Continental Op

What I have learned in covering the Tour de France for four years is that most Americans, as the lady in the Pyrenees put it, "know zahro about France."

Fortunately, travel is a great educator. This summer every seat on planes leaving Seattle for Paris was filled, and had been for months in advance. (And because demand exceeded supply, ticket prices doubled.)

The Americans I talked to on the tour were surprised by how friendly and old France was. Our stereotypes are expiring. Now the French even smoke less and speak English more.

Before I left this year, a lawyer I know down at the gym asked me to name just one good thing about France.

"How about that they only use about half the oil per person we do?"

"What's so good about that?" Irv shot back. "Oil is a renewable resource!"

Now I'm not sure Irv really believes this. When he gets worked up, like on how terrible John Kerry is, he cannot stop.

According to reports in The New York Times, the world has reached a point where oil demand exceeds supply. Hence the near doubling of oil prices to $48 a barrel.

Two dollars a gallon for gas here? Count your blessings. Down the lane from Churchill's house in England, I paid $6.50 a gallon. Filling up the Mini-Cooper cost $70.

Churchill, recently chosen the greatest Brit ever, spoke French and loved France. Winston preferred to stay on the Côte d'Azur and paint, but his wife Clementine favored the spas in the Pyrenees.

There is a photograph of Franklin Roosevelt in a place of honor in Churchill's study, and also a bust. Both of our presidents named Roose-velt spoke French and had visited Europe since they were children.

In France I found Richard Perle at home - the administration's number-one cheerleader for the Iraqi war - and he told me the only trip W Bush had ever taken overseas before he became president was to Israel, where Ariel Sharon gave him a helicopter tour.

On the summit of Alp d'Huez, I had a chance to ask Lance Armstrong what he'd learned from all his traveling around France.

He said that it was unfortunate that because of current leadership there is such tension between America and France. "Because after my own country Texas - I mean America - I love France best. The people, their sense of history and aesthetics...."

Although what he said was only what Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had said before him, many Americans - like Irv - will prob-ably never be able to swallow those apples.

Robin Williams was with Lance. I asked him who he was voting for.

"Kerry," he said, "but I don't want him to win by default."

And who's Lance for?

"I don't know, Boss," replied Williams.

Armstrong faces an interesting dilemma.

His biographer, Sally Jenkins, told me Lance is pro-choice, anti-gun and was against the invasion of Iraq. On the other hand, W calls him up on the Champs Élysées, invites him to the White House and is a Texan.

Will Armstrong vote what he believes in or who he knows? (By the way, having skied with Kerry, I'm sure he's a much better athlete than Bush.)

Of course it's no secret who the French prefer. Kerry's picture is all over French newspapers. He and his wife both speak French.

But the anti-Bush sentiment is not limited to the French; it comes from everywhere. And it starts not because he doesn't speak any foreign language, but because, as a Swedish engineer put it, "We don't think he even speaks English."

On the SAS in-flight magazine's cover was Hans Blix, the UN arms inspector, as "Scandinavia's Man of the Year."

One of Lance's mechanics from Nottingham, England, nicknamed "The Sheriff," told me: "I heard Bush say he wants to lead the world - now that's a scary thought!"

Two Germans mentioned their historical parallels where fear and propaganda trumped common sense.

All of the Americans I've talked to who have returned from France are experiencing culture shock.

People here look fat. Cars are enormous. Restaurant noise is oppressive. But the rudest blow, a Queen Anne couple said, is the state of our political dialogue.

Somehow facts that seem earth-shaking have been lost. When Bush became president, the dollar was worth $1.20 in Euros; now it's worth 78 cents. Every month brings record deficits. We are creating terrorists faster than we are killing them. In Iraq we've even managed to create a quagmire in a desert. And the opinion of America in the world has reached its lowest point ever.

Yet the election focuses on what John Kerry did on Feb. 28, 1969.

I know what I was doing on that date - it was my birthday, and I was in a mansion on Queen Anne Hill breaking several laws and enjoying myself immensely. And I was able to do this because, like other sons of privilege, including Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz and Perle - all the men who brought us the war in Iraq - I had successfully evaded service in Vietnam.

Meanwhile John Kerry was in that humid nightmare being shot at.

That Bush's political operative in the White House, Karl Rove, another draft dodger, can manage to confuse the respective contributions of Kerry and Bush during this period is an indictment of the American intellect that carries the gravest possible penalties. We played while they died. To lie and distort this without guilt makes one wonder if there is any decency left.

So we the jury will decide in November not only who will be president, but what kind of country we are.

Any traveler knows that deep down America represents a dream embraced by people all over the world. But in the last four years their faith in us and that dream has been seriously shaken.

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