Some jobs pay such pathetically low wages that tipping is absolutely necessary to get people to do that kind of work. Besides, anyone who repeatedly has to deal with the public probably deserves some kind of “survivor” bonus. Hell, I’d rather dig a ditch in the summertime for minimum wage than serve a family at an Applebee’s with a couple of highchairs. Please, hand me a shovel. I mean hand me a shovel to dig the ditch — not to use on the kids. Just want to make that clear.
The problem is….everyone who deals with the public now expects a tip. Tip jars are placed everywhere. Here in Las Vegas, tipping is probably my third-highest monthly expenditure, behind my mortgage payment and what I pay to the bookies.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m not a cheapskate. I’m perfectly fine with tipping waiters. Same with bartenders. I recognize tipping a certain percentage based on the total bill is customary. Still, it does seem odd that we’re expected to tip based on the amount of food we shove down our throats or how much beer we guzzle. Moreover, I don’t understand why the snooty waiter who brings me a $50 steak deserves $10 extra based on a few trips back and forth to the kitchen, while the waiter doing identical work serving the $10 chicken fried rice at midnight in Chinatown deserves only $2 based on our cultural protocols. So much for tipping not being a city in China.
Don’t even get me started on why we tip everyone except the people who actually make a real difference in our lives. Sure, my bartenders are important to me. They’re vital to my happiness. I love, love, love my bartenders. But they’re not exactly curing cancer. They’re not nurses, nor teachers, nor firemen, nor police officers, nor soldiers walking a dangerous post in Takhar. We never tip the real heroes in our society, even though they’re mostly overworked and underpaid and pretty hold the quilted fabric of our lives together with their unwavering sense of duty. But hey, we’re expected to drop a dollar for the teenager rolling my ice cream at the Cold Stone.
So, let me say this because up until now I’ve been holding back: Tipping is really fucked up.
We’re expected to tip barbers and hairdressers. We’re expected to tip cab drivers (yeah, Uber!). There are tip jars at the pizza joint. There are tip jars at Starbucks. The dog groomer at Petsmart gets a tip. The car wash guy gets a tip for dragging dirty rag across my dashboard. There are even tip plates placed inside many public restrooms right next to the sink. While I acknowledge the restroom attendant saves me from the cruel indignity of having to reach for the towel dispensary on my own, now I have to fish a few quarters out of my pocket. But since I don’t carry any quarters, now I have to tip the full buck, which now means from touching contaminated money, so my hands are dirty again. Call it the cycle of life — one germ to another and one tip to the next.
Some time ago, I got an oil change. Poor guy was working his ass off draining oil pans at one of those Jiffy Lube places. I felt sorry for the guy who was basically trapped in a dungeon, breathing hot oil fumes 8 hours a day. So, I tipped him $5 and told him to “have a beer on me after work.” The guy was appreciative but then he responded, “a beer now costs $7 just about anywhere.” Plus the tip. So, I guess I need to tip enough so the guy that I tip can leave tip.
That’s not all. Does anyone else get those special envelopes around this time of year? My paperboy who I’ve never actually met sent me a really nice Christmas card which I’m sure was heartfelt. The signed card arrived along with a self-addressed stamped envelope. The card noted that he appreciated “my continuing generosity.” Shit, there goes another $20.
The garbage man works on Christmas Day. Really, they do here in Las Vegas. I think they do this on purpose. A few years ago, Marieta felt really bad for them. So, she stood out on the sidewalk while it was a blistering cold 61 degrees and handed them each a $10 bill. When it became apparent what was happening, two more guys, apparently on break, hopped out of the truck. I haven’t seen such a ruckus since we put out scraps for a nest of feral cats. Hey, but at least now they haul away anything we place out in the curb — from empty wine bottles to trees. Which reminds me — have plenty of $10 bills ready on Dec. 25th.
Then, there’s the outrageous amount tipping that’s expected at casinos. The valet parker expects a tip, even though parking used to be free and now the corporate shakedown costs $22 (greedy bastards). All the dealers expect a tip (if you play poker any reasonable length of time, this easily comes to $1,000/year, or more). If you cash a sports ticket, the teller wants a tip. If you hit a payout on video poker, notice it takes three attendants to hand pay you in cash? Wonder why? If you see a show, unless you want to be snookered onto the back row next to a giant 500-watt speaker blasting the left side of your face, the seating hostess will expect a tip.
Las Vegas visitors have it even worse. What’s the first thing you must do when you check in at the airport? You tip the airline bagman, that is, unless you want your suitcase ending up in Bangor, Maine. When you check into a hotel, the clerk wants a tip. The bellman wants a tip just to carry your bags, which is basically his whole job. But then, the bellman doesn’t even carry your bags — he uses a pull cart. He cheats. When you check out and leave your bags an extra few hours, the bellman expects yet another tip. Oh, and we have to tip the maid if we want more than one clean towel. When I used to travel, I actually packed my own towels. Then, I tip myself $20 a day. See, I told you I was generous.
Last weekend, I went to the grocery store. At the checkout on that little machine where you stick in a debit card, it asked me if I want to tip $1, $2, $5, or $10 to some well-known charity where the CEO is making $800,000 a year.
No fucking thanks!
I’m all tapped out and pissed off!
Besides, I need what money I have left to tip my garbage men and bartenders.
FIRST HALF: LA Chargers +2 vs. PITTSBURGH — LOST $330 to win $300
TEASER: BALTIMORE +8.5 vs. ATLANTA / TENNESSEE -2 vs. NY JETS — WON $300
THIS WEEK’S PICKS: (Note: All lines are taken from Westgate Las Vegas as of Saturday afternoon):
INDIANAPOLIS +4.5 vs. HOUSTON — Risking $330 to win $300
FIRST HALF: INDIANAPOLIS +3 vs. HOUSTON — Risking $330 to win $300
Colts are coming off an uncharacteristically dismal offensive performance getting shut out 6-0 at Jacksonville last week. They face an equally formidable defense this week in Houston. Colts appear to be in a really bad spot here, going on the road for their second straight key divisional game. However, seeing how Indy had previously scored 24+ in eight straight games prior to the Jax loss, I have to believe they’ll revert back into top form. While Houston is the NFL’s hottest team at the moment, winners of 9 straight games, rarely do teams maintain such a high level of consistency. Houston’s hot streak has also given the Texans a 3-game lead in the division and all but wrapped up a playoff spot. This game would appear to mean much more to the Colts. I keep saying Houston will suffer an off-week, and this looks like it could be the time. I’ll certainly play a very live dog Indy coming off an embarrassing loss getting a generous number of points. Getting a field goal in the first half is also way too tempting to pass up, so I’m wagering on Colts in both the 1H and game line.
CLEVELAND (PICK) vs. CAROLINA — Risking $33o to win $300
This line has shifted in favor of the Browns, who are now favored in some places after opening at +1 dogs. Cleveland looked awful in Houston last week, but have generally played well against teams they know they’re capable of beating, and the Panthers look to be very beatable at the moment. Carolina has lost 4 straight games, has played badly, and could soon be out of the playoff race soon given the way the season is going. QB Newton has not been the game breaker all season, and now he’s without his favorite target, TE Olsen who is lost for the year. But the real problem for Carolina is the defense, which is being shredded for 30 PPG average the last five weeks. Losing at Tampa Bay last week and now going on the road a second straight week is a really bad spot for the Panthers. I’ll take a tougher Browns team that shows occasional flashes of improvement and players who may want to try and win the interim head coach (Greg Williams) a job heading into next season.
ATLANTA / GREEN BAY UNDER 51 — Risking $330 to win $300
Atlanta’s offense has disappeared the last month, scoring an average of just 17 PPG. That’s an indication of serious problems with the offensive staff, since the Falcons remain relatively healthy and have plenty of talent and experience at skill positions. I’m glad to fade the Falcons finding the end zone many times in an outdoor game this week, with temperatures expected to be around 25 degrees. Meanwhile, Packers have a new coach. I can’t imagine the internal distraction of firing former coach Mike McCarthy is positive for the continuity for the team and that shows no signs of reverting back to the high-scoring Packers of previous years (with QB Rogers healthy). Given so many question marks and the slump of both offenses recently, I’m betting UNDER 51. This total appears just a bit too high.
LA RAMS / CHICAGO UNDER 51.5 — Risking $330 to win $300
Rams have run up big scores in favorable weather conditions. Now, here’s their first real outdoor cold road test. I’m not as confident Rams will look as crisp in Chicago, with temperates forecast in the 20s and some wind possible. I say they’ll score less than their season average here. Meanwhile, Chicago will reportedly get QB Trubisky back under center this week. He could be out of synch given some time off. I have confidence DC Wade Phillips will draw up some things to confuse the Bears’ QB, who still makes some really questionable throws, at times. Rare to see a Bears game in December totaled this high. Both teams can certainly score points, but let’s hope the weather conditions slow things down a bit here. So, I’ll play the UNDER.
NY GIANTS -3 vs. WASHINGTON — Risking $330 to win $300
Washington might start Sonny Jurgenson this week the way things are going. They’re down to a third-string QB (Mark Sanchez) who hasn’t played much in the last two years. He showed serious layers of rust last week in Philadelphia when he was called off the bench and probably had a limited playbook. So, it’s hard to back the Redskins with the offensive problems coming into this game versus Giants. NYG have issues of their ow, since they’re without WR Beckham (who’s vastly overrated). But he does tend to stretch out the field. I think Giants will feed rookie RB Barkley heavy doses of the ball, with anticipated success. Look for a breakout game here versus team that might collapse down the stretch. Washington at 6-6 and playing to save their season, but they simply don’t have the healthy talent at QB to make a run. Incredibly, Washington is +9 on turnover ratio this season, and they’re still just a .500 team. So, they’ve been very lucky. The luck should run out here, so I’ll lay the points with Giants who have won 3/4 and played hard the last month.
LA CHARGERS -14 vs. CINCINNATI — Laying $330 to win $300
It’s almost unheard of me to lay two TDs in the NFL. I can’t remember the last occasion I did this. But Cincinnati looks to be a deflated team that has given up. Bengals lost by 14 and 15 points respectively at home previous two weeks against mediocrity and now play a road game against an opponent on a roll, with the incentive to try and earn a first-round playoff bye. Bengals defense is decimated by injuries. QB Rivers should have a field day. Some concern that Chargers will have a short week and must prepare for a grudge match against Kansas City next week. But Cincinnati with Jeff Driskell getting just his second NFL start, no AJ Green threat at WR, and so many injuries along both lines and at LB, Chargers should be able to name the final score here.
PHILADELPHIA +3.5 vs. DALLAS — Risking $330 to win $300
I’ll take the defending Super Bowl champs who might finally be getting into form here after a miserable first half of the season. Dallas has been quite a surprise, but this game provides another formidable test for Cowboys, and should go down to the wire. I also have to mention Dallas got every break in the game last week, and would have lost even though Saints played a horrible game and the referees gifted Dallas the win. So, I call that a false win. Eagles continue to have some injuries in secondary. However, Dallas strengths are at RB and defense. This game will probably decide the NFC East division winner, so look for things to be played close to the vest by both teams. Dallas wants a run-oriented low scoring game. Eagles probably want the opposite. I think Cowboys might dictate the pace here and the Eagles to sneak in with a cover, if not an outright win.
OAKLAND +10 vs. PITTSBURGH — Risking $330 to win $300
Pittsburgh hasn’t played four quarters of solid football in nearly a month. This is clearly an explosive team at times, but which also shows repeated indications of ill-preparedness. They’ve lost three straight covers and are now laying -10 on the road. I don’t get it, even if this is the lowly Raiders. There’s enough talent on Oakland’s offense to keep this within the margin. Raiders were feisty last week, backdooring the cover against offensive powerhouse Kansas City — a 40-33 loss. At home another week, I say Raiders will bring enough weapons to cover this very high number. No way we can lay this price the way Pittsburgh has stank the last three games.
OTHER GAMES / SOME THOUGHTS
The Kansas City-Baltimore game is one of the most intriguing matchups of the week. I might play the dog plus the points at +7, but it’s now around +6, so this rates as a pass. I’m also wary of Ravens traveling second straight game on the road coming off a win at Atlanta last Sunday. The QB Flacco (return from injury) distraction might also not be good for this team. Ravens haven’t announced the starter yet. Too many variables to handicap, so let’s skip this one.
I really want to play Tampa at home if they were getting +1o. But the line has dropped to +9, so that makes me hesitate. So-called revenge spot for Saints coming off 10-day rest and an embarrassing loss at Dallas. Bettors expect Brees and Co. to bounce back in a big way, but I lean to the other side. Bucs with Winston at QB has looked quite solid the last few weeks. Saints’ passing attack could be slowed someone by high wind gusts which are forecasted. It’s either play Tampa at +10 or no play here for me.
Buffalo really pissed me off last week, which should have easily covered the 1H (a punt returner fumbled late in second quarter and Miami scored a TD with seconds left), and won the game outright (weak-armed Josh Allen missed a throw which should have been an easy TD in the closing seconds). Instead of raking in $600, I took a loss and a push. Now, Buffalo is favored for the first time this season. No way I’m laying more than a FG with this team, even if they’re playing the Jets. In fact, Buffalo looks to be favored in 3/4 remaining games. So, they will look to this as a winnable game. Hard to figure out the mental state of the NYJ after such a disappointing road loss where they blew a 16-0 lead at Tennessee. I might normally take the dog with points in a game like this, but NYJ just don’t inspire enough confidence in this situation. They got destroyed by Buffalo less than a month ago.
All of Miami’s wins have been ugly. They now face their biggest game of the season, playing the Patriots, whom the Dolphins upset last season in a similar spot. New England might have turned a corner heading to homestretch based on how they demolished Minnesota at home last week. I see Patriots as a potential tease-play, from -8 to -2. But I won’t play the divisional favorites given how funky Miami plays at home, where they’re 5-1 straight up.
Denver has won 3 straight games and is now laying a FG+ on the road at San Francisco. I can’t play the road favorite here, which looks like a sucker bet. No one expects anything from the 49ers here, which looked terrible their last two road games. I suspect 49ers could make a game of this. Really tempting to take the +3.5 Hook on the 3 is the key.
Ugly game of the week looks to be Detroit playing at Phoenix. I’d be tempted to play on the home underdog Cardinals here getting +2, but I insist this team can’t be trusted with the Rosen-Leftwich offense. Looks like a scrappy game between two bad teams decided by a late FG, so the side or the total at 40 seems like too much of a gamble.
Minnesota at Seattle is a game I have no interest in. Vikings are a supreme disappointment. Probably some merit in taking the home favorite, but I’m passing on this one.
MY WAGERS ON NFL SEASON WIN TOTALS [UPDATED]:
Arizona Cardinals OVER 5.5 wins -180 — Wagering $450 to win $250 3-9
Buffalo Bills OVER 6 wins EVEN — Wagering $400 to win $400 4-7
Cincinnati Bengals OVER 6.5 wins -170 — Wagering $680 to win $400 5-7
Dallas Cowboys UNDER 8.5 wins +110 — Wagering $500 to win $550 7-5
Detroit Lions UNDER 7.5 wins EVEN — Risking $400 to win $400 4-9
Houston Texans UNDER 8.5 wins +120 — Risking $400 to win $480 8-3
Jacksonville Jaguars OVER 9 wins -145 — Risking $725 to win $500 4-8
Indianapolis Colts UNDER 6.5 wins +170 — Risking $400 to win $680 6-6
New Orleans Saints OVER 9.5 wins -145 — WON $500
Seattle Seahawks UNDER 8 wins (Best Bet) -150 — Risking $1,500 to win $750 7-5
Traditions, traditions! Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof!
Imagine being tasked with writing a lively Broadway musical-comedy about the historical recount of terrible acts of anti-Semitism which took place in Tsarist Russia at the start of the 20th Century. Sounds joyous, no?
How exactly does one go from pogroms to: “Daidle, deedle, daidle, daidle, daidle, deedle, daidle, dumb?”
Fiddler on the Roof, the widely-beloved and bold musical statement that debuted on Broadway in 1964, was nominated for ten Tony Awards — winning nine. It was made into a hit movie in 1971, earning eight Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. It was the highest-grossing movie at the box office that same year, even surpassing The French Connection, Dirty Harry, and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Predictably, a combination of critical acclaim and nightly sell-outs on Broadway spawned an album filled with the classic songs which have become essential among any serious collection of popular music.
Despite its entire focus on rural Jewish life inside Imperial Russia, generations of people of all faiths and no particular religion at all have come to cherish the indelible story of a poor peasant farmer named Tevye who struggles to raise his five teenage daughters (and to his constant chagrin — no sons) in the village of Anatevka, thought to be in what’s now the Ukraine. Even more stressful, Tevye strains to come to terms a world around him that’s rapidly changing, and in ways not always for the better.
Fiddler on the Roof‘s timeless appeal can be attributed to its brilliant grasp and reflection of duality in life and culture. The story and lyrics reflect tradition versus change that’s inevitable, faith versus secular, love versus hate, and right versus wrong. However, despite trying to teach us all valuable lessons, many of which still haven’t been learned, the story does not sermonize. Traditionalists are bound to empathize with new ways of gazing upon the future. And younger, more modern audiences may very well gain a much broader perspective as to why elders think the way they do and things are the way they are. Throughout the journey, Fiddler on the Roof remains a joyous experience.
Credit Jerry Brock for composing music that’s consistently catchy, moving, and memorable, and partner Sheldon Harnick for writing lyrics which are clever and evocative of something far more deeply profound. There’s also a decipherable authenticity to many original compositions which often seem to copy Jewish folk songs in the Klezmer style, which had origins in Eastern Europe at the time Fiddler is supposed to take place. These modern distillations playfully expressed in clarinets and flutes and the fiddler’s violin are deeply rooted in old world customs, but sprinkled here with an updated theatrical flair.
High praise also goes to producer Harold Prince and director Harold Robbins for gifting mass audiences just the right delicate balance of subject matter which is both complex and potentially alienating, but then somehow delivers something which is easy to grasp and inclusive to everyone. In short, expressed in politically incorrect terms, it’s certainly Jewish, but then not “too Jewish.”
Creative decisions aside, the musical’s and subsequent album’s success was largely driven by the ideal casting of Zero Mostel in the starring role as our beloved Tevye. In what must have been shocking for its day, Mostel plays a Russian Jew with an unapologetic wisecracking New York City accent, obviously a smash decision with its core audience packing seats on Broadway. Faking a foreign dialect wouldn’t have been nearly as funny, nor as endearing. Here, Mostel, who became better known for his starring role in the 1968 film, The Producers, was given the role he was born to play.
Accordingly, the stunning decision to replace Mostel in the film version directed by Norman Jewison which was made just six years later by Israeli actor Chaim Topol was quite controversial. In retrospect, it’s plain to see, Topol was the much better choice, at least in part because he was 20 years younger and far more believable as a father to teenage daughters. Topol is marvelous to watch onscreen, just as Mostel was superb to listen to on the album.
The album’s compilation of 13 songs includes a vast spectrum of emotions which demand inquisitiveness and empathy. Virtually every song has become popularly known throughout the world, even today, some five decades later. “Tradition” is the musical opener. Then comes “Matchmaker.” That’s followed up by one of the most memorable songs in Broadway history, “If I Were a Rich Man.” It’s performed wonderfully here by Topol in the 1971 movie:
Side One continues with “To Life” and “Sunrise, Sunset.”
Side Two is interspersed with multiple orchestral compositions that will be familiar to those with a love of musical theatre. But the standout song is the beautiful duo between Tevye and Golde, his wife of 25 years, titled “Do You Love Me?” She’s played by Norma Crane, from El Paso, Texas (really — look it up). Sadly, Crane died of breast cancer about 18 months after the movie was released. Here’s the rendition. It’s as simple as it is stunning to watch:
A few more interesting side notes: Bert Convey, who later became a television actor of some note, appears on the album as one of the male suitors. The pivotal role of the Matchmaker was played on Broadway by Beatrice Authur, best known a decade later as Maude (and one of The Golden Girls). Arthur’s song doesn’t appear on all the original albums (it was cut from some versions) but was included in the remasters issued more recently. I haven’t had the chance to hear the remasters yet. My experiences stem from wearing out a copy of the original album many years ago. How many times did I listen? Answer: I can still sing most of the lyrics by heart.
Fiddler on the Roof remains an exquisite collection of music that evokes a gambit of human aspirations and frailties, including love, anger, empathy, reverence, passion, and joy. It’s both a sanitized means of escape as well as a palpable excursion into real events which actually took place when millions of people were threatened, terrorized, and ultimately displaced entirely for one reason — because of their identity.
Unfortunately, given more recent events in the modern world, this all makes Fiddler on the Roof just as relevant now, as then.
Note: This is the latest segment in a series of reviews and retrospectives of my “100 Essential Albums,” which will be posted here regularly on my website over the next year, or so. Check out my previous selections and retrospectives on each album here:
Sometime in early February 1990, on the upper floor of the United States Embassy in Bucharest, a telephone rang.
I was in that room, the office of the Deputy Chief of Mission.
AmEmbBucharest (the mission’s official State Department abbreviation) had been left with only a skeleton staff of personnel. Even the American Ambassador, a feisty George H.W. Bush appointee and political pal named Alan “Punch” Green, had been summoned back to Washington because the domestic situation was so dangerous. This was in the aftermath of the bloody-violent Romanian Revolution, which had unexpectantly exploded in central Bucharest just a month earlier and left thousands dead in the streets. All non-essential embassy personnel and their dependents had been hastily evacuated out of Romania, leaving just enough embassy staff to keep the lights on and the mission going in what were uncertain times.
Perhaps it’s impossible now to take in the state of the world circa 1990 if you didn’t live during the depths of the Cold War. Most Americans old enough to remember the fall of the former Soviet Union and the Communist East Bloc nations may not realize just how close we came to a standoff resembling the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the globe might have turned into a giant nuclear bonfire. Those of us who lived on the opposite side of the infamous Iron Curtain, trapped in dark and depressing Eastern European capitals, feared the collapse of Communist regimes — from East Berlin to Belgrade to Budapest to Bucharest — might spin out of control in utter desperation. No one could really be certain that some rogue Soviet Army general nursing a bottle of vodka stationed in a missile silo somewhere might not accept the overthrow of his beloved government, press a button, and launch the start of World War III.
Indeed, while the world was cheering revolutions taking place all over the Communist quilt, we didn’t have time for blanket celebration. We were working and living on the political front lines. This wasn’t the time nor place to piss off adversaries who were seeing their way of life come to an abrupt end. Desperate people in desperate times with nothing to lose will sometimes do desperate things.
And so, that black telephone rang. I was standing a few feet away from that ringing phone, painting a large wall. [See Footnote below]
The memories of what followed, of what was said and spoken on that telephone come back to me on this day of deep reflection, remembering the life and legacy of former President George H.W. Bush, who died a few days ago.
Allow me to share these memories with you and that they mean to me.
When a telephone rings, one doesn’t intend to eavesdrop. Thing is — when you’re an American living in what was one of the most repressive Communist regimes in the world, everybody knows everyone else’s business. It’s like living inside a small fish bowl. There are no secrets. When phones rang, you didn’t whisper when talking. You didn’t look around to see who might be listening. We knew our phones were tapped by Romania’s intelligence service, so you just lived your daily life as “normally” as possible, like you were being followed and watched — 24/7. No, that’s not an exaggeration. Up until the fall of Nicole Ceausescu, who was shot by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989, we were under constant surveillance. Think about what that does to your psyche, knowing someone is watching and recording everything that you do.
Trust me. It changes how you live. It changes what you do and what you don’t do. It changes who you are.
The office where that black telephone rang sitting upon a giant walnut desk belonged to Larry Napper, a fellow Texan, a career State Department diplomat, who was the Deputy Chief of Mission in Bucharest. We used the acronym “DCM” when referring to Napper, which was standard State protocol. Napper would later be appointed the American Ambassador to Latvia, then later Ambassador to Kazakhstan, following his service in Communist Romania. Napper took the call because the American Ambassador, Alan Green, had been evacuated. Napper was in charge. A little-known fact: Many Ambassadorial posts, perhaps at least half, are merely for show. Sure, Ambassadors show up for meet and greets and photo ops. They get all the attention and shake hands with foreign leaders and other dignitaries. But most embassy’s day-to-day affairs are actually run by DCMs.
DCM Napper lifted the phone. I couldn’t help but listen in on the conversation.
“Hello, Mr. President.”
Upon hearing those three words, you become frozen in your tracks. Everything stops. You become suspended in time.
Thinking to myself: Holy shit! Is Napper really talking to the President of the United States? Perhaps instead, this was the President of Texas A&M, Napper’s alma mater. It can’t be President Bush, can it?
Moments later, it became clear — President George H.W. Bush was on the other end of the call.
Some personal context here, if I may be permitted. Famous people don’t necessarily impress me, at least not for being famous. I’ve met (by my count) six current and former Presidents. I’ve seen eight in person. I’ve witnessed more than two dozen presidential speeches live. I’ve shaken hands multiple times with at least three. Hell, I talked to Richard Nixon once for five minutes. So, I’m not a fanboy of fame, nor of power.
On the other hand, when working in politics and you’re stationed overseas representing your country, the President — no matter who it is — takes on a special significance in your life. This was a direct call coming from the Oval Office. It’s as close to the West Wing as I’d probably ever get, unless Martin Sheen becomes President.
Napper went back and forth in conversation with the President for at least 20 minutes. It might have been longer. I don’t know. I couldn’t grasp any concept of time. Napper went into considerable detail about our staff, including the Marine Security Guard detachment (MSG) assigned to protect the mission. I got to thinking — the DCM is talking to the President of the United States about sergeants and corporals and privates.
Why did President Bush make that phone call? Well, it was probably intended as a pep talk. American diplomats, stationed in distant lonely places, receiving a telephone call from the President really meant something special. This wasn’t a quick 3-minute call designed as a publicity stunt. There was no press around. There were no television cameras recording the President’s actions behind the scenes, out of public view. This was a good President doing his job. This was a President lifting the spirits of people thousands of miles away. This was a true leader.
I remember that call coming in at 2 pm local time, which meant it was around 6 am back in Washington. President Bush was calling a foreign mission in Eastern Europe at the start, or perhaps the end, of a long workday. I can only presume he made similar calls to every other mission at some point. We weren’t alone. There are hundreds of foreign missions scattered all over the globe. I wonder how many calls were made similar to this one by the President? It’s a part of a weighty job that isn’t seen. It didn’t matter what your politics are. The President was on the line and made a call, and he listened and he cared.
That’s what sticks with me now about the late President Bush. That simple phone call. The conversation. His humanity.
Here I was, one degree of separation from history.
Sometime later, Napper assembled the staff and made a heartfelt speech about receiving a phone call from President Bush, wishing us all well.
Perhaps some who heard Napper’s salutation to the embassy staff later on half-thought the call was some routine obligation, a commander-in-chief just going through the motions. Having heard half that conversation, it was not. It was an act of very real compassion and concern.
After his retirement from the Department of State, Napper later went on to teach at — appropriately enough — the George W. Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University, where he still frequently lectures.
The late President Bush is now being lauded for his expertise in foreign affairs, and properly so. He was the ideal person for the office at a critical junction in world history when things could have gone badly and turned out quite differently. He wasn’t concerned about personal glory or taking credit for masterful acts of diplomacy.
But as someone who was a witness to at least one slice of history, I will give credit when and where it’s due. Much of the reason for diplomatic successes during the Bush years belongs James Baker, the President’s loyal and hand-picked Secretary of State. Baker, who was Secretary of the Treasury and White House Chief of Staff before becoming the captain of America’s foreign policy ship, was the most naturally-gifted diplomat in my lifetime. He was brilliant. Having served under Sec. Baker (and later Lawrence Eagleburger and Warren Christopher), I was able to bear witness to foreign policy decisions that were entirely non-partisan, run with masterful precision and consistency. Sure, there were many things I didn’t agree that came from the 7th Floor wing at Main State. We all had our personal opinions and political views. But when Sec. Baker issued a directive, one could be certain that it was probably the correct move made in the best interests of the nation.
The same can pretty much be said for President Bush, given some historical retrospect. His decision to break his campaign pledge of “no new taxes,” in order to maintain fiscal responsibility — he was right. His “line in the sand” stratagem which guided America’s bilateral military mission during the first Gulf War — he was right. His support for the reunification of the two Germanys, which was vehemently opposed by virtually every other associated world leader — he was right. On and on.
Like all former Presidents, George H.W. Bush had his share of weaknesses and made some mistakes. Those too shall be part of his record.
But in the final analysis, we are all perhaps most affected by the little things that touch us personally, and influence our lives. By all accounts, Bush was probably the most courageous, selfless, and decent human being to serve as President in the 20th Century.
A simple telephone call I overheard was but one of his “thousand points of light.”
Photo Credit: I snapped this photo around the time of the Romanian Revolution in December 1989. It shows the top floor of the (old) American Embassy in Bucharest. This building has since been replaced by a new embassy complex. The front windows are from Ambassador’s office looking out onto Strada Tudor Arghezi. In the background is the ominous Intercontinental Hotel, which had the top floors sealed off and surveillance equipment installed to spy on foreign missions (including the American Embassy) directly below.
Footnote:Why was I painting a wall inside the DCM’s office? Prior to my assignment to AmEmbBucharest, most local employees (Romanians, who all worked for the Securitate, the Romanian intelligence service) were let go. That meant all embassies and consulates in the East Bloc and the former Soviet Union had to use our own staff to maintain the embassy — everything from general repairs, to cleaning, to electrical and plumbing repairs (I got to be particularly adept at fixing Eastern European-made toilets). This was a diplomatic reciprocity mandate taken after the U.S. retaliated against the U.S.S.R. for bugging the new AmAmbMoscow building, where the American government sent back more than 100 Soviet “diplomats” in Washington, which triggered the U.S.S.R. and East Bloc regimes doing the same thing in American Embassies based in their countries.
Outlaws have long been the object of a peculiar fascination. Fictional or real, from Robin Hood to Bonnie and Clyde to Joe Valachi to Don Corleone to John Gotti, we’ve obsessed over celebrity-criminals in life and even apotheosized them in death. Many of us know more verses from The Godfather than either the U.S. Constitution or the Bible.