People almost always appreciate candidates who at least seem to be trying. Bill Clinton wowed the world when he threw in a few lines of German in a 1994 speech in Berlin. Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush both got points for their fumbling Spanish, and while Barack Obama doesn’t actually speak any other languages, he has to get an A for effort. Obama has, over the years, delivered remarks in Spanish, Swahili, pretty good Indonesian, pretty bad French, German and Hindi, an endeavor for which the international Hindi Association praised his “good intentions.”
But sometimes nothing really works out. Cory Booker once addressed a radio reporter in Spanish, only to discover that the man was Swiss. “I do not speak Swiss. I cannot even say ‘Swiss cheese’ in Swiss,” the senator responded genially. Coldhearted observers noted that there is no such language as Swiss.
Bernie Sanders, whose staff didn’t return a query about his linguistic skills, doesn’t seem to have a whole lot. He has described himself as “the son of a Polish immigrant who came to this country speaking no English,” but Sanders failed to rise to the occasion when he was asked to say something in his father’s native tongue. (“Unless ‘no’ is a Polish word, I can’t.”)
It would have been nice, this week, to have had a president who could say a few words in French about the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. He would not necessarily have had to give an entire interview with a French-language television station like Buttigieg did. But a couple of prememorized, read-from-the-teleprompter sentences would have been appreciated.
Donald Trump, of course, didn’t bother. You’d expect a man who talks about his father’s emigration from Germany to be more open to linguistic diversity — although, of course, Fred Trump was actually born in the Bronx.
This is a man who ran TV commercials in which he attempted to speak Hindi in 2016 while attacking one of his primary opponents for speaking to reporters in Spanish. (“He should really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.”)
If Trump runs for re-election against a Democrat with some language facility, chances are he’ll simply say anything but English is un-American. “My bet is if Trump ran against Buttigieg, he’d try to use it against him,” predicted presidential historian Michael Beschloss.