Wealthy Frenchman

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Two Worn-Out Diplomats, One Fold-Out Bed


I'm just back from London, where the Brits were fascinated with the Condi Rice and Jack Straw two-for-the-road odyssey, the exchange of visits to their hometowns, Birmingham and Blackburn, and the rebuff of Condi by Paul McCartney and a Blackburn mosque.

British journalists loved hearing about how Condi exercises alongside diplomatic reporters in hotel gyms, not at all self-conscious about working out in form-fitting shorts and T-shirts.

The British are used to iron ladies, perhaps not pumping iron but trying to iron out world affairs. In his quaint new book, "Manliness," the Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield cites only one woman with that exalted trait: Margaret Thatcher, who told the first President Bush not to go wobbly on Saddam. Teaching other women to be assertive, Mr. Mansfield frets, might be "like teaching a cat to bark."

The struggles of the relentless American diplomat and the charming British diplomat to knock heads in Iraq and get the government to govern, with the war spinning into sulfurous sectarian fighting, was less mesmerizing to many reporters than the pair's gender-benders.

At one point Mr. Straw said America and England had the right to prod Iraqi politicians: "We've got to be able to deal with Mr. A, Mr. B or Mr. C. We can't deal with Mr. Nobody."

A smiling Ms. Rice, still promoting the illusion that Iraqi women are better off, corrected: "Jack, I'm sure we'd be all right with Miss A or Miss B or Miss C, too, right?" (It would have to be a generic Miss, since there are no powerful women leaders there.)

The foreign secretary held his face and pleaded: "I was not being gender-specific. Don't report me, please."

The British reporters were gobsmacked when Condi gave the fold-out bed on her Boeing 757 to Mr. Straw for the night flight to Kuwait, and slept in the aisle as flight attendants stepped over her.

It may have been a sign that U.S. foreign policy is finally becoming humble, as W. promised in his first campaign, now that Condi has admitted "thousands" of mistakes in Iraq. But it also shows the secretary understands the importance of manly virtues: she was tough enough to sleep on the floor and chivalrous enough to make sure Mr. Straw didn't.

The Times of London made smarmy jokes about "how far the special relationship has developed," and asked a Baghdad embassy spokeswoman if Jack's sleeping in Condi's bed was "second base" for the couple.

The comedian Bill Maher recently noted that while other countries elect a wide array of female leaders, our women politicians are still expected to wedge themselves into a "straitjacket" and act like men.

It has been two decades since I covered Geraldine Ferraro's historic run for the White House. One politician welcomed Ms. Ferraro with a wrist corsage; another in Mississippi asked the "young lady" if she could bake blueberry muffins. Johnny Carson joked that Joan Mondale would not like her husband working late with his female vice president.

So now there are racy Rice-Straw jokes. How far have we come?

The Los Angeles Times ran a piece yesterday about Hollywood's doubts about Hillary, including Sharon Stone's basic instinct that it's too soon for the New York senator since "a woman should be past her sexuality when she runs" and she thinks Hillary still has "threatening" sexual power.

It seemed unlikely that we'd kick the habit of wanting Daddy in the Oval Office until we kicked the habit of wanting Daddy in the anchor chair.

Now that the nightly news is largely an anachronism, and the suits are trying to make it more cuddly and personality-driven to win younger viewers, we can finally break that barrier. (Even though Walter Cronkite fretted to a group last fall that women on TV talk in "too high a register.")

As Rebecca Dana wryly wondered in The New York Observer: "What is gravitas? And why does it kick in at nightfall?" She quoted one network executive explaining that even women "like to get their news from other women in the morning and from men — husband figures — at night."

So now we'll see if Katie Couric can be trusted with the Herculean task of appearing on camera for 5 or 10 minutes a night, reading a teleprompter.

Still, she'll have to prove that, more than being just a headliner, she knows what's behind the headlines. As Bob Schieffer has done, raising CBS ratings, or as Christiane Amanpour might do as an anchor, Katie needs to show she understands the roiling events beyond the teleprompter.

Let's just hope Les Moonves doesn't welcome her with a wrist corsage.


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