By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS. 25 July 2023 (IDN) — Ronald Reagan, a former US President and ex-Hollywood movie star of the 1950s, peppered most of his speeches with hilarious anecdotes.
Joking about the faltering Soviet Cold War economy, Reagan recounted a May Day parade in Red Square where the Russians were displaying their sophisticated missiles, armored personnel carriers and battle tanks—even as MiG-23 and MiG-25 fighter planes were streaking across the skies above.
Then along comes a lumbering flat-bed truck parading three Soviet officials in business suits. “Who are they,” asks an American visitor. The Soviet guide says: “They are our most powerful weapon. They are our economists. They can destroy an entire nation with their advice” (including Ukraine).
As the follow-up joke goes, Russian President Vladimir Putin perhaps should have sent in a team of economists to Ukraine to help destroy its economy and take over the country without firing a single shot—and sparing thousands of civilian lives on both sides of the devastating 17-month-old military conflict.
At the White House press correspondent’s dinner in Washington DC last April, an annual event where politicians are “roasted” in public, US president Joe Biden took passing shots at Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump, both running for the US presidency in 2024.
DeSantis’ new education law, that opponents call “Don’t Say Gay,” restricts all classroom instructions about gender identity and sexual orientation with a virtual ban on gays and lesbians.
“I can’t be too hard on the guy,” joked Biden singling out DeSantis. “After his re-election as governor, he was asked if had a MANDATE, and he said, ‘Hell no, I’m straight! I’m straight!’ Man Date? No, he never dated men, only women.
Biden also took a shot at Trump, who has hired scores of lawyers, as he faces charges of alleged sexual harassment and destroying classified documents, a federal offence.
“We added 12 million jobs in the US, and that’s just counting the lawyers that defended Donald Trump,” said Biden, amid loud laughter.
When Trump addressed the UN General Assembly, for the first time as US President back in September 2017, he lashed out at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un calling him “the rocket man on a suicide mission” and threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea.
As the London Guardian reported, the speech was greeted in the UN chamber mostly with silence and occasional outbreaks of disapproving murmurs, as Trump castigated a succession of hostile regimes.
But the biggest joke was later directed at Trump who was known for his blundering ignorance of international politics. (“Is Nipple (Nepal) and Button (Bhutan) part of India”? And is UK a nuclear power?”)
According to an anecdote circulating in the UN’s delegate’s lounge, Trump while rehearsing his speech apparently asked one of his aides whether the North Korean leader was related to the UN.
Asked why, Trump remarked: “Isn’t he called Kim Jong-UN”?
So goes the story.
In the Broadway play titled “An evening with Richard Nixon,” by Gore Vidal, a reporter asks former US President Harry Truman: “Is it true, Mr President, that you once called Nixon a son of a bitch”
“How could I?”, he responded, “because Nixon always claimed he was a self-made man”.
In the US, some of the wittiest remarks have come not only from political leaders but also from big city mayors, small town sheriffs, writers, intellectuals and Hollywood celebrities and entertainers.
When Norman Mailer, one of America’s best- known novelists, with two prestigious Pulitzer Prizes to his credit, ran for Mayor of New York city in June 1969, he knew he didn’t have a one-in-a-million chance of winning the mayoralty.
At a press conference, just ahead of the elections, a reporter asked Mailer what the first thing he would do if he was elected Mayor: “I will call for a re-count” said Mailer, amid laughter.
When Mailer, described as one of the foremost intellectuals of his generation, appeared in the Dick Cavett talk show, Cavett offered him two chairs “to contain his giant intellect”.
Over the years, the UN has remained a rich source of anecdotes originating in the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the UN’s watering hole, the delegate’s lounge.
When the right-wing, hardline conservative John Bolton was US Ambassador to the UN (2005-2006), he notoriously remarked: “There’s no such thing as the United Nations. If the U.N. secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
The punchline, however, came from a New York Times columnist who said Bolton would do better as an urban planner than a US diplomat.
Whenever the General Assembly meets in the second week of September every year, the high-level debate is a platform for never ending speeches by 193 world leaders, including prime ministers, presidents and foreign ministers.
A memorable Soviet-US confrontation took place at the General Assembly in September 1960 during the height of the Cold War, but this time, it was between the USSR and the Philippines, considered a close US ally at that time.
The Filipino delegate Lorenzo Sumulong, lashed out at the USSR, pointing out that “the peoples of Eastern Europe and elsewhere (under Soviet domination) have been deprived of the free exercise of their civil and political rights and which have been swallowed up, so to speak, by the Soviet Union”.
Incensed by the remark, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was leading the Soviet delegation, hit back with a vengeance, describing the Filipino as “a jerk, a stooge, and a lackey”, and a “toady of American imperialism” –words that are rarely heard in the General Assembly or the Security Council these days.
At one stage, Khrushchev removed his shoe and kept banging on his desk on a point of order.
As the shoe-banging continued, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, whose speech was being rudely interrupted, turned to the President of the General Assembly and remarked: “Mr. President, I am waiting for a translation”, as the entire Assembly erupted in laughter.
A former US ambassador to the United Nations once provided an amusingly light-hearted definition of diplomacy: 97 percent alcohol, 2 percent protocol and one percent Geritol, a multi-vitamin drink probably meant to energize negotiations.
But diplomacy at the UN is much more than socializing– even as receptions and cocktail parties take place every day – until the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world body to a virtual standstill temporarily suspending the routinely heavy drinking, mostly duty-free liquor (and according to some diplomats,” the best things in life are mostly duty-free.”)
Meanwhile, journalists, rarely if ever, were able to get any on-the-record comments or reactions from ambassadors, diplomats and senior UN officials because most of them followed the advice given to Brits during war time censorship in the UK: “Be like Dad, Keep Mum”.
As Winston Churchill once remarked: “Diplomacy Is the art of telling people ‘to go to hell’ in such a way that they ask for directions.” But as a general rule, most ambassadors and diplomats did not tell us either to go to hell or heaven—but avoided all comments on politically sensitive issues with the standard non-excuse: ”Sorry, we have to get clearance from our capital”.
But that “clearance” never came.
When Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi visited the UN in September 2009, the London Guardian said he “grabbed his 15 minutes of fame at the UN building in New York and ran with it. He ran with it so hard he stretched it to an hour and 40 minutes, six times longer than his allotted slot, to the dismay of UN organizers”.
Incidentally, according to one news report, there were 112 different spellings of the Libyan leader’s name, both in English and Arabic, including Muammar el-Qaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi, Muammar al-Gathafi, Muammar El Kadhafi, Moammar el Kazzafi, Moamer, El Qathafi, Mu’Ammar, Gadafi, and Moamar Gaddafi, amongst others.
The Wall Street Journal ran a cartoon making fun of the multiple spellings, with a visiting reporter, on a one-on-one interview in Tripoli, telling the Libyan leader: ”My editor sent me to find out whether you are really Qaddafi, Khaddafi, Gadafi, Qathafi or Kadhafi?” [IDN-InDepthNews]
Note: This article contains excerpts from the recently-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That,” available on Amazon. Thalif Deen, who authored the book, is Editor-at-Large at the Berlin-based IDN, an ex-UN staffer and a former member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the UN General Assembly sessions. A Fulbright scholar with a Master’s Degree (MSc) in Journalism from Columbia University, New York, he shared the gold medal twice (2012-2013) for excellence in UN reporting awarded by the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA). The link to Amazon via the author’s website follows: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/
Photo: The author sharing a joke with President Ronald Reagan at the White House reception and dinner for Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene during his state visit to the US in 1983. White House Photo
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