It’s not likely that Patrick Sabatier’s new book, Washington Confidential, will be widely read here—or anywhere in the United States. Its 617 pages are in French and include such chapter titles as “Babylone” (about scandal and corruption) and “Le juge” (a profile of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer).
The 61-year-old Frenchman, longtime correspondent and editor for the French newspaper Libération, spent the last year and a half chronicling the ways of Washington for his audience back home. He already knew the city pretty well. From 1996 to 2000, he was Washington bureau chief for Libération. He covered President Clinton and discovered that there were no French books on the city of Washington. Europeans, he found, didn’t know much about the US capital beyond the Lewinsky scandal: “Wall Street they know. Hollywood they know. That’s basically the US for the average Frenchman. Washington is kind of a blind spot.”
Sabatier persuaded 11 Washingtonians to let him spend time with them and tell their stories. He thus offers a window onto Washington through portraits of people, including DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, AOL founder Jim Kimsey, pundit Bill Kristol, and political fundraiser Nancy Jacobson.
While Sabatier was here working on his book, he and his wife, Dany, swapped houses with a friend, architect and Catholic University professor Stanley Hallet, who was teaching in Paris. The Sabatiers stayed in Hallet’s contemporary Forest Hills home in DC while Hallet lived in the Sabatiers’ Paris flat.
Now Sabatier is a columnist for the French newsmagazine Le Point and is looking for another book idea that will keep him in America. Impressed by the richness and diversity he found traveling here in the late ’90s, he says he’d like to do something that will take him to other parts of the country.
“For Europeans, America is a kind of road movie,” he says. “You have plenty of space, which is lacking in Europe. In Nevada, for instance, there was this road I traveled with my wife—maybe 100 miles—just a straight road. There’s nothing, not a soul on either side, and then you discover a group of people living in trailers who are waiting for the extraterrestrials to land. This kind of thing is only in America.”
But he’s afraid that with Washington Confidential: Réseaux, Stratégies, Coulisses et Crises Du Pouvoir—he translates his subtitle as “Power Networks, Strategies, Backrooms and Fights”—he’s been typecast. “Frankly, the publisher is more interested in politics,” he says. “I spent a lot of time with the Indians in South Dakota and said I always had in mind writing the story of the buffalo. The publisher said, ‘No, you should write about Obama.’ ”
Sabatier, whose English was honed during time at Suffolk University in Boston in the late 1960s, is hoping an American publisher will want to translate his book so readers here can take a look at their capital through a Frenchman’s lens. “Washington,” he says, “could use more foreign perspective on Washington.”
What was your idea for the book?
I decided to do a book that would be both a history of how Washington works—what I call the democracy-producing machine in Washington—and a collection of portraits of power people. I decided not to go for the best-known people like the President but instead for the second- or third-tier people across a spectrum of power centers—God, the law, Congress, money, et cetera. So when I had my framework, I looked for people who would consent to play the game.
Did anyone turn you down?
The lobbyists were the most difficult. I had contacts with major lobbyists, and I met some of them in private, but they told me, “We don’t want to do it because we wouldn’t be able to be honest with you.” The only one who accepted was Tom Quinn, who was useful and open, I suppose because he’s a senior lobbyist and he has not much to prove anymore.
Have any of the people you wrote about read the book?
Well, the only one who can fluently speak French is Justice Breyer. So he at least read his chapter. The others have told me that they were having their profiles translated.
How did you get Justice Breyer?
We had both attended a function at the French Embassy. I met him there, and we talked about the French justice system. He had published a book, Active Liberty, which has been translated into French and foreworded by our ex–justice minister, whom I happen to know. We talked about his book, his ideas. Then I said, “I’m writing a book, too, and I’m looking for a character who would talk about Washington, the Supreme Court, the law. Would you accept?” He said yes—with one condition. He was adamant that nothing he said could be published before the court session was over. And he was very anxious about it because after each of our meetings, he called me on my cell phone to say, “Hey, you can’t say anything about what I told you.” That was during the session where they were discussing the Guantánamo case and the Second Amendment case.