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Jim Hoagland

Jim Hoagland

Published on July 9, 2010

On June 24, Ambassador Pierre Vimont bestowed the decoration of Officer of the Legion of Honor upon the great American columnist Jim Hoagland during a ceremony at the Residence.

Jim Hoagland was the Paris correspondent for the New York Times and the Washington Post. It was there that he began his weekly foreign policy column, which he continued upon his return to Washington and writes to this day.

He is a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize: In 1971, he received the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for a 10-part series on apartheid in South Africa, which he turned into a book: "South Africa: Civilians in Conflict." In 1991 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for his articles describing Iraq’s territorial ambitions before the invasion of Kuwait.

Jim Hoagland’s speech :

Monsieur l’Ambassadeur, Cher Pierre,

Les excellences et notables, Messieurs et Mesdames, chers amis, dear friends all.

Have no fear.

This moment is far too moving for me to inflict my still imperfect French in a long speech to you. Indeed, this ceremony speaks for itself and needs no speech by me. When I mentioned that to my dear Jane, she counseled me that I should say just that and sit down to no doubt thunderous applause from you.

But I would like just to pay a brief tribute to that wonderful language. C’est apres tout la belle langue francaise qui m’a d’abord seduit comme jeune etudiant et puis m’a conduit sur le voyage d’une vie, a travers la France and le monde francophone, en Afrique, Asie et aux Caribbes. Et c’est la logique de la langue francaise, qui est la langue de la diplomatie, qui m’aide à comprendre l’alliance des esprits, de l’ambition a l’echelle mondiale, et des “concepts” qui ont serre nos deux pays, des fois malgre eux-meme.

Thank you all for coming to this beautiful house tonight to join in a very special moment of celebration. Believe me, it as a humbling moment, at least as humbling as was the time four years ago when I became a chevalier in the Legion and began to reflect on what it has done, and meant, over the two centuries since Napoleon created it.

And I believe it has become an important link in the very interesting and very complicated French-American story that touches our lives in so many perceptible and imperceptable ways. Among the first Americans admitted were ambulance drivers, nurses and other humanitarian workers who helped French forces before the United States entered World War One. John Warner’s father was a doctor who did just that. John, thank you for being here tonight and for your distinguished service to the Senate and to our country. Veterans of that conflict and of World War Two have also become active and prominent members of the Legion of Honor. Three members of the New York Fire Department who lost their lives in rescue work on Sept. 11, 2001, were made members posthumously by the Legion as a symbol of solidarity in sacrifice.

That is why I say it is a humbling experience to be promoted in this organization and to be hosted here tonight. Perhaps the Legion feels I need a dose of humility from time to time and thus has bumped me up the ladder. Or perhaps it is just that they heard the speech I gave in Paris four years ago and are going to keep me coming back until I get it right. But I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that the reinforced humility coexits with a great amount of pleasure and joy. Perhaps I can express it best in a truly American way by paraphrasing the words of the social philospher and country singer Toby Keith:

Every Dog has its Day, Dog,
When the Big Dog throws him a bone,
One moment in the sunshine, when your ducks line up in a row.
Lucky dog gets a big ol’ bed, stray dog gets the poarch,
Every Dog has its Day, Dog,
And this one, Dog, is mine.

Or as Juliette Binoche says in the Pont Neuf movie: C’est ce soir! (French guests can explain it to Americans.)

I am going to break out of character tonight and talk very personally, not about international relations or theories of geopolitics. That is for other times. Journalism very early on attracted me precisely because it seemed a good way to get others to talk about themselves and not to have to talk about yourself. After all, everyone you meet knows more about one or more things than you do. The craft part of journalism is to know what that thing is and to get them to talk about it. But this is a night for us to talk of the friendship that unites us in a particularly Washington way and with particular reference to this house and its role in my life. For this residence and the embassy have been launching pads for life-long friendships, not only for me but also for Jane and for daugher Lily and son Lee.

Since the days of Julius Caesar, all who are French or live there for long see everything as being like Gaul---that is, divided into three. So it is not surprising that I want to take you on a brief visit to three overlapping circles of family, French friendships and Washington friendships.

Allow me first to talk a little about family, a subject of great importance in my native South as well as in France.

Jane and I were married 15 years ago---on July 14, not so much by design as by fate as it happened. There was an implicit blessing to the union by the French, and in more ways than one. We had met in 1993 in New York, just as I was about to leave on a reporting trip to Paris. It was for me un coup de foudre---love at first sight---at a New York dinner party. On the flight over to what is for me the most romantioc city in the world I read her first novel, Trick of the Eye, and was deeply impressed by her style and discipline as a writer. In making small talk before an interview, I happened to mention this to another fine writer, who also happened to be president of France at the time, and Francois Mitterrand told me I was using the right criteria in making this a matter of the head as well as of the heart. He was right. She is a wonderful mate and a constant inspiration.

Two other wonderful sources of inspiration have been daugher Lily and son Lee. I often say I became a journalist to continue my education. All of us who become parents discover that whatever our intention, having children serves that purpose as well. We are constantly learning from them. Lily is a survivor of the stern disciplinarians of Ecole Actif Bilingue Jeanne Mannuel in her formative years, where she showed me one day one very French idea she had learned.

Seeing that she was for the first time losing a race to her younger brother she immediately called out “course à l’anglaise,” meaning that you would win the race by finishing second, as the perfidious English were said by the French to do. I hope that Her Majesty’s Ambassador Sir Nigel Sheinwald and the lovely Julia, who are here, will see the deep compliment that this French saying pays to a nation not accustomed to ever losing.

Lee is not with us because he is of course in Paris, on his way to Abu Dhabi to pursue a career as a photojournalist. Ever entrepreneurial, he has discovered that rarest of things these days, a newspaper making money and spending it to hire adventurous spirits. He is due to join The National shortly.

He will discover quickly the basic rule of newspaper journalism, whether in Washington, Paris or Abu Dhabi: Great newspapers become great because they have great owners. It has been my privilege to work for three newspapers owned by families who really cared. The first was the Rock Hill Evening Herald, followed by The New York Times and The Washington Post, where it has been my privilege to have Kay and Don Graham not only as leaders of the enterprise but as personal friends. Thank you for being here tonight, Don.

Perhaps I owe all of you a brief word of explanation how it is that a opinion writer, who at least in stereotype and often in reality ranges only from the curmudgeonly to the cynical---and who most of all must be distrustful of power, particularly governmental power---stands here to accept an award that explicitly involves service to the Republic of France. After all The Washington Post was conceived in the spirit of independence, and has most often served as a true counterweight to the political power of the day. For years you could observe the Post shifting slightly along the political spectrum, moving to center-left when the Reagan administration came to power or moving to center-right in the days of Jimmy Carter. It is an entirely appropriate role. Another important function of the journalist is to increase the public’s understanding of complicated issues and complicated people. That is particularly true of foreign correspondents. It is to France’s credit to believe that increasing this country’s understanding of France is a service to the French nation as well as to the American public. It is in that spirit that I am proud to be in the Legion.

In addition, French presidents and prime ministers long ago learned that naming an American journalist to the Legion provides no respite from criticism. You can ask Jacques Chirac, who initially made me a member, or Dominique de Villepin, whose views on multipolarity and Iraq I challenged in a number of columns and in person. But like our nations, we three remained friends, preserving our rights to argue another day with consideration for the other’s viewpoint. The French are very good at arguing with all their might, while accepting that there may be something to be learned from listening to the other. I think this is true for President Sarkozy, who has done me the great honor of promoting me to the rank of Officier in the Legion and to whom I wish to express my thanks.

Early in my student days at Aix en Provence I learned a valuable lesson about the French and friendship. It came in a literature class taught by what I later discovered was one of the university’s most accomplished professors. I have to confess that my reason for being in the class had more to do with the attractive French girl whom I had met at registration than the reputation of the professor. So when he asked the class to write a paper on a French book we ranked as important, I dashed off a quick riff on “Le Petit Prince”. When the class met again, the professor started by singling me out and asking me to stand and explain why I had chosen Le Petit Prince. Alarm bells went off for me. I assumed that he thought I had been making fun of his assignment, by choosing a book that was the favorite of children the world over. So I had to make my case, which I felt deeply, that the story of the Prince and his rose was one of the most romantic tales ever written and had captivated me. He paused as I returned to my seat, looked at me, and said, Monsieur, Antoine St. Expury was my best friend. You have faithfully understood what he was saying in the book.

I learned then and there that you never make assumptions about why a Frenchman is challenging what you say. It may be just to get you to express yourself better. And I learned that friendship, though harder to win in France than in the U.S., is extremely important and, once made, lasts. Here again, I believe the personal is an important indicator of the national. France and the U.S. are strong enough friends to be critical of each other when that is called for, or at times even when it is not. We each have our own examples. The only other country that enjoys that privilege is Britain, which of course expresses it in a very different way.

But it was this quality of looking at the world differently, ane expressing views differently, that intrigued me about France, and made me choose a French university to attend.

And that has been the experience I have had with several score ambassadors and the diplomats who have worked with them here in this house and at the embassy. It would take me a great part of the evening to list them all, but let me at least mention some of the truly distinguished persons whom Paris has had the grace and wit to send to us and who were particular friends: Francois de Laboulaye, Bernard Vernier Paillez, Bobbie de Margerie, Jacques Andriani, Francois Bujon d’Etang, Jean David Levitte and of course Pierre Vimont.

If the embassy has been a launching pad for friendship, it has not done badly as a formative stage in distinguished careers as well. I have in mind particularly my great friends, Philippe Faure and Francois de Lattre, now respectively the ambassadors to Tokyo and Ottawa, as well the aforesaid Dominique de Villepin who went on to become prime minister, and Catherine Colona, who was Minister for European Affairs when she presented me the chevalier medal in 2006. And Bernard Valero, who is now spokesman at the Quai d’Orsay. They all served as press counselor at the embassy, so we clearly see what kind of future awaits my friend Emmanuel Lenain, whose Kalorama lecture series here at the embassy has been the most innovative and valuable opening to the Washington community on embassy row in recent years. It was recently honored by the appearance of one of the world’s most accomplished writers and a good friend, Philippe Labro.

Another person with an interesting future ahead is clearly Dominique Strauss-Kahn. We will watch with great interest. Dominique and Anne, thank you for being with us.

The state of the French-American relationship is strong, and is in good shape for the future as well. After all, today when you go to the White House and stop by the National Security Adviser’s office, you will see how things have changed. Back when I first went to that office, to interview Zbig Brzezinski, the most compelling decoration were small models of the Peacekeeper, a ferocious silo-busting missile designed to counter Soviet rockets. In Condi Rice’s day, the models were of football helmets. Today you will go and see---along with the U.S. Marine Corps memoribilia gathered by one of its most distinguished officers---copies of Le Figaro, or Le Monde, which have been thumbed and read. That is because of the fluency of Jim Jones, who could have given this entire speech in flawless French. That speaks well about the nature of the relations of our countries. Thank you Jim for taking the time to join this ceremony.

A final envoi: All I want is to be remembered as the man who brought to this house friends who were able to drink the French ambassador out of champagne and good wine. Yes we can, Pierre. Sante. Skoal. Cheers. L’chaim. And most of all, to Jane, here’s looking at you kid.

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