in the capacity for openness of American society.
That same day, Le Figaro reported in a brief news flash picked up from Agence France Presse, that the US army claims to have captured 51 leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq in the month of December, including eight “emirs,” nine cell leaders, six propaganda specialists, five charged with liaison with foreign terrorists, and the rest involved in bomb making, finance, intelligence, or arms traffic.
The freewheeling daily Lib√©ration is not impressed! Giuliani, who sings the praises of our own Nicolas Sarkozy (“he wrote an excellent book on his program and he’s applying it right now “), and wants Israel to join NATO, took one of the last unrepentant neocons-Norman Podhoretz-as his advisor, and “promises to rid the world of terrorists, like he rid New York of criminality. But, since Iraq is no longer at the heart of voters’ preoccupations, essentially because of a drop in the number of GIs killed, he seems to have lost his bearings. ”
Hmm. But Le Figaro says “After two terms of George W Bush that profoundly affected the standing of the United States in the world, the stakes of this election could not be greater. War in Iraq, fight against terrorism, international tensions (Pakistan, Iran, Middle East) , fears of economic recession, impact of globalization on employment, crisis of the health care system, global warming, immigration control are some of the issues on which the candidates have to be convincing because the next president cannot avoid them.”
Le Monde can’t avoid showing that its heart beats for Barack. In a dutiful string of profiles of all the candidates, Le Monde asks “Will Obama be the next president of the United States?”
Barack Obama, 46 years old, the only African-American Senator. For Mr. Obama, Iowa is crucial. If he comes in first, even by a small margin, he thinks the amplification effect will be such that he’ll be able to convince militants of the other states that he can seize the victory in November. He based his campaign on the fact that he represents change and that he wants to turn the page on partisan politics. He attracts young people and a fraction of independent voters, which gives him a lead over most of the Republicans in the polls. As he reminded, on Tuesday, he has covered enormous ground. “After ten months of campaigning, it looks like we can make it happen.” Only three years ago he finished paying off debts incurred to finance his studies. He has already demonstrated that he can be convincing in a state that is 97 % “white,” a “monoculture state,” as the Washington Post says it: “corn, soybean, and Evangelicals.”
Much is made of Obama’s blackness, with hardly a whisper about the Muslim component, and nothing whatsoever about his Kenyan origins at a time when ethno-political savagery in Kenya is the big international story. Le Monde studiously avoids the Opra Winfrey connection…too vulgarly showbiz for the newspaper of record.
An article in Lib√©ration mulls over the various candidates, the icy weather, the results too close to call and, in a manner typical of French media coverage, approaches the question of the strategic importance of the Iowa caucus with a mishmash of victors who went on to lose, losers who won, and somewhere in the middle of it all is Jimmy Carter in 1976. Readers might not understand that the Iowa caucus is the first but not the most and certainly not the decisive step for a candidate. Then why not say it clearly?
Lib√©ration’s editorial director Laurent Joffrin perorates:
Is the America we love finally going to get the upper hand? Not that the Democratic party, often wavering and opportunistic, is the dream model of world politics. But a Democratic victory would put an end to eight years of a long ordeal that gave that great democratic nation a face of brutality and arrogance. Ideological and imperious, the Republican right convinced Americans, for too long, that they should favor the rich in the interest of the poor and make war in the interest of peace. That is the immense stake of the election that begins tomorrow in the small rural State of Iowa. What does it matter who will be the general in this battle? Hillary Clinton, as recentered as her husband could be, embodies the memory of a period of optimism and progress for her country. Barack Obama projects into the future the tradition of civil rights and the “compassion” dear to the American left. Clinton, Obama, or another will first have the decisive task of breaking with the current policy. A policy that imposes a free market society that is hard on the weak and soft on the strong; that refuses indispensable international solidarity in the face of the ecological challenges of the century; that wages a dirty bloody war in Iraq when antiterrorist common sense dictated a concentration further to the East, on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where a terror sanctuary prospers. The Iowa caucus often sets the tone of the primaries. A handful of voters in the Midwest will influence the destiny of the planet. And our destiny as well.
Hmph! A real Iowan stands up and blasts Joffrin’s musings into a snowdrift [Michael Judge, Ignore Iowa, Wall St. Journal, January 3]
Is all this hoopla really justified? In 1988, then New Hampshire governor John Sununu famously said, “The people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents.” He was right, at least about Iowans not picking presidents. The winner of the Iowa Caucus, incumbents excluded, has never — well, almost never — won the presidency (Jimmy Carter being the exception to the rule).
Perhaps we can convince the 2012 candidates to follow the lead of ‘America’s Mayor’ Rudy Giuliani and ignore Iowa.
Well, those Midwestern hicks can do whatever they want on this ice cold winter night, the French talk-talkers who elected John Kerry in 2004 will put Barack Obama, or another Democrat if need be, into their reduced model White House in 2008 and in the meantime they have pre-empted the whole damned American electoral process by appointing Sean Penn as president of the Cannes Festival jury. No confusion there. He’s the man of the hour! Actor, director, and active citizen distinguished for his opposition to the war in Iraq!
You can’t beat that.