At Large November 2004

Foreign Leaders and Kerry

Do they really like him? Here's what they—or, anyway, people—tell me
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There's one presidential-election issue that will not be decided in America's polling booths—because foreign leaders can't vote. But who do the political bigwigs of other countries want elected? It is a question arising from a realistic assessment of America's place in the community of nations. Either that or it's a question arising from a Rock the Vote campaign that ran amok and enlisted Bavarian oompah bands, Edith Piaf, and the muezzins atop the minarets of Kandahar.

Republicans took the latter view when, in March, Senator John Kerry was reported—erroneously, as it turned out—to have told a small group of supporters in Hollywood, Florida, "I've met foreign leaders who can't go out and say this publicly, but, boy, they look at you and say, 'You've got to win this, you've got to beat this guy, we need a new policy.'"

Colin Powell challenged Kerry to name these officials. "If he can't list names," Powell said, "then perhaps he should find something else to talk about."

Apparently, what Kerry had said was "more leaders," not "foreign leaders." But, going on the defensive, the senator defended what he'd said, whether he'd said it or not. "I've had conversations with a number of foreign leaders up until the present moment, and I'm not going to betray the confidences of those conversations. But I've had conversations with leaders, and also friends of mine who have met with leaders …" And he said, "I think what I said was that I have heard from people around the world, leaders and people …" The conservative Washington Times claimed that Kerry's most recent official trip abroad was in 2002, and that since then he and a foreign leader had been present in the same city only once, when New Zealand's Foreign Minister was in Washington. (Kerry's lack of a firm position on frozen leg-of-lamb imports—mere coincidence?)

It was a clumsy partisan swatfest, and it left the real question unanswered. Do foreign leaders want John Kerry to be President of the United States? Like the junior senator from Massachusetts, I've met with foreign leaders; or, anyway, had conversations with friends of mine who have met with leaders; or—you know what I mean—I've heard from people around the world.

I, too, am not going to betray the confidences of those conversations. But the foreign leaders of a country that didn't go to war in Iraq but used to go to war a lot (think helmets with pickle spikes) strongly favor Kerry. They like his rollicking sense of humor. For example, campaigning in Las Vegas, Kerry made this joke, reported by The New York Times: "They tell me there are 15,000 or more people here. I'm happy to hear that, because I took the 'over' on 11,000." It is a gambling joke, with a clever mathematical turn.

In a nearby very large, very former superpower, an important leader has been won over. This Kremlin incumbent found both Kerry's speaking style and the Democratic convention to be comfortingly familiar.

Elsewhere, the prominent dictator of a place that's to the north of the south part of this place supports Kerry even though the Senator's top national-security adviser, Rand Beers, told the Council on Foreign Relations, "Not to say that a Kerry Administration is talking about giving a lot of carrots to North Korea." Democrats are well known to have close ties to the entertainment industry. This cinema-obsessed strongman may have a chance to meet Julie Andrews at last.

Foreign leaders throughout the underdeveloped world are hoping for a Kerry victory. Having read Kerry's book, A Call to Service, and learned that the candidate is a WASP and Irish and Jewish and Catholic, they are confident that Kerry will also be black, Asian, Hispanic, Hindu, and Muslim.

Finally, there's a foreign leader of a country whose name rhymes with "underpants" who says (or so I've heard from people around the world, leaders and people), "I cannot say this publicly, naturellement, but when M. Kerry makes the fine distinctions between the 'met with,' the 'had conversations with,' the 'heard from,' I think: Here is the intellect of the razor, the President Clinton of these times."

P. J. O'Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book is Peace Kills (2004).
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