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John Kerry's French connection

By Ben Fritz and Brendan Nyhan
March 24, 2004

Rather than trying to engage in the now-common rhetorical tactic of creating associations with terrorists or dictatorial regimes, some political opponents of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry are engaged in a slightly more subtle campaign to link him with France, the leading opponent of the war in Iraq, and thereby play on nationalist sentiment. Kerry does, of course, have French relatives and speaks French. But the rhetoric has extended far beyond those near-meaningless facts.

Ever since an anonymous Bush advisor told the New York Times last April that Kerry "looks French," the Massachusetts Senator's political adversaries have attempted to capitalize on anti-French sentiment created by the war and portray him as aloof and opposed to America's interests. While Kerry's perceived decline led to a lull in these comments late last year, his re-emergence as the presumptive nominee has caused these attacks to increase in both volume and intensity.

A handful of conservative pundits initially took the lead in flogging the Kerry-France association. It's been a favorite, for instance, of James Taranto, editor of the Best of the Web Today column on the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal.com website. Soon after the Bush advisor's comment last year, for instance, Taranto referred to Kerry as the "haughty, French-looking Massachusetts Democrat" on April 30, a label he has repeated literally dozens of times since. Defending himself from critics of the "French" label, Taranto noted on May 2, 2003 that "Kerry also opposes President Bush's tax-cut plan, apparently favoring a French-style high-tax regime." And on January 16, 2004, he found it worthwhile to quote a Boston Globe report that said Kerry was flying around Iowa during primary season in a "a black, French-made twin-engine six-seater" helicopter.

Radio host Rush Limbaugh has also pushed the line hard, repeatedly referring to Kerry as "French-looking" and mocking him as "Jean Cheri" or "Jean F. Cheri" last fall.

Washington Times editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden completed the triumvirate, playing up the France association, for instance, in his June 20, 2003 column, which began by stating "You have to feel a spot of sympathy for someone who looks as French as John Kerry" and called him the "French-looking senator." He offered similar attacks on six other occasions in 2003.

In recent weeks, as it became clear Kerry would face Bush in November, other politicians and pundits have jumped on the bandwagon. On March 8, after Kerry reportedly said that "foreign leaders" supported his bid to replace President Bush (a quote that the Boston Globe reporter who transcribed it later said should have been "more leaders," the Republican National Committee put out a fact sheet noting that Kerry has a French cousin. While criticizing the cost of Kerry's spending proposals, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman happened to note that by his calculation, they added up to "more than the economic output for the nation of France." And an unnamed "Republican strategist" was quoted in a Newsweek online column by Eleanor Clift saying, "Before long they'll be calling him Jacques Kerry."

Furthermore, as Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank pointed out, Commerce Secretary Don Evans recently referred to Kerry as a "fellow of a different political stripe who looks French." And House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) has begun speeches with the statement, "Good afternoon, or, as John Kerry might say, 'Bonjour.'"

The language of conservative pundits has been equally aggressive. After his March 5 column called Kerry "French-looking" and his March 16 column referred to the Senator as "Monsieur Kerry," Pruden unleashed a March 19 column entitled "The rage of Paris, but sour at home" in which he called the candidate "Monsieur Kerry" multiple times, said "our French friends regard [Kerry] as more French than American," and stated, "it's not clear how French frenzy, German gaga, Belgian delirium or partisan hysteria in Luxembourg will help Monsieur Kerry and the Democrats at home."

In addition, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Steyn wrote on March 21 that "Kerry sounded awfully like America's first French president" in a recent appearance. New York Sun columnist R. Emmett Tyrell called Kerry "French-looking" in his Feb. 26 and March 11 columns. And in a March 24 column in the political insider newspaper The Hill, Republican pollster Dr. David Hill stated that by claiming America's reputation has declined amongst other countries under President Bush, Kerry was "acting French."

ABC/National Public Radio commentator Cokie Roberts recently told the Palm Beach Daily News, "the new thing is that John Kerry looks French." But this attack is not some "new thing" that just spontaneously popped up; it's the culmination of an aggressive, months-long effort to make the line stick. Sadly, these substance-free attacks are being launched earlier and earlier each election cycle.

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Related links:
-Name-calling in the Democratic presidential race (Brendan Nyhan, 8/8/03)
-Spinsanity on attacks on John Kerry
-Spinsanity on John Kerry

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