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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 August, 2004, 17:03 GMT 18:03 UK
State Of The Union: A war of words
By Geoff Nunberg
Linguist at Stanford University, California

The BBC series reflecting the views of American commentators in the run-up to the presidential election continues with a piece by linguist and author, Geoff Nunberg. He contrasts the language styles of the two main candidates.

George W Bush addresses his supporters in Iowa
Some people prefer Bush's folksy way of talking
When he gives his standard stump speech in places like Pensacola, Florida, or Sioux City, Iowa, President Bush can count on getting a roar of laughter from Republican partisans when he makes fun of John Kerry's statements on the Iraq war.

Mr Kerry has already switched positions on Iraq several times, Mr Bush says, and now he has found "a new nuance".

The line plays up the picture of Mr Kerry as a hand-wringing flip-flopper, in contrast to the decisive, straight-talking Mr Bush.

But the laughs come from the way Mr Bush draws out "nuance," a word with unmistakably Gallic overtones.

As he has said on other occasions, "In Texas, we don't do nuance," with the implication that the word, like the thing itself, is better left to the French-speaking John Kerry.

Every man has two countries, his own and France
Thomas Jefferson

Candidates for national office in America are allowed to use a few words of Spanish when they're giving a speech to Hispanic voters.

Both Mr Bush and Al Gore did that during the 2000 campaign, though they were careful to speak in an accent so bad that anybody could understand them.

But Republicans are counting on voters to be suspicious of any candidate who speaks French as well as Mr Kerry does - particularly a French that he learned at a Swiss boarding school and during summer vacations in Brittany with his French cousins.

Bonjour

Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi recently described Mr Kerry as a "French-speaking socialist".

The leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, Tom Delay, has been opening his speeches by saying, "Good morning, or - as John Kerry would say - Bonjour."

And Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, went so far as to accuse Mr Kerry of "looking French", which has become a running joke for Republicans and the hosts on right-wing radio.

John Kerry speaks to supporters in North Carolina
John Kerry's relatives own an estate in Brittany
Wags have even posted pictures on the web that show Mr Kerry in a beret with a little Adolph Menjou moustache, a foulard around his neck and a United Nations button on his lapel.

That charge was particularly annoying to my 14-year-old daughter, who is French on her mother's side.

"What exactly is wrong with looking French?" she asked.

I told her not to worry, it is just a thing Republicans like to say.

But nowadays the French are about the only group you could get away with saying that about.

As it happens Mr Kerry is half-Jewish but any Republican who remarked that he looks Jewish would be out of a job by lunchtime.

Mr Kerry has apparently taken notice of the criticism.

He reportedly asked his French relations to stop giving interviews to the press, and he has stopped talking in French to the French journalists covering the campaign.

France-bashing

The last thing he needs right now would be news footage of a potential American president beginning an answer with "alors".

As it happens, France-bashing is a new note in American politics.

The English and French have been throwing the word "perfidious" over the Channel ever since the Hundred Years War.

But we Americans have had a generally congenial relationship with France ever since the 18th Century, when Louis XVI sent troops to help the colonists in their War of Independence and when Benjamin Franklin won the hearts of the Parisians as the wartime colonies' envoy to France.

"Every man has two countries," Jefferson said once, "his own and France."

It's hard to imagine those words coming from Wellington.

For US conservatives that all changed when the French opposed taking immediate military action against Saddam Hussein last year.

Some people suggested boycotting French products, and patriotic restaurateurs were shown on television dumping their French wines.

Stereotypes

Conservative commentators pulled out all the anti-Gallic stereotypes:

  • The French are ingrates who don't appreciate our bailing them out in 1917 and 1944.

  • They're a bunch of cowards: "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" was a favourite phrase, borrowed from a Scottish character on The Simpsons.

    Sign offering
    Congress's commissary serves 'freedom fries', not French fries

  • They're treacherous and hypocritical, anti-Semitic and avaricious, unhygienic and rude, and they take excessively long vacations.

  • They bear the responsibility for Vietnam, street mimes, poodles and pretentious left-wing intellectuals.

Still, this wasn't really about Iraq.

It was notable that all that patriotic bellicosity didn't extend to other European nations whose governments opposed the war, like Germany's.

Nobody was pouring out Johanisberger Riesling in the gutter.

Convention

As the unpopularity of the war has been growing, in fact, the administration has been downplaying its differences with the French and making more noises about seeking international co-operation in Iraq.

A delegation from the French Parliament is paying a visit to the Republican party convention in New York this week.

But neither that nor the well-publicised appearances that Bush has made with President Chirac have in any way tempered the Republicans' ridicule of Mr Kerry's French connections.

As it happens, the majority of brie consumers turn out to be Republicans
In the end, that Francophobic rhetoric always had less to do with an antipathy to the French than to the Francophiles.

Those are the people that conservatives like to describe as the "Chardonnay and brie set".

The phrase calls to mind the sort of American who might show up in Paris apologising in French for the boorishness of his compatriots.

Whereas real Americans aren't taken in by continental charm.

As one conservative columnist put it a while ago, "heartland Americans have a clearer appreciation of the quite profound amorality in Europe than anyone in the Ivy League."

Phrases like "the Chardonnay and brie set" go back to the Nixon years.

Liberals

That was when Republicans began to dislodge working-class white voters from their traditional allegiance to the Democratic party by depicting liberal Democrats as effete elitists who were out of touch with middle-American values.

That picture of liberals was summed up in a television ad that was run by a conservative group during the primary campaigns last year.

It described liberals as a "tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show".

True, it may be a little hard to get your head around that image.

You picture Marilyn Manson sitting in his Volvo reading the New York Times as he chomps on a seaweed roll.

But the ad was a sign of how American political identity has been transformed over the last 30 years or so.

Nowadays the labels "liberal" and "conservative" aren't simply political affiliations, they're a matter of what the marketers call "lifestyle choices".

Not long ago Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative journal National Review, remarked that he would rather be governed by 2000 Harley-Davidson owners than by all the Volvo owners in America.

And on the other side, the editor of the hip Details magazine contemplates the arrival of the Republicans in New York with trepidation.

"I don't want to see a lot of bad Men's Warehouse suits and a lot of badly parted hair walking around my neighbourhood," he says.

It's as if American politics has been turned into a kind of brand war.

Predilection

When the Republicans deride John Kerry as a "Massachusetts liberal", they don't just mean that he's liable to raise taxes or expand government social programmes - the old political stereotype of a liberal in the American sense.

The phrase also suggests someone with predilection for Italian coffee, Swedish cars, French cheeses and bottled water, though in Mr Kerry's case it probably doesn't extend to non-conventional body ornament.

True, those generalisations are more a matter of brand aura than realities.

George W Bush has a gift for sounding like regular folks
As it happens the majority of brie consumers turn out to be Republicans - not surprising, considering that brie is an item that's a lot easier to find in the gourmet shops in upscale suburbs than in grocery stores in working-class neighbourhoods.

But whoever actually buys the stuff, it's hard to think of anything that stands in better for the right's stereotype of liberals - soft, pale, runny and French.

The great irony of this election is that it may come down to which of the two Ivy League-educated scions of prominent New England families can come off as more of a man of the people.

In that department, John Kerry can't seem to do much right.

Malapropisms

Actually, George Bush's father had the same problem that Mr Kerry does - however hard he tried, he came off as remote and patrician.

But George W Bush has a gift for sounding like regular folks. Like Mr Kerry, he went to an elite New England boarding school and then to Yale.

But at some point in his life he acquired a down-home Texas twang that seems to have eluded his brothers.

And he famously pronounces "nuclear" as "nucular," even though he grew up hearing his father say the word correctly.

True, there are many who find Mr Bush's malapropisms and tangled syntax annoying or even embarrassing.

But to a lot of people, Mr Bush's language is also reassuringly folksy and direct. People can imagine sitting down to have a beer with him.

And if he knows any French, he has the sense to keep quiet about it.

State Of The Union is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays at 2050 BST and repeated on Sundays at 0850 BST.

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