INTERVIEW --- THOMAS SANCTON
This conversation took place in the Spring of 1996.
Thomas Sancton was Time Magazine's correspondent and Paris Bureau Chief, a frequent guest on French TV talk shows. Karim Emile Bitar was a student at the Paris Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po), preparing to enter the ENA.
This transcript was initially published in a book edited by Harriet Welty Rochefort, The Interview and Interviewers (Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, 1996), which included profiles of several leading journalists and a series of interviews with TV anchors and stars of print journalism in France and America.
Karim Bitar : I was wondering, two months ago, when François Mitterrand passed away, do you think that such a person could possibly have succeeded as a politician in the United States, with all the ambiguities in his character, his marital infidelities, and so on and so forth ?
Thomas Sancton : No. No. No. He would have been finished at least as early as the Affaire de l'Observatoire. I think... Of course, one could look at careers of people like Richard Nixon who had many resucitations. Many disasters and resucitations. He had an affair, a scandal in the Mc Carthy era, during the hunt for the suspected communists...
Karim Bitar : At the time when he was sitting on the infamous Committee on Anti-American Activities, right ?
Thomas Sancton : ...Yes, and there was this very famous case of Alger Hiss, an American diplomat, who was suspected, actually convicted of spying. Some key evidence against him was supposedly hidden in a pumpkin. It was totally ridiculous and Nixon was involved in that case. Some people believed him, some denounced his manipulations. That was somewhat similar to the Observatoire, it happened early in his career and he survived it. But that's sort of a counterexample to what I'm saying.
I think, from that point on, Mitterrand's credibility in the eyes of an American public would have been seriously compromised. I think, with his second family, the irregularities, plus the numerous political and financial scandals that happened (the Greenpeace scandal, the Patrice Pelat affair...), he would not have survived the scrutiny of the American press.
And I'd add to that that the cover-up about his health situation would not have lasted as long in the US because the public has a right to know these things and there is an American tradition of leaks to the press.
There was a remarkable restraint on the part of people like Dr Gubler when he was the official doctor, and the hospital technicians, and a number of people in the medical profession who knew about these things. Eleven years is a long time to keep a secret like that, which leaves quantifiable traces and a dossier. In the US, the secret couldn't have been kept, and the press would have made a big issue of all these scandals. Public opinion would have turned against him very fast.
Karim Bitar : So why do you think the French Press is so reluctant to dig up the dirt ? And why did the Press decide not to mention certain issues for so long in order to protect the President ?
Thomas Sancton : There is a long tradition in France of control of the press by the State. If you look at television for example. Two of three major networks belong to the State. And they are manipulated by the state. Of course, Chirac doesn't call the anchorman every day and tell him what to say but there are reprisals. There is budgetary control. So that right here is something unheard of in the US. I think French journalists are light years behind the Americans in the aggressiveness of their investigations. Although there are some remarkable counter examples, remarkable investigative reporters like Le Monde's Edwy Plenel, and the guy from Paris Match who exposed the Rainbow Warrior scandal, but there are much fewer journalists who do that kind of journalism, and this is also the result of an attitude rather than a legal situation. I think this is the successor state to a very old absolutist monarchy. And in the case of Mitterrand, he embodied the Republican monarch, he embodied the State. There is a strong reluctance in France to question and attack the President.
Karim Bitar : How do you reconcile a public figure's right to privacy with the public's right to know? According to you, what are the limits of investigative journalism and of the freedom of the press ?
Thomas Sancton : I think the American Press, of course, has gone too far in the gossipy side of people's private lives. That disturbs me. Take Gary Hart. I don't know if he would have been a good president or not but he certainly was as good a candidate as any. Was it in 1984 ?
Karim Bitar : or perhaps in 1988, when Dukakis got the nomination.
Thomas Sancton : Anyway, That's the example of someone who showed bad judgement in personal matters. There was a debate in that particular case about what it says about his judgment. If it is flawed, perhaps it is also flawed in important political decisions. But I don't think the Press should be digging into a politician's personal affairs as long as they don't have harmful implications for the people. I mean, if the president has a mistress, or if his a homosexual, I don't think that's the business of the public, unless if it has any effect on his conduct of public affairs. Unless he is being manipulated by someone threatening to reveal that he is a homosexual...., that's were the danger is, when private conduct sort of rebounds and affects policy.
Karim Bitar : Well if you were a journalist, say, for an important daily newspaper in the US and you got some information that the President's mistress is living on state's expenses, like Mitterrand's mistress Anne Pingeot, would you reveal it immediately ?
Thomas Sancton : Well, I'll think it over, but I think that's a legitimate case of public interest being involved. If the public interest is not involved, then it is nobody's business. To say, for example that Bill Clinton was a draft dodger in 1969, to me that's a total non-issue. Everyone was a draft dodger then He tried to skip out of the net as many people did, as I would have done, but I got a high lottery number. So I didn't have to do that . So that's a non issue. It was a personal question. It happened years and years ago and it did not affect his public conduct in office. While misusing taxpayer's money is a matter of public interest. If he was using that money to support a mistress, or to support a gambling habit, or a drug habit, or to buy real estate in his name but using public funds, to me that's the same issue, it's misappropriation of public funds.
Karim Bitar : So in the case of Mitterrand, would you have revealed it in... 1986, before he got reelected?
Thomas Sancton : Well, I don't know... It's a funny question because I lived here a long time and I sort of adopted French attitudes about some issues.
In the French context is is a very tough question because in a lot of ways, I admire this restraint, this "pudeur" about private lives. At the same time, I think that really does raise important questions, like the misappropriation of public funds. It would have been a tough issue for me to decide, had I been a French journalist, but... I don't know... I think on balance I probably would not have revealed it.
Karim Bitar : You interviewed Jacques Chirac last year. Do you think France will play a more important role on the international level under a Gaullist president ?
Thomas Sancton : Well I think it will play an important role but that's not really a big change. I think, Mitterrand, apart from some rhetorical flourishes about North-South relations, aid to third world countries...., which was leftist rhetoric, apart from that, he conducted a gaullist foreign policy, in Africa... Relative to its size, France has always played a much more important role than the other European countries. That certainly was the case under de Gaulle, I don't think that changed under Mitterrand, and I don't think it will change with Jacques Chirac. But I think it's part of his gaullist heritage to make sure that France is respected. His decision to resume the nuclear tests...but I am not sure it had exactly the results he would have hoped for. He also played an important role in breaking up the blockage in Bosnia, this whole idea that we had to go from a passive humanitarian posture to an active military one was a key move. It's true that the Americans sort of seized control of the peace process. But it's a good example of an important role that France played.
Karim Bitar : How would you describe the relations between France and the United States, is it a love-hate relationship ?
Thomas Sancton : Well, people say that. I think it's .... it depends with whom you're talking to.
As far as the Americans go, unfortunately France doesn't count for much. The French spend a lot more time worrying about what the Americans think, what the Americans are going to do... Americans are certainly well disposed toward the French. They appreciate the cultural contributions that the French made, the enormous cultural gifts the French have given to the world. They like French popular culture I think they got annoyed by some french pretentions, De Gaulle drove the Americans Crazy. So there is a strong attraction as well as some annoyance. On the French side... Yes it's definitely a love-hate relationship. There is an appreciation for American contributions in World War I and World War II and the Marshall plan but their is a very strong resentment against America's hegemony. The fact that America wants to dictate, to give all the rules, and at the same time not to pay its fair share in terms of aid to foreign countries, unpaid dues to the United Nations, peacekeeping missions...
I think that there is strong historical alliance there, At the same time, there are numerous sources of mutual annoyance that are more or less important.
Karim Bitar : Let's get back to US politics, Do you think that Hillary Clinton will be a liability for her husband in the next presidential campaign ? She was subpoenaed today. What should she do ? Should she keep a low profile rather than assert her real personality?
Thomas Sancton : Yes, definitely yes. I think the Hillary factor has been a very complicated problem for Clinton all along. It helped up to a point during the campaign. I think she was .... First of all, we've never seen a first lady like that . During the campaign, the fact that she was so present and so brilliant, so aggressive, so opinionated, on the policy level as well, was something that we had never seen before. She's obviously very bright A lot of people at the time said that she should be the candidate, instead of Bill. But I think that certainly with the Whitewater affair, the kind of usure, people no longer feel confortable with this kind of first lady.
Karim Bitar : Last month, Mr Safire called Hillary a congenital and pathological liar. Do you think it is appropriate for a journalist to go that far ?
Thomas Sancton : Safire of course has gone too far, as usual. Safire is a "pamphletiste". And he's a masterful user, artist of word, but he is also a master of the excessive phrase in order to make a political point. In this case, he certainly went too far. That's certainly the opinion of the far-right, Pat Buchanan.... The fact that she has been an asset, that already exists. Everybody knows Bill Clinton has this smart wife. Everybody knows that. As far as Women voters go, the fact that he has given his wife an important role in devising policy is something that I think feminists and women, younger modern women in general probably appreciated. But that's already acquired. He's not going to get any more benefit with that by having her more present and more visible. He would lose support on the other side, if she is very present.
I would add to that with the Whitewater affair, she might not have a choice, she will be thrust on the stage. Safire is an incendiary columnist and he always has been. He was a speech writer for Richard Nixon.
Karim Bitar : Speaking of Richard Nixon, Did you get to see Oliver Stone's movie ?
Thomas Sancton : Not yet. I think it opened in the US but not yet in France. I am very curious to see it and I have many reservations about his whole approach to the JFK movie as well, given the impact that the visual media has on young people, who don't really know the historical facts. I think there is a danger that a very personal, kind of impressionistic vision of history becoming the reality in the minds of younger people. I have reservations. On the other hand, it sounds like a very interesting movie and a wonderful performance by Anthony Hopkins. I am curious to see it but I have some concerns.
Karim Bitar : What do you make of Steve Forbes' candidacy to the Republican nomination? Apparently, he wants to make the world safe for inheritance ! Are we going to see more and more businessmen in US politics, the Ross Perot kind of guys ?
Thomas Sancton : It depends on what kind of success he'll have. Up until know, he's been very surprising, given he has no experience and no ideas. He's clearly the No 2 on the Republican side. We saw a little bit of this tendency with the Ross Perot phenomenon. People generally don't trust politicians, they don't trust the two parties. They think that really important issues that matter to them are not dealt with. and politics as usual is increasingly being rejected by voters. So, where can they turn, the only alternative is to find someone from outside the political structure and they've only had businessmen.
Karim Bitar : The religious right is moving to the political center stage. To what extent is the Christian Coalition controlling the Republican Party? Will they be able to influence the nomination or at least can they veto a pro-choice candidate ?
Thomas Sancton : I don't think they can veto a pro-choice candidate. Well, possibly. But if it is really a vocal outspoken pro-choice, if a clearly pro-choice candidate is running, and if it is a close race with, say Bob Dole, then they can certainly tip it in favor of the pro-life candidate. No one can get the nomination if the religious right is strongly opposed to him. On the other hand, the religious right is not in position to impose its candidate on the Republican party.
Karim Bitar : What about Bob Dole's crusade against Hollywood's "nightmares of depravity"? Was it only an attempt to score some political points and please the religious right, or does it reflect a growing puritanism in mainstream America ?
Thomas Sancton : I think there is a real concern in the US for family values . The Republicans tried to make this a big issue in 1992. and it sort of backfired, partly because of those who were the most vocal in supporting the moral values of the religious right. Pat Buchanan. He has a religious background and he is very moralistic, very rightwing . He made a speech at the 1992 Houston Republican convention. I was there and I never heard such a scary speech outside of newsreels of Hitler. He was saying that we have to take back our values and our culture, street by street, block by block, he gave litterally a military image of taking over the cities were these sort of nameless enemies.... who was he talking about ? Blacks? Ghetto Blacks ?
Karim Bitar : I heard that Barbara Bush almost fainted that day !
Thomas Sancton : It was unbelievable People that he did not identify, but clearly : "not us"... who are destroying family values , who are the taking jobs away, who are giving Aids to your daughters...
That kind of advocation of family values, I think is very harmful and it boomeranged against Bush. On the other hand, family values are, if you look at polls, clearly among the things that Americans are most concerned about . The Democrats addressed this too. Clinton came out very strongly, at least in rhetorical terms in favor of family values and on the democratic side, there are people like Al Gore's wife, Tipper Gore who has been very very vocal about this, violence on television, and sexually explicit language, and lyrics in rap music, and some things like that. I think it's a fairly widespread concern but it doesn't belong to the Republican camp today any more than to the Democrats, although they would like to put more of a Republican stamp on it and it clearly. Although it's clearly an issue that plays very well in the Religious right. So by stressing those issues, a candidate can win the support of the religious right. And it is a broader, very delicate issue. If they go too far, like Buchanan did, they can perceived as bigots and racists.
Karim Bitar : In the aftermath of the one million man march, are the traditional black leaders being marginalized by the extremists ?
Thomas Sancton : It is not easy to say. The march was an important phenomenon. The failure of traditional black politicians depends on whether Mr Farrrakhan will be be able to mobilize or control this population. I doubt it. I think it was an occasion for people to come out, show their strength, stand up and be counted. But on the other hand I don't see any more traditional black leaders. playing a very influential role. Jesse Jackson...I don't see anybody else right know.
Colin Powell could have played an important role, but it probably would have been more with the White middleclass or a very small part of the black middle class. I don't think he could have been a role model for the ghetto youth or for the marginalized Blacks.
Karim Bitar : Do you think that O.J owes his acquittal to Rodney King ? I mean to the growing resentment in the Black community against the LAPD and the justice system and white America ?
Thomas Sancton : Oh. Yes. That was a very important factor. you know, 9 of the 12 jurors were black. one was Mexican. So obviously, their collective attitudes towards the police system and the justice system (the ability of a black man to get a fair trial), played very heavily in their decision.
Even though there were technical problems, the presence of this clearly racist detective, the evidence against O.J.was just overwhelming. And what happened there is that the evidence was clearly discarded in favor of a gut reaction and attitudinal reaction, saying : well he's black, and by definition, a black man cannot have a fair trial in California. That's why we have to acquit him. if that trial happened in the Midwest, I think he would certainly have been convicted.
Karim Bitar : How do you explain the Rush Limbaugh phenomenon ? Why are so many people listening to him? Personally, do you find him funny or obnoxious ?
Thomas Sancton : Both (laughs ). But dangerous... dangerous. It goes back to what I said earlier about the distrust of Washington, the resentment against the establishment. He is not in the traditional media, He is not Dan Rather sitting at his anchor desk. He can say whatever he wants. And among less educated Americans, there is a sense that there is this New England establishment, this elite that makes all the rules, that controls the government, the media and that they don't have a voice. Rush Limbaugh gives his voice to the uneducated biased, bigoted, ignorant and fearful Americans, the bulk of the American public. That's very dangerous, because he legitimizes their worst prejudices and comforts them in their ignorance. And I think that's very dangerous. Although it is an enormous phenomenon. Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson, Don Imeson in NYC and this other guy with the long hair, the specialist in vulgar language...
Karim Bitar : One of the main goals of the Republicans' Contract for America is to cut spending and particularly foreign aid. Some Republicans fiercely oppose the United Nations and reject the idea of multilateral actions under UN command. Besides America owes a lot of money to the UN. Do you think America is succumbing to isolationism again ?
Thomas Sancton : Yes, definitely. And it will have an effect on foreign policy If the Republicans remain in a position to control the budget. What we have seen is a Democratic president who was elected basically on a domestic agenda, an economic agenda. Bush had a very high foreign policy profile but he was week on domestic issues. When Clinton got elected, he became confronted with foreign issues that he couldn't ignore. He inherited an expeditionary force in Somalia, the Haiti situation, the Bosnia situation where Americans were not present on the ground but where NATO policies required a president to spend a lot of time on this issue. While, at the same time, he was confronted with a Congress that is tight-fisted, in budgetary terms, and also isolationist on ideological ground. They are against foreign aid, like Jesse Helms. They are ideologically conservative, pro America First, and unabashedly isolationists. So the question is : does that apply to Clinton ? . Clinton is not isolationist. The Democrats in general are concerned that the US maintain its international role, its credibility, its ability to respond to a crisis situation. If Clinton is reelected and if he gets a Congress that is more Democratic, I think that the isolationism temptation will not survive. It is a cycle. If he loses, If Dole is elected President, Dole is not ideologically isolationist, but under budgetary pressure and ideological pressure coming from a Republican Congress, it would be very difficult for him to allow a bigger American role in foreign aid and peace keeping . Although paradoxically, the same people would probably not cut military spending. It may in fact increase. So America is in a paradoxical situation of having a stronger military capability and less inclination to use it unless US interests were directly threatened, like what happened during the Gulf War with the oil question. Isolationism is certainly an inclination in the US right now. What's happening now has dangerous implications and whether it continues and amplifies or it reverses, it depends, I think on the result of the election.
Karim Bitar : Do you think Newt will run in the year 2000 ?
Thomas Sancton : I think his credibility has taken a hit. If you look at his standing in the polls, he's not a very popular politician . But within Congress, in the political arena, he is very powerful, very influential, and he is a very skillful player of the political game. But still, a lot of Americans are concerned about the attitudes and policies behind the whole Contract for America. They voted for Republicans in 1994 because they wanted change basically.
Karim Bitar : So they did not support the whole Republican agenda ?
Thomas Sancton : I think what hurt the Republicans most in the last two years was the policyzing and enacting of a large part of the Contract for America, because once Americans realized what it implied... It is absolutely horrifying... And this budget debacle, paralyzing the federal government for weeks and weeks, really that was hurting the Republicans more than the President. and the Republican who is most identified with that is Newt Gingrich. So I think Gingrich is ambitious. If he thinks he has a chance he'll run. On the other hand, I don't think that he has that kind of staying power with public opinion. I can't see him becoming a much more popular politician than he is right now. He will remain influential, but influential in the way that Tip O'Neil was influential or other powerful senators and Congressmen. It doesn't necessarily mean that he's electable as president. I don't think he is.