Kerry in Paris

Secretary of State John Kerry managed to pull himself away from more pressing business to arrive -- five days late -- for high level talks in Paris. Other “world leaders” had linked arms last Sunday to lead a crowd of marchers in solidarity against the terrorists who left seventeen dead in their wake.

President Obama and Vice President Biden stayed home, gated and guarded, and took in the Sunday football games during the Paris march. Kerry dismissed the outrage of the world that the top U.S. leadership had blown off the march as “mere quibbling.”

But a week late, Kerry showed up in the City of Lights, elegantly coiffed and attired, as usual. He had come, he said, to give Paris “a big hug.” And he brought PBS crooner James Taylor, who gave a touching rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend” to all the French fans of elevator music.

This might be a good time for us as Americans to remember what courage looks like. To remember what intelligence sounds like. It’s been a long time.

General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, was on hand on August 26, 1944, to lead the march down the Champs Elysée to celebrate the liberation of Paris after four long dark years of German occupation. Every day of those four years, Parisians had ached to see goose-stepping Nazis marching through the Arc de Triomphe. Every day, they had looked up at the Eiffel Tower to see the hated Swastika flag flying mockingly on top.

De Gaulle would later record in his memoirs his impressions of that day.

Stretching before me, the Champs Elysée. Ah! It was the sea! An enormous crowd packed tight on either side of the roadway. Perhaps some two million souls. The roofs too were packed with people. As I could see it was nothing but one living swell in the sunlight under the tricolour… I felt that I was fulfilling a function that went far, far beyond myself personally, that of acting as the instrument of fate.

De Gaulle at six-foot-five inches, wearing his military kepi, was an unmistakable target. His long stride easily put him out in front of all the lesser men of France who struggled to keep up.

At that moment, De Gaulle’s biographer Jean Lacouture tells us, a Wehrmacht general, less than fifty miles away, had a written order in his pocket from Hitler commanding him to rain V-1 and V-2 rockets down on the parade. These were the most terrible weapons of the time, writes Lacouture.

There were still plenty of German sharpshooters in the city. French Communists bitterly opposed de Gaulle. Any one of thousands of them might have rushed up and shot him as he marched. Vichy French -- those Nazi collaborators -- had condemned De Gaulle to death for not giving in to Hitler in 1940. Thousands of them hated this victorious general.

We were told last week that “security concerns” kept President Obama away. And Vice President Biden, too?

Security concerns did not keep General De Gaulle from marching the whole length of the Champs Elysée on that August Day of Liberation in 1944.

The President of the United States at that time was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Just a few months after De Gaulle’s famous walk down the Champs Elysée, FDR would ride in an open car through all five boroughs of New York City.

A fierce rainstorm drenched the ailing commander-in-chief. He had to stop for a change of clothes several times, but he returned -- as he memorably said -- Again and Again -- to the campaign trail.

Wending through those streets, where millions of New Yorkers came out to cheer their favorite son, Roosevelt would have his only victory parade. He would die the next spring, just weeks before Hitler shot himself and Mussolini was strung up at a Milan gas station.

The assassination of President Kennedy as he rode in an open limousine through the streets of Dallas has chastened us, to be sure. And the miraculous escape of Ronald Reagan in 1981, shot as he entered his own car in Washington, has made us wary of crowds.

Even so, President Reagan waded into a crowd of Russians on Moscow’s famed Arbat in June 1988. Reagan, like De Gaulle, always preferred the way of courage and of honor.

I’m embarrassed when my government admits that it was “security concerns” that led them to veto an appearance by the President of the United States -- especially when every other leader of consequence among the democracies was there.

You can’t even lead from behind when you admit you are a coward. And, yes, I’ve heard of Joe Biden. None of us wants to risk that.

What all this means -- President Obama’s no-show and his apparent decision to send in the clowns -- illustrates what Charles de Gaulle meant by his most dismissive criticism: Ils ne sont pas des hommes sérieux -- They are not serious men.

It’s not just that I disagree with everything they say and do. It’s that I cannot even take them seriously. And like CNN’s Jake Tapper, I am ashamed.

Robert Morrison is an Annapolis writer who served in the Reagan administration.