A flashback, or you might say, a relapse. Anyway, it’s a true story.
January, 1985. My little non-profit had been contracted to bring thirty exotic visitors from as many countries, to attend Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration. The idea had been cooked up by Charles Z. Wick, President Reagan’s trusted friend who boasted of having Thanksgiving dinner every year with the first family.
Wick was the director of the U.S. Information Agency, smothered under its pillow October 1, 1999. But 1985 was a good year.
My little non-profit was contracted to get the thirty visitors into the second inauguration, scheduled for January 20. Slight hitch: the Republican National Committee wasn’t forthcoming in providing tickets to the event. Those valued objects were set aside for party loyals, and domestic U.S. friends who could not be dissed. I well understood, and would have done the same myself.
I told my boss that our little project would calamitize if we weren’t able to get tickets to the event. My boss called the little Front Office people of the little USIA to implore them: You asked that we give front row seats to our little international visitors, trip financed by the U.S. government. You, therefore, provide the little tickets and we will do the rest.
Request denied. Mr. Zwick, who preferred to be called “Wick,” had too much to do that week, and friends to placate.
My non-profit considered different forms of hara-kiri, since thirty pretty important people were traveling 200,000 miles collectively for the event, and would be annoyed if they could not have a look. We appealed, but NYET.
I made other arrangements – a briefing on the Three Branches of U.S. government, some visits to party headquarters, and I think a drop-in at the Museum of Air and Space. As an afterthought, in those days before “internet” was a known word and hand-helds were a fiction from Buck Rodgers cartoons, I booked a meeting room at the then Dupont Plaza hotel, with a – ka-ching – television screen just in case.
I went to bed January 19 in my little condo on R Street in Washington, imagining painless forms of hara-kiri and considering the dramatic forms as well, so as possibly to go out in style and with people remembering me.
I turned on the radio news at 11:00 p.m. and got BBC London. Mirabile dictu, they said from London that the temperatures in Washington, DC, were so abnormally low that the public inauguration ceremony was to be cancelled, with a little private swearing in as the back-up plan. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger was to swear in the president, with George H.W. Bush as understudy for Defender of the Free World.
I didn’t quite know what to make of this. I knew it was cold, because I was in Washington. But news of the change was coming from 3675 miles (5915 kilometers) away. I suspended plans for self-immolation.
The next day was pretty aggressively cold, around zero degrees Fahrenheit. I met my group midday in the Dupont Plaza, and they were grateful not to have to go out. The ceremony had truly been canceled as a public event (imagine all the disappointed ticket-holders) and only television cameras and a handful of Extremely Very Important People (EVIPs) managed to be present.
My group of internationals were happy, and got an exponentially better view of the swearing-in than the many thousands who hoped to be eyewitnesses. Mine were happy, and Devil take the Others.
My moment of demonstrated disgrace and disappointment was put off to another day. The Angel of Death hovered over my head and moved on to the next, deciding to spare me.
And by the way: Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) bestowed the Golden Fleece award to the Inauguration, which that year cost the U.S. taxpayer $15.5 million. Previous honorable mentions went to a Department of Education grant of $219,592 for a curricular package “to teach college students how to watch television,” a $97,000 project by the National Institute of Mental Health to study what takes place in Peruvian brothels, and $103,000 to the National Science Foundation to “compare aggressiveness in sunfish that drink tequila instead of gin.”
I was proud, let’s say relieved, to benefit from one of 168 Golden Fleece awards (1975-88) and went forth to formulate inventive modules such as this blog posting.
Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.