Newton M. Minow, the chairman of our Federal Communications Commission when commercial and public broadcasting were in their toddler years in America and full of hope, told me a story when I was visiting with him in Chicago years ago.
He was walking with President Kennedy in the White House Rose Garden, just a few days before the president was shot and killed in Texas. And during that walk in the White House Rose Garden in 1963, Kennedy was recalling a story of a similar walk that another statesman, French Marshal Hugo Lyautey, had taken many years before in a rose garden as well.
Marshal Lyautey was a kind of French Lawrence of Arabia, from my mother’s hometown of Nancy in Alsace-Lorraine, and for a while he was the face and symbol of the hauteur of Western imperialism in Northern Africa. A ruthless colonialist, Lyautey was also strangely and ambiguously a sensitive and sometimes beloved man for his time and place—he lies entombed in Northern Africa, with an Arabic kiss scripted on his casket there.
Kennedy told his first media and communications czar that the marechal was walking around his property, taking his morning constitutional (as French generals are wont to do) and he stopped in the middle of his garden to inspect—imperiously, no doubt—a bare spot between some bushes. Lyautey said to the groundskeeper who had been following him closely, “This spot is bare, so I would like you to plant a tree right there: a beautiful mimosa, one that will grow a thousand pink and white fragrant flowers. Bring a sapling and put it in the ground this time tomorrow morning!”
The gardener hemmed and hawed and said something to the effect of, “Oui, mais . . . . Ah. Uh. Marechal! You know that such a tree, if we plant it here tomorrow, will not bloom for fifty, seventy-five, or even a hundred years.”
Marshal Lyautey, as you might imagine, fixed the gardener with a cold stare, taking in this news, and then said, with a growl, “If that truly is the case, mon cher, then you had better set about planting that tree this very afternoon.”1