Late Lunch

Spring 1989, and things were about to happen. In Washington, Moscow, Tiananmen Square, Berlin.

Our Assistant Secretary for Europe, Roz Ridgway, was one of the best we ever had. She’d been ambassador to Finland, a country called East Germany, and was running summits between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev. She would have made a great secretary of state, but people who come up through in the ranks don’t get the top jobs.

Our little team was at the periphery of the drama, in Madrid. No upheavals there at the time, but it was part of Europe after all, and would have a big Middle East Peace Conference within a couple of years. Something might have come of that, but it wasn’t Madrid’s fault that it didn’t.

We were running our press shop at the U.S. Embassy, riding on cascades of resources finagled by Charles Wick of USIA, and Madrid’s good fortune of being rid of a dictatorship (1975) and well on its way to catching up with other Western European democracies. Washington pushed resources at us, and we knew better than to question these gifts.

Wick had spawned a clunky communication system, WORLDNET (always spelled out in caps, although they never explained why.) It allowed for one-way video on rented satellite time ($10,000 per hour) and gave live interviews for very select audiences overseas. David Brinkley once asked Wick in 1985 on live TV how big the audience was for WORLDNET. Wick said with a straight face, “Two billion,” pulling the figure from Mad Hatter’s hat.

Brinkley repeated the question a few times, in case he might have misheard the answer. But there it was, and he just went on to the next question. No one ever figured out the real audience for WORLDNET, which was delivered by TV screen to hotel rooms worldwide, something like a USA Today equivalent, and taken about as seriously. Skype wasn’t even a gleam yet in anyone’s eye.

The satellite broadcast times were by reservation, and in the field we couldn’t do much about changing them. Spaniards were not obsessed much with ritual in the 1980s, but lunch was serious business, and a nation of forty million went by a schedule developed over the centuries: lunch at 3:00 PM, return to the office around 5:00 PM and work until 6:00 PM, then home. It seemed strange to Americans, but it was Spain. Only the siesta had fallen by the wayside in a modern and busy city, where people could not get home for lunch.

We tried to explain to Washington that the 3:00 PM interview time was unwieldy for our local audiences of select journalists, that it would be culturally and logistically impossible to herd them into a studio room at that hour. Our colleagues in Washington thought this was laughable, and a reflection of our laziness. If we were lucky enough to get posted to Madrid, they said, we shouldn’t try to rub it in by being offline at 3:00 PM, still in the peak of the work day.

We protested in vain.

Unlike the others, our Spanish colleague Natalia León[1] had perfect English, and understood our plight. “If you ever find yourself without an audience,” she said oh so generously, “just use my name.” In the broadcasts you could see the speaker in Washington; when the dialogue turned to the field, WORLDNET just projected a still picture of the post involved. For Madrid, I think it was the Plaza Cibeles, with the main post office Correos, in the background.

So it came time to talk about what we now know was about to be the end of the Cold War. That day we had Vienna, Budapest, and Madrid on line. It got to be 2:45, 2:50, 2:55 PM… and no one showed up. This was like having Madama Butterfly at the Met and missing a soprano. There was stress.

Ridgway gave one of her well-considered opening comments, and the DC producer turned to Vienna for journalists’ questions. The two of us in the studio in Madrid needed divine intervention before it got to be our turn. As a backup, we planned to jump dramatically out the nearest window. The first was a shaky plan, the second wouldn’t make much of an impression since we were on the ground floor of the building.

Fifteen minutes into the hour-long program, the production crew in Washington put Madrid on line. Drawing on I don’t know what survival instinct, I made up a question myself, and put in a journalist’s name. I stated the question for the phantom journalist, making it through by putting on my own voice as the “translator.” We got away with it and Ridgway gave a well-crafted answer.

The sweat glowed, however, and somehow we had to survive the next 45 minutes and likely two or three more turns to go on the air. No Spanish journalists in our studio, not even one.

On the third pass I had run out of ammo, and had to use Natalia’s name, so as not to misrepresent others. I said, “Question from Natalia León…”

Ridgway interrupted with a big smile and a puff of pleasure: “Natalia! My good friend! Let’s hear you in your perfect English. Waiting to hear your voice on the air.”

This was what Spaniards call “going from Guatemala to Guatepeor” – the frying pan to the fire. Now how was I supposed to get myself out of this one, and why hadn’t Natalia told us she was a friend of Roz Ridgway?

The satellite connection burped at that moment, and there were a couple seconds of static. The Washington producers switched to Vienna and the time ran out before we got another pass.

And thus as the saying goes, “The Angel of Death…” Our misfortunes are masked by others’ errors and little acts of God which save us at times. There was a time when these were called “miracles.”

All due apologies to the great Roz Ridgway at this late stage. She now sits on a half dozen boards and is thriving in the private sector. Best wishes and admiration to her. Natalia could have been more forthcoming, but her friendship was solid and her intentions benign. We seldom get what we deserve, and seldom get more than we deserve. So thanks anyway for that.

[1] Ed note: Name changed for privacy reasons.

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.

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