The Pueblo, me, and Washington, DC

State Department event where Dean Rusk announced the capture of the USS PUEBLOLast January was the 40th anniversary, capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo — as commemorated then on Ed Darrell’s blog.

More recently, Ed’s added a post on the continuing repercussions of that event, even reaching to last week’s negotiated agreement between North Korea and the Bush administration over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

This new post includes a video clip showing Al Jazeera’s use of the story in September 2007. Ed notes that “In addition to footage of the Pueblo, still illegally held by PRK, and used as tourist site and propaganda opportunity, the piece explores the effects of the incident on more recent events, the negotiations to de-nuclearize the Korean Peninsula.”

The photo at left was taken at the event where Secretary of State Dean Rusk first gave word of the capture to the U.S. public. I was one of the high school students seated at the table to the speaker’s right. I don’t know how much the press was told before Rusk’s actual announcement, but obviously they had been notified that this was going to be more than just a routine appearance with some high school students. (Notice the TV cameras with film canisters!)

We didn’t behave exactly as our sponsors (the Hearst family — Patty’s parents, uncles, and aunts) wanted us to. For my part, I spent the night before in the Mayflower hotel reading To move a nation: the politics of foreign policy in the administration of John F. Kennedy which had just been published by Roger Hilsman, who was pressured in 1964 to resign the State Department desk in charge of East Asian affairs. (Times were different then: After his book came out, I don’t remember the Johnson White House trying to destroy Hilsman’s reputation and career, or his wife’s career, even at the expense of national security.) Rusk was preceded at the podium by Philip Habib, who had been Hilsman’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. When we got our chance to ask questions, I asked

Mr. Secretary, you’ve just spoken at great length using statements of support from Southeast Asian leaders such as (the Philippines’) President Marcos, President Suharto of Indonesia, and so forth. Considering what we know from Roger Hilsman’s book about how the people whose support you have invoked all have their positions as a result of decisions made right here in Washington, how can they be regarded as providing independent testimony that we’re doing the right things in Southeast Asia?

Habib was a master: He just talked all over the place until nobody would remember what the question was, and then he invited the next question, without responding in any way to what I’d asked.

Secretary Rusk, with two students from GeorgiaAlthough Rusk’s statement was (of course) mainly his announcement of the Pueblo capture and the U.S. response, I still wanted to pose the question I had prepared for him on Vietnam. I think he did gesture to recognize me for a question, but the light went on for the microphone of someone sitting next to me. It’s clear that it was not the Secretary who controlled the microphones. I’m guessing that they were controlled from the booth in the back (from which the photo above apparently was taken). Rusk was not yet in the room when I posed my question to Habib; but I’m guessing that question guaranteed that my microphone would not be turned on again.

I was not the only one in our group prepared to challenge Rusk, however. The photo at right shows Rusk being introduced to the two students in our group from Georgia, Rusk’s home state. When one of those Georgia students raised his hand to ask a question, he was recognized by the Secretary. His question cited a story about critical intelligence on Vietnam that had not been transmitted from the State Department to the President. The student asked about the consequences, and how this could be justified. The Secretary’s response was:

Your premise is not valid so your question does not obtain. Next question please.

The Hearsts let it be known that they were not amused by our unruly behavior. We were advised that for the rest of the week, we were expected to ask questions, and not to make speeches. Actually, our questions had not been longer than I’ve quoted above, so they were not really speeches. But our questions did clearly have a point to them, and we understood that the desire was for only pointless questions. (When candidate Bill Clinton was asked the “boxers-or-briefs” question, the question had been given to the student, by an adult — the adult’s idea of a good question for a student to ask.)

Our meeting with the President himself was a more routine press appearance in the East Room. LBJ was giving somebody an award for something — not related to us in any way, we were just permitted to be there for that. The dynamics with the press were interesting. Apparently LBJ was only supposed to be photographed from one side of his face, and the whole corps of photographers pounced on one guy who was about to take a picture from the wrong side. The student group seemed more impressed by Dan Rather than by Lyndon Johnson. (I was next to the aisle, at the end of the second row the President is about to walk past in the photo at left.)

Over the course of that week, we met the President, the Vice-President (It was a real event with Humphrey — he had lunch with us and spoke to us and presented us each with a small scholarship. I was seated with Senator Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R) Iowa. During that lunch he told me, among other things, that “there’s only one civilized country in all of Africa [I took it he meant South Africa under Apartheid], and we just kick them in the teeth every chance we get.”), cabinet members, members of the House and Senate, and Supreme Court Justice Byron White.

The purpose was for us to be inspired into going into public service. I guess I learned at least two major things:

For one, I went there with this question: Since these people must be intelligent, well-informed, and diligent to get into their positions, how does it happen that they are so often and so badly wrong, about such serious things? I learned, I guess, that my premise was not valid, so my question did not obtain.

I also learned that if you are a multi-million (billion?) -aire, and own a large national chain of newspapers, access is not a problem.

Our session in the Great Hall of the Justice Dept. Bldg.

Finally, I cannot wrap up this self-indulgent reminiscing without using this as the first opportunity I’ve had to share my experience pertaining to Attorney General Ashcroft’s enshroudment of the “Spirit of Justice” and the “Majesty of Law” statues in the Great Hall of the Justice Department.

When Ashcroft had the statues draped, he was widely ridiculed by sophisticates who thought it was inane for anyone to think that they’d be perceived as immodest, or even sexually provocative, by anyone.

In fact, when we were in the Great Hall (of what I think back then was called the J. Edgar Hoover Building), the student next to me did get excited by what he saw in one of those statues (click on the photo at right for larger version).

What aroused his interest was not the bare-breasted “Spirit of Justice,” which did not strike him as especially remarkable. What caught his attention was a feature of the male statue, the “Majesty of Law.” Growing more animated the more he looked at it, he kept saying, “Look at his HAND! LOOK AT HOW HE’S HOLDING HIS HAND !!”

At the time, I had neither the experience nor the sophistication to have seen that for myself; but I did have enough imagination to infer what my friend was seeing.

So, what can we learn from that, for the sake of protecting everyone — especially the young — from incitements to immodest thoughts? Should drapes be thrown over everything? Or is there some way to dull minds and imaginations before that age is reached?


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