Paris (CNN) — “Thank you,” said the man. I was standing outside of the offices of Charlie Hebdo covering the aftermath of the terrorist attacks for CNN. He was thanking me just for being here, just for covering the event and its aftermath, what Le Monde referred to as France’s September 11. And his appreciation was echoed by French citizen after French citizen.
The rally Sunday for unity drew 1.5 million people in Paris and more than twice that nationwide; it was like nothing I’ve ever seen or covered. Our nation’s oldest ally stood firm. A young Muslim Frenchwoman held a sign saying “Je suis Juif.”
A man and his son came over to me holding a sign saying “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” beseeching me to share their message with the American people. And world leaders were standing together amidst a procession that included Francois Hollande of France, Angela Merkel of Germany, David Cameron of Great Britain, Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, along with the leaders of Mali, Jordan and Turkey.
It is no small thing for the king of Jordan, a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, to march in a rally prompted by the murders of people who mocked Islam as well as of innocent Jews — all of whom were killed by Islamic extremists.
The United States, which considers itself to be the most important nation in the world, was not represented in this march — arguably one of the most important public demonstrations in Europe in the last generation — except by U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley, who may have been a few rows back. I didn’t see her. Even Russia sent Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
I say this as an American — not as a journalist, not as a representative of CNN — but as an American: I was ashamed.
I certainly understand the security concerns when it comes to sending President Barack Obama, though I can’t imagine they’re necessarily any greater than sending the lineup of other world leaders, especially in aggregate.
But I find it hard to believe that collectively President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Attorney General Eric Holder — who was actually in France that day for a conference on counterterrorism — just had no time in their schedules on Sunday. Holder had time to do the Sunday shows via satellite but not to show the world that he stood with the people of France?
There was higher-level Obama administration representation on this season’s episodes of “The Good Wife” on CBS.
I get that the President visited the French Embassy in Washington and that Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in French, and I certainly understand that the American commitment to security in Europe rivals no other. But with all due respect, those are politicians spending money that they didn’t earn and sending troops whom they don’t know.
And this is not just a matter of the current occupant of the White House.
I find it hard to believe that Speaker of the House John Boehner and new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had more worthy pursuits on Sunday than standing side-by-side with our French brothers and sisters as they came together in an inspirational way.
After September 11, the first world leader to visit the United States was France’s Jacques Chirac, though the most forceful conversation about France in Congress that I can recall came a few years later during debate over whether to invade Iraq and revolved around renaming pommes frites in the U.S. House cafeteria.
And I’m frankly floored that not one of the people who is contemplating running for president in 2016 has yet to even tweet on the subject of the momentous demonstration in Paris, much less attend France’s biggest rally in the history of the republic.
I imagine that Hillary Clinton and her husband are kicking themselves for not hopping on a corporate jet to get here. Can you picture Hillary and Bill walking in the front row, arm-in-arm with Netanyahu and Hollande?
Chris Christie, Scott Walker and Paul Ryan attended the Green Bay-Dallas football game Sunday and at least one of them sent his potential rivals mischievous tweets as if they were contemplating running for president of Beta Theta Pi.
And Jeb? Mitt? Crickets.
Why? I hope it’s not American arrogance, a belief that everyone should express shock when something bad happens to us but that our presence at an international rally is worth less than a ticket to the Green Bay game when the victims speak in accents we don’t understand.
I suppose there’s always the risk that coming to an event like this as an American leader and getting stuck in the third row could be embarrassing or could lead to accusations that you’re trying to capitalize on a tragedy.
But that’s not how it would have been interpreted in France.
People here are happy that Americans care. They’re eager and appreciative of any evidence of that. And I know it exists — although American Twitter seemed much more focused on the Golden Globes than anything else Sunday night.
I only wish our leaders had done a better job of showing solidarity with the passion for the freedoms exemplified by the rally.