Today I went to this meeting at the IUFM, a school for future teachers of primary school. It’s called the Tandem program, and though it has a sort of lame name, it turned out to be pretty helpful. The idea is that you get some future French teachers in any subject together with some English assistants of about the same age, and they speak in French for half the time, the other half in English. Everyone wins! Despite being poorly organized by the lady directing it, the conversation I had was splendiferous. I got paired with these two girls, one named Laure and the other Caroline.
We started in French, and I must say that I rocked it. Today was a good day for speaking French, I suppose, so I got lucky. We were supposed to talk about whatever, but had a sheet in front of us with possible talking points, which included university life and the American and French school systems. It was really informal, and we pretty much just chatted for 45 minutes in French.
When we switched over, it was amazing how these two seemingly confident ladies in French changed so much. Laure was embarrased to talk at all, really, so Caroline, whose English was excellent, and I talked about, well, everything. She studied literature in college, and had read ‘On the Road’ and ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ and detested Samuel Richardson just as much as I, but liked Henry Fielding. We ended up with talking about politics and campaign finance reform in the U.S. That’s where the title for this post comes from. She’d mentioned campaign commercials in the U.S., and how it seemed like they were trying to sell the candidate as a product. “You wouldn’t see commercials in France that said, ‘Buy Chirac’” I couldn’t stop laughing because it is so, so true… “Buy Obama in 2008!” In France there really isn’t this idea of the President as a celebrity or moral leader. He does his job as President, running the country and such, and that’s it.
I talked to my students once about this. They were very surprised at Clinton’s impeachment trial over Monica Lewinsky. They said that if Chirac, or another President, did the same thing, it wouldn’t even be news. In fact, they said, there have been presidents who have had affairs, etc. and it wasn’t a big deal. As long as he’s doing his job, they said, he’s fine. The other matters are his own personal life.
So what does this say about America, then? Are we fixated with the President as a celebrity? I believe so. We want our President to be this looming figure of strength in many senses, morally and physically included. “The cult of personality” applies well here. Who are President is as a person and personality matters just as much, or more, than his actions in office. Why else would each candidate spend about 200 million dollars on their campaign? Why else would we elect Bush or Reagan? Or, to a lesser extent, Schwarzenegger? It’s the idea of a leader as someone not in place to solely go about the task of making laws and governing, but representing the values of our nation to others. What he does in his personal life matters in that regard. I do think that this is part of representative democracy (republicanism with a small r) and part of our Puritan past. We still have a lot of roots in the Puritan ideology, whether we like to admit it or not. You can’t show breasts anywhere in the U.S. without it being considered pornographic, while here they have them on huge signs in the street and nobody really whines.
So I guess the idea behind the President as a hero is something very American. I don’t doubt other countries do it as well, but I think we are particularly susceptible given our proclivities toward celebrity status (Hollywood…need I say more). The French view Chirac as just some schmoe they elected to get a job done. We want our President to save us from the cold, harsh world. Then I must ask, why the hell did Bush get elected?