- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
In defending Mitt Romney’s national security credentials to BuzzFeed on Tuesday, foreign policy advisor Robert O’Brien cited a rather curious data point — the French Romney picked up while serving as a Mormon missionary in France in the late 1960s:
"The Governor is an extraordinarily well-traveled businessman, he lived overseas as a young man, he speaks French, he understands the world and he’s written extensively about foreign policy and national security," he continued. "The idea that he’s this naive guy at 65 years old, given his experience heading the Olympic Winter Games and everything else, I just don’t think that’s going to play."
Take that Mr. President, with your "passable" Bahasa and middling Spanish! Barack Obama, after all, admitted that he lacked foreign language skills on the campaign trail in 2008, remarking that "it’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?" Wrong. Not if you’re Mitt Romney.
What’s particularly striking about O’Brien’s comment is that Newt Gingrich, who speaks a little French himself, attacked this very trait in the Republican primary, pointing out that Romney spoke French while promoting the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002. In the campaign ad below, the narrator observes that "just like [former Democratic presidential nominee] John Kerry, he speaks French too."
Now, it seems, the campaign is turning Romney’s French skills into an asset– a testament to the candidate’s wordliness. Over the weekend, Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan also defended his record on foreign policy — in a line that sounded eerily similar to Dan Quayle’s assertion during the 1988 vice-presidential debate that he had "as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency." Here’s what Ryan had to say:
I have more foreign policy experience coming into this job than President Obama did coming into his….
I’ve been in Congress for 14 years. He was in the Senate for far, far less time that that. I voted — you know, Norah, I voted to send men and women to war. I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve met with our troops to get their perspectives. I’ve been to the funerals. I’ve talked to the widows. I’ve talked to the wives, the moms and dads. That’s something. That matters.
I take this very seriously. I’ve done doing this for 14 years.
So far, the Obama campaign hasn’t borrowed a page from Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle’s challenger in 1988, who famously told the Republican senator, "I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."