News & Politics

Smart, Oui! Fun, Non!

Patrick Sabatier presents a Frenchman’s view of Washington, a city he finds intellectually stimulating but in need of more joie de vivre

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. 

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. 

What did you learn about America?

Washington is America and is not America. The whole presidential campaign was predicated on the fact that we must get rid of Washington, we must change Washington, the source of evil is Washington—whether it was Obama or McCain. And the truth is that Washington is America. This is the only place where people from California, South Carolina, et cetera, get together and work out their differences, their conflicts, their issues and contradictions. There is this kind of romantic idea that, well, America is not like European nations, which have a center from which everything emanates—in America everything’s very decentralized. That’s BS. Of course, California is a world unto itself. Of course, Illinois has its own life, but where America really comes together and really starts acting as America is Washington.

Each time there’s been war and crisis—the war against the British, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War—each time, Washington gets bigger, gets more powerful, and America becomes more and more a nation like the others. So, in fact, Washington is America.

What was most interesting for you?

What was for me the most enthralling was that I was working at the same time with Nancy Jacobson, Mark Penn’s wife, who was at the heart of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and with Melody Barnes, then a vice president at the Center for American Progress, who was very near to the center of the Obama campaign. That was Democratic Washington. Following the battle—the civil war, sort of—within the Democratic Party was fascinating. That was really very, very deep Washington stuff. In Nancy Jacobson’s profile, I recount the inner struggle between the old new Democrats, the Clinton Democrats, and the new new Democrats, the Obama Democrats. And now everybody is very happy that the Democrats are back in power and Hillary is the Secretary of State, and life goes on. The show goes on.

Any funny anecdotes in the book?

Washington is not really a city where you have fun. You need to have a high interest in politics, foreign diplomacy, to enjoy it. It’s a very intellectual city where you meet a lot of very interesting people, where all the major issues of the day are discussed, but it’s not really a fun city.

What does it need?

The cultural part. When I say culture, I mean everything. The opportunity to talk about books or about art is still very limited compared to New York, compared to Paris, Berlin, or London. Washington has these tremendous cultural institutions, beautiful museums, but it’s not generating or producing anything in terms of culture.

In the book I interview Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre. You have one of the top Shakespeare theaters in the world. You have the second-liveliest theater scene after New York, equal to Chicago. But what is staged here is very low-grade compared to what you can see in Berlin, in Paris, in London, or in any capital. So in that sense, it’s not yet a global city. It is America. It is not yet the world.

We were invited to fundraisers, private dinners, fairly high-grade, including some that the former vice president attended. And what was amazing is that the only discussion was politics. There was not much cultural give and take, intellectual give and take, between the people.

And that would be different in Paris?

Very. People would talk about politics—they would argue about politics. But they would as well argue about sex, about the latest film, the latest scandal in the literary world.

So you didn’t get to argue about sex in Washington?

Well, only because of Mark Foley, because of Larry Craig and the “DC madam.” But it’s pathetic—no fun compared to Britain or France. The DC madam commits suicide, which would never happen in France. There is a deep moralistic thread still in the US in general and in DC in particular.

Are there misconceptions about Washington in Europe?

Oh, yeah. People do not understand how the city works, how the system works. It’s very difficult for the French to understand that even when a president says something, it may not be made into law. In France, the majority of the Parliament is in the hands of the president. So the idea that the Democrats could derail something that their own president put forth, like Clinton’s healthcare reform, that’s incomprehensible in Europe. Ambassadors here have a hard time making their capitals understand that the White House is not the most important institution. It’s just first among equals.

People abroad tend to think that you have only not very bright people, basically bureaucrats, in Washington. People don’t realize that you have the highest concentration of brainpower here. People think Washington is a sleepy, stuffy city where nothing happens but petty politics. For outsiders, Washington is not the place to be in the US. Now, in the last six months, you see that changing. People are beginning to see Washington as El Dorado and understand that the real economic and financial power is not on Wall Street but in Washington. More important than Microsoft was Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Federal Reserve. 

What was your reaction to the inauguration?

I had never seen anything like it. One to 2 million people, that was quite extraordinary. What’s also extraordinary—admirable but also a little worrying—is the extreme hope of many people in Obama. In Europe we tend to be much more cynical and realistic about what political power can do or not do. I’m pretty sure that Obama will be as much changed by Washington as he will change Washington. There are people in the US who see him as a kind of redemptor for the sins of racism and slavery and a messiah for again bringing America to the forefront of the world. While I hope he will do a lot of big reforms and good things, America will not change overnight. So what will be the reaction after the disappointment settles in?

Did the world’s reaction to his election surprise you?

No, because we had seen during the campaign that there was great hope in Obama. Even people who burn American flags are not really anti-American. For many reasons, people have a kind of romantic view of America. Because of Hollywood, because of history, people want to love America, around the world and even, I think, in the Middle East. But they were confronted with the reality of American power and with George W. Bush. They were confronted with what they felt was both the stupidity and the wrongness of American power. So then the reaction becomes terribly negative. Now this guy Obama has brought America back to life—at least the idea, the hope, the dream of America. So it’s powerful.

Do you think the new First Lady will help make Washington a more fashionable city?

Not really. In France, discussions about fashion would be about aesthetics and reflections about personality, style, et cetera. Here, for instance, there was a lot of discussion about Michelle Obama’s inauguration outfits, but the discussion focused on the fact that designer Jason Wu was a Taiwanese-born American, there was a Cuban-American designer, that they were American-made dresses and she didn’t go out and ask the French or Italian designers. There’s a certain protectionist, America-first attitude, a certain parochialism. Maybe it’s Washington—because everything is seen through a political prism. Or maybe it’s America.

This article first appeared in the April 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.  

Susan Baer

Susan Baer is a former Washingtonian editor and Baltimore Sun correspondent who has also written for CNN and the Washington Post. She can be reached at [email protected].