Journalists succumb to the thrills of power

Obama and Hollande eclipsed by French journalists

The journalists were invited into the White House Oval Office shortly after lunch. All the greats from the important French dailies were there: the man from Le Figaro, his colleague from Libération and, of course, the highly well-known and feared political reporter from Le Monde, Thomas Wieder.

All were hardened cynics, used to calling time on the antics of politicians and alive to their own more noble missions as the gatekeepers of truth, with a particular responsibility to hold the powerful to account. Over the previous weeks, they had all been merciless towards François Hollande and Barack Obama. In their eyes, these were lame ducks, sheer fools, both seeking solace in each other’s prestige, both betrayers of the grand hopes of their electorates.

Just in case any followers missed that Thomas was really there

And yet, when it came to it, something utterly unexpected and remarkable unfolded. The journalists cast aside years of cynicism and their innate suspicion of power and felt quite simply overwhelmed: to find themselves in the august surroundings of the Oval Office, with two of the world’s most important presidents, in the presence of so much history. The normal hard-heartedness melted away and they did what any 15-year-old in the presence of a pop star might do: they took selfies, so that later they might impress their friends and children with evidence that they had really been there.

The Oval office isn’t actually that big, says Thomas, keen to seem alert to the pretentions of power

Their actions alert us to something both bathetic and touching. Journalists are very often, though they would loathe to admit it, impressed by the power they pretend to be so cynical about on a daily basis. Their cynicism masks what might at heart be (quite understandable) levels of envy. If they had it their way, they would surely prefer to be the president than the reporter. It isn’t always fun following behind the central character, stuck away in the press corps. The journalists may speak of the nobility of their calling, but they know full well how far down the pecking order they come next to elected leaders. Think how inconceivable it would be that Obama would ever be tempted to take a picture of himself in the offices of Le Monde.

Thomas mounts the podium of the White House press room and allows himself to admit what a thrill it would be to give up his job and work with Obama: ‘OK guys, I’m changing jobs…’ he announces to his Twitter followers.

Being cynical provides a way of telling ourselves that there’s nothing really to envy. After all, who would envy idiots who can’t run anything properly? But respect doesn’t go away quite so easily; it is there beneath the veneer. Of course, it’s a sign that things are going well if we are governed by people we can once in a while be heartily impressed by. We just shouldn’t pretend to be above respect for power or attack leaders more than is helpful, simply in order to shore up a fragile sense of our own self-esteem.