Condi's French Twist

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

February 10, 2005

Flush with endorsing license plates discouraging conjugal license - entwined gold rings with the message "Traditional Marriage" - the Virginia House of Delegates is pulling up the fabric of society again.

Literally, this time.

The delegates have passed a bill authorizing a $50 fine for any Virginians - from randy Desperate Housewives to droopy chic teenagers - who wear pants that ride so low that their underwear shows "in a lewd or indecent manner."

Given that several generations now have unsuccessfully tried to meddle in the matter of teens' jeans, you would think lawmakers would know it is the ultimate futility. But the bill's sponsor, Delegate Algie Howell Jr., a 67-year-old Democrat and barbershop owner from Norfolk, told The Virginian-Pilot that he's got high, or rather low, hopes: "I think if there's a law saying you can't walk down the street with 8 to 10 inches of your undergarments showing, at least some of them might stop doing it."

This guy should be on the Bush team. Controlling what does not need to be controlled is its specialty.

Condoleezza Rice plays hardball with foes and allies around the world. But she's afraid of a few French schoolkids?

Keith Richburg reported in The Washington Post that the Bushies ensured that Condi's appearance at the elite Institute of Political Sciences was more sheep pen than lion's den. "Only a handful of the school's 5,500 students were allowed near the auditorium where Rice spoke," he wrote, "and the initial questions were vetted in advance by the school and the State Department."

The article said Benjamin Barnier, the son of Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, asked the first question, about the possibility of a theocratic government in Iraq. But the real question he wanted to ask was vetoed after he submitted it to the school on Monday. It was: "George Bush is not particularly well perceived in the world, particularly in the Middle East. Can you do something to change that?"

Surely, the "princess warrior" and "Madame Hawk," as she has been dubbed in France, could have handled that one.

But Bush officials prefer to write the script, or "create their own reality," as one Bushie put it, whenever they can. Besides the W.M.D. scare, there was the Kabuki "Ask President Bush" campaign sessions where voters had to take written pledges of support before they were allowed in, and the micromanaged town hall debates, where Bush strategists would not allow truly undecided voters to ask W. questions. And don't forget the administration's payments to conservative "journalists" to sell programs they would have promoted anyway.

The administration is obsessed with controlling the script in ways it doesn't need to, while it drops the ball on controlling the script in ways it should. With the occupation plan in Iraq and the approach to Iran and North Korea, the Bush team often seems to be improvising.

The smug French, who have been riveted by what they regard as American self-delusion, were also riveted by Condi's lèse-majesté seduction in pumps and pearls. Her message boiled down to a silky version of: "Now that we've blown you off and ignored you, we're going to give you an opportunity to admit we were right all along and join us on the ramparts to crush Islamic fundamentalism."

As Elaine Sciolino wrote in The Times, the new secretary of state sent a frisson through the American ambassador's residence yesterday at breakfast with six French intellectuals when she referred to Iran as a "totalitarian state," rather than an "authoritarian" one - since totalitarian is a term ordinarily reserved for violent regimes like Nazi Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union.

"It was scary," said one guest, François Heisbourg, and it inflamed French fears that the U.S. is eyeing regime change in Iran next.

Of course, the French and other Europeans will remain skeptical of Ms. Rice's talk of high ideals, liberty and help for women in the Middle East as long as the U.S. remains inconsistent. In our ally Saudi Arabia's first nationwide elections for municipal councils today, women have been banned from voting or running.

The Saudis, who obviously picked up a few tips from the Bushies about how to suppress the vote, claimed that they didn't have enough voting booths for women.

But the Saudi columnist Badriyah al-Bisher was quoted by The A.P. as saying that the elections were reminiscent of the time the first President George Bush did not step in when Saudi women made a spirited effort to drive, after female American soldiers arrived for Desert Shield. The women drivers were slapped down, insulted and ostracized for the next decade.

"We've been dumped in the back seat again," she said, "and only a man is allowed to drive us."