When President Bush this week signed a bill to make the Marquis de Lafayette an honorary citizen of the United States, he corrected an embarrassing oversight nearly two centuries old: the naming of one of America’s most prestigious public spaces, Lafayette Square, for a Frenchman.
No, just kidding. I have nothing against the French. But given American popular culture’s recent hostility toward the Marquis’s compatriots, I do wonder why Congress picked this moment to add one of them to our ranks.
Maybe the deal’s been in the works since the great general, a friend of the other George W., made his vital contribution to our original war effort. In that case, our government might start taking lessons in efficiency from France.
American citizenship is of course an honor however it’s obtained. Shortly after my son’s birth last year, I went to the U.S. consulate to establish his nationality. His U.S. passport now sits inside my desk drawer, to my deep and continuing satisfaction (though I do wonder what a photo of a 40-day-old infant is doing on a document valid for five years — it already looks nothing like him).
Aside from the honor, there are certain material advantages to being an American. For instance, you get to pay U.S. federal income tax even when you live abroad. And if you’re a “natural born citizen,” you have the chance to become president.
I originally assumed that my son’s foreign birth disqualified him from the top job, but it turns out this may not be so. It might be enough that his citizenship was acquired at birth. This theory hasn’t been tested because no one born outside the U.S. has ever been elected president, but there have been at least three serious candidates with such origins: George Romney (born in Mexico), Barry Goldwater (the Arizona Territory) and John McCain (Panama Canal Zone).
The Marquis de Lafayette would not qualify for the White House, even were he alive, but he would be able to console himself with membership in a far more exclusive club. There have been 43 presidents, after all, but the number of honorary U.S. citizens is so far only six.
The others are Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Raoul Wallenberg, and Mr. and Mrs. William Penn. Now there’s a group to give the diversity consultants plenty of work. Amazing that nobody’s filed a class-action suit.
Think about it. Everyone on the list is white and Christian. Men outnumber women two to one, and in half the cases, the woman gained her distinction by marrying a more powerful man. Three of the honorands were aristocrats, and two landed gentry. Mother Teresa may have come from peasant stock, but one biography describes her father as a “successful and well-known contractor,” which sounds awfully bourgeois to me. This is just the sort of thing that gets populists like Al Gore so steamed.
Foreign readers, on the other hand, may be wondering how they can get in on the deal. Ever since 9/11 it’s been getting harder to obtain a U.S. entry visa (Mohammed Atta’s didn’t come through till March), but honorary citizenship should make the Golden Door fly open.
If you choose to go that route, aside from possessing the characteristics noted above, you would be wise to obtain a Nobel Prize, a distinction shared by over 33 percent of successful candidates: Winston Churchill for Literature, and Mother Teresa for Peace. Not that Yasser Arafat or José Saramago should start packing his bags just yet.
You need not go to college, but if you do, it might help to do so in the States. The only university graduate in the pack, Wallenberg, was a member of the University of Michigan’s class of 1935. (His degree was in architecture.)
Whatever you do, be patient; Congress gives out honorary citizenship an average of once every 38 years. If that’s too long to wait, and it’s mere prestige you’re after, you may wish to consider honors from another sovereign power.
Even if you aren’t a subject of the Queen, you can still be an honorary British knight, and join the company of Rudolph Giuliani, Bob Hope and (most recently) Alan Greenspan. Movie producer Harvey Weinstein isn’t French, but the Republic made him a chevalier in the National Order of Arts and Letters. And St. Vincent put Michael Jackson on a postage stamp. Somewhere, surely, there’s a country out there waiting to pay homage to you too.