Chirac’s Lack of Class

“[A gentleman] is never mean or little in his disputes…. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend.” — Victorian Station.

It is not clear whether having class or being a gentleman is an inherited trait or a learned behavior ingrained through years of instruction and practice. However, it is clear that some people have class and some do not and politics is not a place gentleman with class tend to aggregate. Yet, the former Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota was a gentleman who could argue passionately without malice. As his son said at Wellstone’s public memorial after his untimely death just before his potential re-election in October 2002, “it was never about Paul Wellstone. It was about the ideal, it was about the dream that he had.”

Unfortunately, Wellstone was unable to pass along the class and integrity with which he conducted his own life to some of his supporters. His public memorial degenerated from the celebration of a life well-lived to ugly and inappropriate partisanship marked with the jeering of political opponents who had come to pay their respects. The distasteful transformation of the service to a political rally offended many who watched the event on television. It was probably the reason that former Senator Walter Mondale, who assumed the Democratic nomination for Wellstone’s Senate seat, lost several days later to Republican Norm Coleman.

The recent public state funeral and remembrance of former President Ronald Reagan, another politician and gentleman, fortunately passed with little public rancor. Sure there are always small people with small attitudes like Ted Rall who said of Ronald Reagan, “I’m sure he’s turning crispy brown right about now.” Some Reagan haters populate the, griping about the coverage of the Reagan funeral. But these voices were few and largely ignored. The public wanted to come together to honor the former president. Shrill voices echoed unnoticed, serving only to illustrate the anger and hatred of those who cannot wait until a person is buried before launching into vicious criticism.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans generally refrained from taking overt political advantage of sympathy for Reagan. Save for some remarks that bordered on the political by Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, Republicans conducted themselves properly. The eulogies at the funeral struck just the right tone: remembrance without excessive effusiveness.

All this generally splendid behavior by responsible people made the small and sour actions of French President Jacques Chirac that much more conspicuous. Many foreign leaders were in Georgia for the G8 summit this last week. Thus, for many leaders, attending Ronald Reagan’s funeral in Washington only required extending the US trip by one day and adding couple hours in the air. Many leaders did attend, including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Other leaders came from as far away as Uganda and the Czech Republic. Even though French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier and former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing did attend, Chirac quick get away can only be interpreted as a deliberate insult.

Despite being hobbled by minor strokes, the Iron Lady, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, not only took the long flight across the Atlantic against the orders of her doctors, she took the trouble to tape a eulogy she knew she would not be able to deliver. She then accompanied the President’s casket and family on a flight back to the burial in Simi Valley, California.

Now Thatcher was an exceptional case. She was both a contemporary and friend of Reagan. Nonetheless, her actions make Chirac’s refusal to attend the funeral appear so much more mean spirited. To borrow words from playwright Harold Pinter, Chirac “you’re no bloody gentleman.”

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