When you go to New York you try to fit in, as in the old joke - a tourist goes up to a native New Yorker - "Excuse me, sir, could you please tell me where the Empire State Building is, or should I just go screw myself?"
Maybe New Yorkers are just direct. Your read the tour books and decide how you will to deal with this legendary trait. In Paris you're formal and polite - you're quiet and you don't grin - and you soon figure out that courtesy and addressing people properly works wonders. In Los Angeles you do your best to be cool. The American South is harder for outsiders. But in New York "blunt" works.
That seems to be the advice someone gave Hugo Chavez, the man who leads Venezuela, before his recent visit. You can read all about it in the CNN account here, but the basics of his approach are now well known.
Wednesday, September 20, he addressed the UN General Assembly - Turtle Bay, midtown East, Manhattan. The problem was his audience wasn't the locals.
But he dove in with "the blunt" - noting that president Bush had addressed the General Assembly the day before - "The devil came here yesterday and it smells of sulfur still today." Chavez also accused Bush of having spoken "as if he owned the world." Add this - "As the spokesman of imperialism, he came to share his nostrums to try to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world. An Alfred Hitchcock movie could use it as a scenario. I would even propose a title: 'The Devil's Recipe.'"
Oh my. And Chavez also alleged during the UN speech that the United States is planning, financing and setting in motion a coup to overthrow him. He always says that. And we did try once, but it didn't work out. He won't let it go.
As he was exiting the UN building Chavez told reporters that Bush is not a legitimate president because he "stole the elections." And then the zinger - "He is, therefore, a dictator." (The CNN item has a links to video clips of all this if you're interested.)
This was direct, colorful, and very New York - except it shocked the diplomats and other observers "accustomed to the staid verbiage of international diplomacy." The UN compound is in New York, but not of New York. He needed to take it outside.
So he did. Thursday, September 21, he took a stroll trough Harlem. Other world leaders visit Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood, or visit Wall Street, or drop by the major news studios, from Fox across the street from Radio City Music Hall and NBC at Rockefeller Center, up to CNN, now high over Columbus Circle. No, Chavez goes to Harlem - and said he was expanding his heating-oil program to help low-income Americans, as Bush's own government couldn't seem to get around to doing that. CITGO can - that's him - in September, 1986, Southland Oil sold a fifty percent interest in CITGO to Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), the national oil company of Venezuela. PDVSA acquired the remaining half of CITGO in January, 1990. So that's that.
But then he dumped yet another load of "blunt" - calling the president "a sick man" who is unqualified for the job. It's that business of Bush being an alcoholic until he was forty, and failing at every business that was handed to him, before he was rendered relatively harmless as governor of Texas. There, except for the record number of executions, he couldn't do much harm. Chavez was on a roll. Chavez said he had no quarrel with the American people - "We are friends of yours, and you are our friends." He has a problem with George. He thinks we should too.
Why? "He walks like this cowboy John Wayne. He doesn't have the slightest idea of politics. He got where he is because he is the son of his father. He was an alcoholic, an ex-alcoholic. He's a sick man, full of complexes, but very dangerous now because he has a lot of power." And he's a "menace" and a "threat against life on the planet." Add to that it seems to Chavez that in America rich people are getting richer, and poor people are getting poorer - "That's not a democracy; that's a tyranny."
So he has a problem with George and thinks we should too.
Maybe so, but watching the news one could see this backfired. Charles Rangel, the Democratic congressman from New York, a rather blunt man himself, said this - "You don't come into my country; you don't come into my congressional district and you don't condemn my president." Rangel said we can do that fine ourselves, thank you very much - "I just want to make it abundantly clear to Hugo Chavez or any other president: Don't come to the United States and think, because we have problems with our president, that any foreigner can come to our country and not think that Americans do not feel offended when you offend our chief of state." And his new rule - "If there's any criticism of President Bush, it should be restricted to Americans, whether they voted for him or not."
One wonders whether the rest of the world will follow that rule. Rangel of course meant it for visiting leaders only. Tourists may be exempt. And back home in your own country you can say what you want.
And then House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, from "the land of the gay and the left," San Francisco, said she too was miffed - "He is an everyday thug." And this - "Hugo Chavez abused the privilege that he had speaking at the United Nations - in doing so, in the manner which he characterized the president, he demeaned himself and demeaned Venezuela."
For Pelosi it was a matter of decorum. For Rangel it was a New York thing - you want a piece of him you've got to go through me, buddy.
And these were Democrats. Bush administration officials dismissed the whole thing. What's to say? State Department spokesman Gonzo Gallegos - "As a matter of policy, there are no restrictions on President Chavez or anyone else wanting to speak their mind in the United States." Yes, CNN reports the name as Gonzo. John Bolton, our acerbic ambassador to the UN - "We're not going to address that sort of comic-strip approach to international affairs." (Yeah, he's one to speak on that issue.)
In any event, Chavez got the "New York Rude" thing all wrong. Not that it matters very much. He caught a flight home after the Harlem stroll.
See also John Dickerson - He's Our Jerk - The New Standard for Foreign-Policy Bipartisanship. That popped up here in Hollywood as a private email - one makes odd acquaintances on the net and we've traded a few emails before - and later appeared in SLATE. Dickerson is the son of the pioneering newswoman Nancy Dickerson - his book about his mother is On Her Trail. He's the chief political correspondent for SLATE, the online magazine that's part of the Washington Post group, so he is attuned to the fallout of all this.
His points -
Republicans may wish they had waited a day to start the attack ads they've aimed at the foreign-policy credentials of Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders.
… Since the Cold War, American politicians have roughly hewed to Sen. Arthur Vandenberg's principle that "politics should stop at the water's edge." As the parties have become more partisan and contentious in recent years, that rule has mostly been invoked by members of the president's party to criticize their opponents for slights both real and imaginary. Now Charlie Rangel has offered a Vandenberg corollary, one most often associated with the rules that define ethnic humor: Catholics can joke about Catholics. Jews can joke about Jews, etc. (Sen. George Allen, however, should still just stay silent). When it comes to criticizing the president on American soil, only US citizens can participate.
Defending the president may be the patriotic thing to do. But it's also good politics for Democrats as the president's party gears up for a campaign designed to drive home that giving the minority party control of Congress would be only a slight improvement over installing Chavez himself. Hillary Clinton last week railed against a film that features a staged assassination of President Bush in 2007. "I think it's despicable," she said. "I think it's absolutely outrageous. That anyone would even attempt to profit on such a horrible scenario makes me sick." Of course, the former first lady has plenty of personal reasons both past and possibly future to be outraged at films that depict the shooting of a president.
It's not just the Democrats who are bashing foreign leaders to improve their statesman credentials. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has an impressive résumé, but it's a little light on the foreign-policy front. So, when former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami spoke at Harvard University on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Romney denounced him and the school. "State taxpayers should not be providing special treatment to an individual who supports violent jihad and the destruction of Israel," Romney said in a written statement, calling Khatami's visit a "disgrace."
But Dickerson predicts this "moment of showy bipartisan outrage" won't last. The idea is that ragging on Chavez for ragging on Bush implicitly establishes that Bush needs someone to defend him, even Democrats of all people. That's real weakness - because the observations all may be based on accurate observation. Hey, we KNOW we have a problem here - or something like that.
Consider, for example, this, from Alex at Martini Republic ("Lead, follow, or have a drink…") -
Face facts: Hugo Chavez is a buffoon. But what's with all the outrage over the buffoonish comments?
Liberals and true Conservatives (as apart from Bush cultists) should be truly outraged by the fact that the President, the "leader of the free world," has done so much to lower the respect, integrity and gravitas of that position in the eyes of the world.
The fact that Bush has denigrated his office does not excuse Chavez's buffoonery; but by the same token, the fact that Chavez is a clown and a small-town bully does not alter the fact that Bush's degradation of his office has so lowered the esteem with which that office is viewed and thus extended a sliver of credibility to an otherwise incredible Chavez.
Chavez's farcical performance at the United Nations doesn't make Bush any less of a failure as a President.
What's true is true, even if one particular messenger is a clown.
We know what we're dealing with, as Daniel Froomkin points out in his online column in the Post with this -
On the dominant issue of our time, the president is in denial.
By most reliable accounts, three and a half years into the U.S. occupation, Iraq is in chaos - if not in a state of civil war, then awfully close. But President Bush insists it's not so.
He says the people he talks to assure him that the press coverage about how bad things are in Iraq is not to be trusted.
You might think that the enormous gulf between Bush's perceptions and reality on such a life-and-death topic would be, well, newsworthy. But if members of the Washington press corps consider it news at all, apparently it's old news. They report Bush's assertions about Iraq without noting that his fundamental assessment of the situation is dramatically contradicted by the reporting from their own colleagues on the ground.
And in the rare circumstances when they directly confront the president with observations that conflict with his own, they let it drop too quickly.
And this is what Froomkin is talking about, Wolf Blitzer interviewing the president on CNN's situation room (transcript here and video here) -
BLITZER: I'll read to you what Kofi Annan said on Monday. He said, 'If current patterns of alienation and violence persist much further, there is a grave danger the Iraqi state will break down, possibly in the midst of a full-scale civil war.' Is this what the American people bought into?
BUSH: You know, it's interesting you quoted Kofi. I'd rather quote the people on the ground who are very close to the situation, and who live it day by day, our ambassador [Zalmay Khalizad] or General [George] Casey [the top U.S. military official in Iraq]. I ask this question all the time, tell me what it's like there, and this notion that we're in civil war is just not true according to them. These are the people that live the issue.
… "The Iraqi government and the Iraqi military is committed to keeping this country together. And so therefore, I reject the notion that this country is in civil war based upon experts, not based upon people who are speculating. . . .
"That's how I learn it. I can't learn it - I can't - frankly, can't learn it from your newscasts. What I have got to learn it from is people who are there on the ground.
And Blitzer lets the issue drop. Maybe that's a matter of decorum too. You don't tell the president he's wrong, even if he is.
Way back in July of 2003 that business came up in these pages here, regarding Bush saying this -
The fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power, along with other nations, so as to make sure he was not a threat to the United States and our friends and allies in the region. I firmly believe the decisions we made will make America more secure and the world more peaceful.
Of course we all watched that stuff from the UN, about how the Blix fellow and his team were in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction and coming back to New York every few weeks to talk about what they had and had not found. Now it seems that never happened. No UN inspectors ever went to Iraq. They were never allowed in. So the press has been irresponsible. Why did CNN and the rest fabricate this whole thing? Our government went to war precisely because Blix never made those trips CNN and the rest was reporting. He wasn't ever allowed in. Damn.
There wee lots of links to folks saying this was madness and the press should have called him on it - it just wasn't so - but at the time, Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, one of the people who got CNN up and running back in 1980, added this -
Was this a Bush "lie" or a Bush "goof"? An argument can be made for both sides. Technically, he's obviously wrong, UN inspectors did obviously go in and then leave shortly before the bombing started. On the other hand, he was probably thinking of that time before the UN resolution when Iraq actually was refusing to allow the inspectors in, at least unconditionally.
As for the question of what the media is to do about Bush's comments… Nothing much.
Although people think journalists are always there, ready to jump all over slips like this, that's pretty much a misconception. Think about it. Although you may think you do, you actually rarely see news media, on their own authority, running around pointing out the lies of public officials. What you actually see is news media running around reporting on some political opponents' claims about the other guy's lies. Try as it might, objective journalism has yet to find a way to independently expose what may or may not be "lies" and even just "goofs" without appearing, maybe with some justification, like they're just pimping for some special interest or political ideology.
But until they can figure out how to do that, the bottom line right now is this: You want to get on someone's case about Bush not being outted on this? Get on Howard Dean and John Kerry. If those two make a case out of this, you can bet your bottom buck that reporters will let the rest of us know about it.
So now, three years later, it's still not Blitzer's job. Maybe so.
And you could line up lots of things similarly.
Bush in 2003 with this -
The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, ratified by the United States and more than 130 other countries since 1984, forbids governments from deliberately inflicting severe physical or mental pain or suffering on those within their custody or control. Yet torture continues to be practiced around the world by rogue regimes whose cruel methods match their determination to crush the human spirit.
Then of course, as Andrew Sullivan points out here, in the same speech Bush the demands his own prosecution, by an international tribunal if necessary - "I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture."
Then if you consider what the president says in another speech (see this), he calls himself a war criminal - "the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals."
But that's not on the news - that's from UCLA's Mark Kleiman here. The news folks will report it if some bigger fish make the case, or the official opposition. Until then, it's not important, or not "news." And Hugo Chavez doesn't count. Visiting thuggish clowns are not to be taken seriously.
There are rules - save when Anderson cooper lost it in New Orleans, got angry, and became a star. There is decorum.
Footnote on Decorum:
What's coming up on the CBS show "60 Minutes" this Sunday - September 24 - is an interesting study in decorum, as Associated Press reports here -
President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan says the United States threatened to bomb his country back to the Stone Age after the 9-11 attacks if he did not help America's war on terror.
Musharraf says the threat was delivered by Richard Armitage, then the deputy secretary of state, to Musharraf's intelligence director, the Pakistani leader told CBS-TV's 60 Minutes.
"The intelligence director told me that (Armitage) said, 'Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age,'" Musharraf said in the interview to be shown Sunday on the CBS television network. It was insulting, Musharraf said. "I think it was a very rude remark," he told reporter Steve Kroft.
But, Musharraf said he reacted responsibly. "One has to think and take actions in the interests of the nation and that is what I did," he said.
Armitage on "60 Minutes" will dispute the language attributed to him - but not deny the message was a strong one. AP tried Friday to reach him at his home and his office. No go.
But it gets better - Musharraf told the CBS folks that Armitage demanded that Musharraf turn over Pakistan's border posts and its military bases to the US military to use - and demanded the "ludicrous," that Musharraf suppress any domestic expression of support for terrorism against the United States. Musharraf - "If somebody is expressing views, we cannot curb the expression of views." Right. We do it here a bit, of course.
The State Department now declines to comment on this conversation between Armitage and the Pakistani official - "We are referring all questions to Mr. Armitage." His problem. Pakistan is our ally now, however it happened. The White House also declined to comment on the record on any of this.
No one plays nice anymore. Decorum is for Chavez - to learn.
This page originally posted on Sunday, September 24, 2006