The death, several days ago, of George H.W. Bush, brings to mind a couple of brushes I had with the man who would later serve as the 41st president of the United States.
The first of these “brushes,” in 1971, was entirely impersonal. He and I were both serving at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations (USUN), although in rather different capacities, and I never had occasion to meet him then. Bush was America’s ambassador to the UN at the time. I was there that September and October on my first brief assignment as a brand new Foreign Service officer, helping out during the busy session of the UN’s General Assembly, which meets every fall.
If you follow the news regularly, you probably know the General Assembly sessions best for the venue they provide for presidents, prime ministers and other high officials of all the member nations to make speeches. What most people probably don’t know about the activities of the UN in the fall is that while the General Assembly is meeting, its six standing committees (Disarmament & International Security; Economic & Financial; Social, Humanitarian & Cultural; Special Political & Decolonization; Administrative & Budgetary; and Legal) are all meeting as well.
One of the U.S. Mission’s functions during this busy fall season is to write daily summaries of the goings-on at each of these committees. Responsibility for doing this — at least in 1971, when I was there — falls on an overworked secretary in the bowels of the U.S. Mission, located just across First Avenue (between 44th and 45th streets) from UN headquarters in New York City. Because reporting on six committees in addition to the General Assembly is clearly more than any one individual can handle, a young Foreign Service officer is traditionally sent from Washington to New York to help out. In 1971, I was picked (God knows how!) for the “honor.”
Although I now recall few details, I found it an interesting job. The government arranged accommodations for me at a modest hotel about five or six blocks away in midtown Manhattan. Because the committee meetings normally began only in the early afternoon, but ran till late at night, my day began in mid-morning. I’d awake at about 10 a.m., walk around the city a bit, have lunch at any of the zillion restaurants in the area (including such ethnic rarities as Albanian and Argentine), and show up at my USUN desk by 2 o’clock. The secretary and I would listen to live audio “feeds” of the various committee meetings and also review detailed messages sent by the members of the U.S. delegation sitting on each committee. From these, we’d create our summaries, which we’d send, as diplomatic cables, to the State Department. I’d work at this till anywhere from 10 p.m. to midnight, after which I’d walk back to my hotel. I often took my “lunch” break (at dinner time for everyone else) in the UN cafeteria across the street.
The 1971 General Assembly session was a particularly interesting one because that was the year when Mao Zedong’s regime in Beijing (the People’s Republic of China, aka mainland China or “Red China”), after years of unsuccessful attempts, finally managed to win the UN’s recognition as China’s legitimate government, unseating Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist government on Taiwan (the Republic of China), which had held the seat since the UN was born in 1945. Ambassador Bush, representing the United States, opposed the change — the U.S. had no diplomatic relationship with Beijing at that time (the Nixon-Kissinger normalization of relations with Mao’s government would not begin till the next year).
My Next Brush — in Washington
My next brush took place about a dozen years later (in 1983 or 84) when Bush was vice president. At the time, I was working at the U.S. Information Agency’s Foreign Press Center. Our job was to assist foreign print and broadcast journalists covering the United States. One of the specific tasks that sometimes fell to us was to arrange special interviews with the president or vice president in advance of a trip abroad. On the occasion in question, Vice President Bush was getting ready for a trip to several nations in North Africa and the Middle East, and the Foreign Press Center had set up an interview for several TV reporters from the countries on Bush’s upcoming itinerary. Although the Mideast was not my “beat” at the Foreign Press Center (I was mainly responsible for European media), I had somehow gotten involved in the arrangements for this event and, when the day of the interview arrived, I had to be present. (For another Foreign Press Center vignette involving Vice President Bush and me, albeit indirectly, see this blog post.)
The vice president’s office is (or, at least, was then) in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. My office was six blocks away in the National Press Building. It was mid-summer, which means, in Washington, extremely hot and humid. As usual, I was pressed for time, so I had to walk fast. I took off my jacket, loosened my collar and tie, and showed up hot, sweaty and out of breath. Of course, inside it was pleasantly air-conditioned, and at some point, I put my jacket back on. When the journalists had completed their interviews with him, Vice President Bush, very relaxed and informal, suggested that the whole group — the journalists who’d just interviewed him and the several USIA people who’d assisted with the arrangements — pose for a group picture. So there I was, in a photo with the vice president, my shirt collar open and the knot of my tie not where it belonged but halfway down to my solar plexus. (Unfortunately, I can’t find my copy of the photo just now. When I do, I’ll post it here.)
My second brush with the veep!