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Monsieur Lévy’s Working Holiday 

The anti-anti-American French philosopher survives the New York press

Thursday, Sep 25 2003
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Hah hah hah . . .

Al Franken was laughing the self-satisfied laugh of a man whose book is No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list. Christiane Amanpour, looking much prettier than when she’s standing on top of a hotel in Baghdad, was shaking hands. And Tina Brown was getting ready for the next segment, studying cue cards as her blond hair was sculpted and sprayed, as powder was brushed gently across her lips.

“Remember Bill Clinton?” Franken was saying to someone or other, his voice booming across the room. “Well? Hah hah hah. Eight years of an expanded economy.”

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“Yeah, but everything burned out, it was too fast —”

“Read my book,” Franken shot back.

We were in a suite of rooms above Patroon, a restaurant on East 46th Street in New York, where Franken, Amanpour and former Pentagon official Victoria Clarke had just taped a conversation for Topic [A] With Tina Brown, the talk show on CNBC. Up next was Bernard-Henri Lévy, France’s premier celebrity intellectual, who was practically anonymous amid this minor constellation of American media stars. He was smarter than the lot of them, and better-looking too, but this was Manhattan, not the Café Flore or the Boulevard Saint-Germain. What was he doing here?

The short answer: plugging a book. Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, Lévy’s investigation into the abduction and murder of The Wall Street Journal reporter at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan, is a riveting real-life geopolitical thriller. Planting himself front and center in his narrative, Lévy takes the reader through Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Britain, and even Los Angeles and upstate New York as he tries to piece together how Pearl was kidnapped and why he was killed. His controversial conclusion is that Pearl was murdered not only for the “crime” of being Jewish, but also because he had learned too much about the secret alliance between the ISI, Pakistan’s secret-service agency, and al Qaeda. Given that Pakistan has a nuclear bomb, this is a serious and frightening charge.

But there were quasi-diplomatic reasons for Lévy’s presence as well. Basically, these boiled down to two. The first was his wish to pay tribute, as a French intellectual, and as a calculated gesture of friendship from one nation to another, to Daniel Pearl, the man he called “a great American journalist” and “my posthumous friend.” The second was to alert Americans, again as an act of good will, to his belief that the real danger that confronted them lay not, as George W. Bush seems to think, in the deserts of Iraq, but in the alleyways and mosques and madrasahs of our ally Pakistan, which he calls the biggest rogue state of them all, an immense breeding ground for holy war, a country soaked in “the stench of the apocalypse.”

In short, this was no ordinary media blitz. As an occasional emissary of French President Jacques Chirac, and a good friend of Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, Lévy was trying to tell us something.

 

“What is it about the death of an American journalist that called out to a French philosopher?” asked Tina Brown as the cameras rolled. “Why have you written this book?”

“I think I was really struck by the very imagery,” Lévy replied, referring to the infamous video Pearl’s kidnappers made of their victim as they slit his throat. “I saw the video — this famous and horrible video — where you see, at the beginning of this new century, a Jewish man killed in front of a camera, and compelled before dying to say, ‘My mother is Jewish, my father is Jewish, I am Jewish.’”

By this point in his trip, Lévy was well into the swing of things. His heavily accented English, which had been rusty when he arrived in New York 36 hours earlier, was picking up. The vocabulary was coming back. At one point, he even said “bullshit” on air — he pronounced it boolsheet — and Tina Brown smiled and carried on.

“My English was not too pitiful?” Lévy wondered aloud after the segment had been shot.

“It was fabulous! It was romantic!” a rather unromantic-looking female production assistant answered, momentarily transformed.

No surprise there. Lévy, who is rarely seen in public wearing anything other than a black suit and unbuttoned white tuxedo shirt, is a romantic figure. He looks like a Gallic crooner far more than he does a philosopher, which, technically, is what he is. At 53 he is still impressively handsome, with a mane of only slightly graying black hair, and like a rock star, he often wears dark glasses indoors.

His wife, the French actress Arielle Dombasle, is still remembered fondly in America for an episode of Miami Vice in which she dunked her white T-shirt in ice-cold Perrier before putting it on over her bikini top. She also delivered a line of memorably bad dialogue in the same episode, telling Sonny Crockett, “I’ll be everything you want, everything you need, everything you need to want and want to need.”

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