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Smart, Oui! Fun, Non!
Comments () | Published April 1, 2009

Did you speak with him in French or English?

That was one of the rules, that the interview would be mostly in French. Sixty percent was French. He was using it to practice French.

Were there any other conditions?

He is a big film buff, and he gave me as an assignment to watch John Ford’s movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, explaining that everything in the relations of Americans toward the law is encapsulated in that movie. I guess his point was that there is this tension in America between the need to impose the rule of law, sometimes by violence, and the need to create this mythology, this framework of the legal system, of which the Supreme Court is the apex. He was saying he is not a man, in a way. When he puts on his black robe, he becomes—he didn’t say a god or divinity—some kind of superhuman being that is supposed, at least, to define what is possible and not possible.

Did he suggest other films to you?

Also 12 Angry Men with Henry Fonda, about the jury system and the faith of Americans in the wisdom of the people.

Why did you choose the Southern Baptist Convention’s Washington representative, Richard Land?

I was looking for somebody for the God perspective. I wanted to tell about religion and power. He is a Southern Baptist, which is the most powerful religious denomination in America, and had been famous or infamous for writing a theological justification for the war in Iraq. He wrote a letter along with a number of other preachers explaining why the war in Iraq answered the criteria that St. Augustine and other fathers of the church had for a just war. So I thought this guy was interesting. I told him, “Listen, I am an atheist, I’m French, I consider your God thing really way beyond the pale, but I’m interested in listening to what you have to say.” So he said okay. He’s Oxford-educated, and he’s sophisticated. He’s not a redneck.

Did he try to make you a believer?

No. I was interested because he had written that in the world there are only three models of the relationship between God and power. The first model is theocracy, which is Iran, the Ayatollah, which is bad. The second model is America, where God is part of democracy and political life, which is good. And the third model is France, where we reject God, we prevent God from entering the public sphere, which is bad, in his eyes. So France was, with Iran, kind of a devilish country, and so I was intrigued by this.

Who surprised you the most?

Jim Kimsey was a surprise because I approached him as a businessman and weighty person, which he is, but he has all these interests in being a freelance diplomat, a kind of globetrotter, doing his own stuff, going to meet Fidel Castro, going to Colombia, the Balkans, and Iraq.

Did you get to meet Queen Noor? Was Jim Kimsey still seeing her?

He was always escorted, but not by her.

Whose story in Washington did you find most fascinating?

Probably the most emotional is Eleanor Holmes Norton. That’s because it’s a real Washington story. Her great-grandfather came here as a slave when he ran away to Washington before the Civil War. So there is the story of this family line that is a significant part of the black aristocracy of Washington. Her life story is very moving. In her office she had all these pictures of her grandfather, who was the first black in the fire department here; it was during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. And she was one of the organizers of the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, so she has all these pictures and mementos. So it’s a warm story of blacks in Washington. She is the only real Washingtonian, along with Kimsey.

Did you learn things about Washington that you hadn’t known before?

Yes, a lot. I didn’t know the details of the political power plays. For instance, [the law firm] Venable was approached by this Florida company that had a problem with the Dubai ports deal. Not for any political reason—it was purely a business consideration because they were going to be thrown out of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, et cetera. So they approached Venable.

What I realized is how they play the game—they realized there was no way of stopping the deal except by making it political. So they decided to play the fear card, saying, “Look, how can you let Arabs get control of American harbors?” And how they had gone to Senator Charles Schumer and other people who would react immediately, and how it totally swamped the Bush administration, which didn’t see it coming. And so it was interesting how a commercial conflict had evolved and exploded into a political battle. 

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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 04/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles