Republican taunts have made polyglot John Kerry run for linguis tic cover

 

America: Back in 1963 Americans took pride in President Kennedy's declaration: "Ich bin ein Berliner!" It showed that the president, whose wife, Jacqueline Bouvier, spoke fluent French, was sophisticated enough to master some words in a European language.

President George Bush can speak a little Spanish - or Mexican as he once called it - but he knows little of the languages of old Europe.

Democratic challenger John Kerry, by contrast, is fluent in French, Italian, Portuguese, German and Spanish, and his wife, Teresa Heinz, is the same, according to Douglas Brinkley, author of the Kerry biography, Tour of Duty.

John Kerry's father was a diplomat and as a boy the Democratic candidate lived part of his time in Switzerland, Germany, France and Britain. He has maternal relatives in Europe: former French environment minister Brice Lalonde is his first cousin.

Kerry's French skills have served him well in the past. He impressed Teresa Heinz when they met for the first time at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro by striking up a conversation in French.

But France and everything French - from cognac to French fries - haven't been too popular in the US recently and some Republicans have seized on Kerry's linguistic skills and French relatives to tarnish him as a weaselly Frog.

Commerce Secretary Don Evans struck a low blow, calling Kerry a "fellow of a different political stripe who looks French". House Majority Leader Tom DeLay started a lunchtime speech with: "Good afternoon, or, as John Kerry might say, bonjour."

Instead of flaunting his world leadership skills, Kerry has run for linguistic cover.

Not from him will one hear "Je suis Parisien". He privately chats in French with continental reporters, but refuses to do TV interviews in French, or even to reply in French to a question if American reporters are around. (The White House press corps has already had its wrist slapped for showing linguistic good manners. When visiting Paris, Mr Bush famously mocked NBC's David Gregory, who is fluent in French, for asking President Jacques Chirac a question in Mr Chirac's native language, saying, "The guy memorises four words, and he plays like he's intercontinental.")

The Kerry website makes no mention of the French connection or of the family estate, Les Essarts, in Britanny. Mr Lalonde, now mayor of Saint-Briac Sur Mer in Brittany, has also been helping the candidate distance himself from his roots, telling visiting reporters, "He has absolutely nothing French about him".

Republicans may have their fun with Kerry's heritage, Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter told the Washington Post, but come November "the American people will say, "Laissez les bons temps rouler", or "Let the good times roll".

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John Kerry has taken some heat from the Republicans for his claim that some unnamed leaders have egged him on, saying "You've got to win this, you've got to beat this guy, and get rid of George Bush".

Since then the Democratic candidate has been running scared of foreign leaders and has refused to respond to Republican taunts to name them (Kim Jong 11? Gadafy?).

Spain's new socialist prime minister, José Luis Zapatero, once said that he would personally "go to the United States and support John Kerry", but Kerry aides would now be likely to tell him to vamoose, at least until after the election.

The controversy may help account for the "scheduling problems" that prevented Kerry from meeting Tony Blair this week, despite the fact that both were in Manhattan on Thursday.

The British prime minister may be too closely identified with the Iraq war and the WMD mess for Kerry's comfort. One would think that a Labour leader would be a natural supporter of a Democrat.

Indeed Labour MP Sir Clive Soley said that Blair would vote for Kerry to be president if he were a US citizen, and Cheri Blair has never hidden her dislike for George Bush (though they briefly held hands yesterday at the White House).

But the British Labour leader has snubbed the Democratic candidate before. He didn't call to congratulate him on winning the nomination. He has banned Labour party officials from attending the Democratic Party convention in Boston in July. Usually up to a dozen Labour delegates attend but Blair has said only one party official, strategist Douglas Alexander, may go.

Perhaps Blair is thinking that a victory for Kerry could leave him out on a limb. Then again, he may simply be recalling that Conservative meddling in the US presidential election in 1992 poisoned the early days of the relationship between John Major and Bill Clinton, something that Blair called at the time "completely unacceptable".

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The inside story of the storm in a transatlantic teacup, caused by Conservative officials checking passport files for dirt on Clinton, may be revealed soon. Bill Clinton's long-awaited memoirs are to be published by midsummer.

The former president has promised the Democratic Party that the book, now two years in gestation, will be out before the Convention so as not to upstage John Kerry's big moment. Clinton is unlikely to be hard on Major. He told me once that the row did not last long.

A former Clinton associate who has read some extracts said Clinton is too easy on people, and that he would be better settling a few scores.

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A book that is about to cause heartburn for the Bush administration this weekend is Plan of Attack, an account by Bob Woodward of Bush's war on Iraq.

Woodward says Bush pulled Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld aside on November 21st, 2001, just seven weeks after the attacks on America, and asked him what kind of war plan he had on Iraq, according to AP which obtained an advance copy. When Rumsfeld said the plan was outdated, Bush told him to get started on a fresh one and not to tell anyone - even CIA Director George Tenet.

Bush told Woodward for the book that if the news had leaked, it would have caused "enormous international angst and domestic speculation". What made him think that?