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|Posted September 24, 2006|
A Speech That Khrushchev or Arafat or Che Would Admire
|SEPTEMBER 20, 2006 "The devil came here yesterday, right here. It smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of." Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela." More Images|
By WARREN HOGE
UNITED NATIONS - WHEN President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela used his General Assembly appearance to call President Bush a devil who had left a telltale scent of sulfur on the speakers podium, he was acting in an old, if not grand, tradition.The General Assembly hall with its green marble rostrum and giant golden screen bearing the United Nations seal was meant to sound with high-minded calls for international understanding. But on more than a few occasions, the cathedral-like space has rung instead with barbs and insults. And American presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton to George H.W. Bush have been the favored targets.
In 1950, Wu Xiuquan, a Chinese representative, denounced the Truman administration effort to promote Taiwan, saying, This is a preposterous farce, unworthy of refutation, in which Truman makes a mockery of Truman himself.
President Reagan came in for a Hollywood-specific scolding in 1987 from Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua. Denouncing Mr. Reagans decision to continue financing contras fighting his Sandinista regime, Mr. Ortega said, Rambo only exists in the movies.
Cuban foreign minister Roberto Robaina in 1996 took after President Clinton, saying, We are facing a King Kong escaped from its cage, destroying and smashing without orientation or control.
Why has the United States come in for such tongue lashings?
Edward C. Luck, a professor of international affairs at Columbia who has followed the United Nations for more than three decades, said the General Assembly was a particularly alluring place for demagogues.
If you want your 15 minutes of fame, what better place to get it than the rostrum of the General Assembly? he said. I think very often they are playing for the domestic audience and trying to build up their persona as a tough guy not afraid to take on the Yankee superpower.
But what might work at home doesnt necessarily play well on the world stage. I think in the end they all come off as rejectionists, he said. Theyre good at saying what they dont like, but they dont have any positive thoughts.
In that sense, the Chávez rant with its claim that the U.S. is the greatest threat looking over the planet harks back to speeches by Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev during the chilliest days of the cold war. Thats when the true art of America-bashing reached its pinnacle, even as it tended to follow a boilerplate script of isms colonialism, imperialism, racism.
Che Guevara told the General Assembly in 1964 that the United States is not the champion of freedom, but rather the perpetuator of exploitation and oppression against the peoples of the world and against a large part of its own population.
Castro, in 1960 managed to insult two future American presidents at the same time. He described John F. Kennedy as a millionaire, illiterate and ignorant and warned delegates against construing the comment as favoring Richard M. Nixon. As far as were concerned, he said, the two of them lack, should I say, political brains.
While these rhetorical taunts dont necessarily influence the real course of world affairs, the threat of mobilized public opinion on a global scale against American policy cant be ignored and has at time spurred pointed responses.
In 1975, after a particularly harsh run-in with African countries, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then the American UN ambassador, said: For too long, we have been given private assurances that public obscenities were not meant. That currency is no longer acceptable.
President Ronald Reagan took the strongest stance against the Washington-baiting when he appointed Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, an outspoken conservative, as ambassador to the United Nations. She said that countries attacking the United States covered up their own misdeeds by using the Big Lie accusing the United States of committing crimes that they in fact had perpetrated.
Finally, in 1987, when Daniel Ortega, the Marxist leader of Nicaragua, compared Reagan to Rambo, Vernon Walters, the American envoy, called the speech typical revolutionary babble. And he and the rest of the American delegation walked out.
But perhaps the most effective retort was the less demonstrative one delivered by the British. In 1960 Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, had interrupted a General Assembly address by the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, by waving his arms in the air and shouting in Russian. In response, Mr. Macmillan stopped speaking and imperturbably sipped a glass of water. He murmured over his shoulder to Frederick H. Boland of Ireland, the assembly president, that if Mr. Khrushchev wished to continue, he would insist on a translation.
The Soviet leader went silent.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Week in Review, of Sunday, September 24, 2006.
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