WASHINGTON — When John F. Kerry’s political foes complained in 2004 that he “looked French” and ordered Swiss cheese on his Philadelphia cheese steaks, the Democratic presidential nominee began keeping his affinities for Europe bien caché — well hidden.
But now that he is America’s chief diplomat, snail eating comes with the job and Kerry’s Europhilia is back with a vengeance.
In his first trip to Europe as secretary of State, Kerry this week spoke in French, German and Italian, warmed to discussions of European cuisines and lifestyles, and recited a Thomas Jefferson epigram in French.
While U.S. diplomats are “proud Americans, we are also citizens of the world,” Kerry explained in London, exposing an unashamed new internationalism.
The son of an American foreign service officer, Kerry attended a Swiss boarding school and lived in Paris, Oslo and Berlin as a youth. In the new job, his long ties to a world of refinement and sophistication are an asset, and he’s not holding back.
Though Kerry declined a request to speak French last month when he appeared with Canada’s foreign minister in Washington, he plunged into the language of Flaubert with no prompting Wednesday when he met in Paris with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
“Je suis tres content d’etre ici,” Kerry declared, “I’m delighted to be here.”
Le Monde pronounced him “a great Francophile” and “the most French” of American officials. His French won praise, even if his American accent was strong, and was judged better than that of Mitt Romney, who spoke the language a bit when he headed the 2002 Winter Olympics (and not again, as far as is known, when he ran for president in 2008 and 2012).
In Rome, Kerry went the extra mile by referring to Christopher Columbus as Cristoforo Colombo. In Berlin, his easy German outdid President John F. Kennedy’s, whose bold 1963 declaration, “Ich bin ein Berliner” after the Berlin Wall divided the city, was well received despite his thick accent.
Europeans have been delighted with Kerry’s shtick, but it has not gone down as well with American conservatives, some of whom still consider it unpatriotic and vaguely unmanly.
“Finally, something Jean Kerri understands: French lunches et le vin,” groused a commentator identified as D Togo on the conservative Free Republic website, using the French word for wine.
“He is becoming a self-parody,” sniffed another, identified as Publius.
To be sure, Kerry’s fluency with Europe doesn’t extend around the globe. Last week, in a speech at the University of Virginia, he conflated the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and came out with Kyrzakhstan.
Kerry sometimes has been criticized as stiff and awkward, and it has made him careful about revealing personal details. But in the new job, which he clearly loves, he’s relaxed and expansive.
In almost every stop in Europe, he cheerfully ran through his exploits as a youth in Europe.
He recalled how he had “misspent a night or two” in Paris hanging out in the then-seedy Les Halles neighborhood until the early hours of the morning. He told how Pamela Harriman, the English-born socialite who served as U.S. ambassador to France in the 1990s, once put him up in a bed previously used by aviator Charles Lindbergh.
“I’m a pilot and I love everything about Lindbergh,” Kerry confessed. He recounted several times how as a 12-year-old boy, he used his U.S. diplomatic passport to bike past a communist checkpoint and into a forbidding East Berlin, a stunt that outraged his diplomat father and got him grounded. He told how he used to sail in the lake in Wannsee, a district in southwestern Berlin.
In London, he told a convoluted story of how Joseph P. Kennedy, who served as U.S. ambassador to Britain from 1938 to 1940 (and was father of the future president), cut the ribbon to open a zoo, and how Kerry subsequently got lost in London’s financial district, The City.
Kerry related how as 18-year-olds, he and his friend David Thorne, now U.S. ambassador to Italy, bought a used London taxicab and drove it across continental Europe. Their adventures included running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, an exploit Ernest Hemingway made famous.
He had grimmer memories to share as well. Kerry’s mother, who was born in France, was working as a nurse’s aide in Paris in the Montparnasse district when the Germans invaded in 1940, and she fled to Portugal on bicycle.
His European audience ate it up, a sign that Kerry’s first foray marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“Kerry is somebody who has a particularly open ear for the Europeans,” Ruprecht Polenz, head of the foreign affairs committee of the Bundestag, the German parliament, told Reuters.