Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Codel O’Neill, April 1985

Excerpt from Chapter 11.7
Soviet Desk 1981-1985

Codel O’Neill, April 1985.
In the spring of 1985, Tom Simons was notified by Hill staffers that House Speaker Tip O'Neill was planning a trip to Moscow during the Congressional recess. Tom and I had just been up on the Hill to brief selected Senators and Congressmen on prospects for improving U.S.-Soviet relations, touting the value of parliamentary exchanges. This trip may have been one of the fruits of that briefing, though more likely it was just another big recess Codel, with Moscow tabbed on as the “working” part of the trip. In any case, to provide some sort of State Department chaperon for the Congressmen, Tom talked with O'Neill Chief of Staff Kirk O'Donnell about assigning me as the SOV escort officer. O'Donnell was not too enthused about the prospect -- usually Congressmen don't like to let outsiders see how they behave in private -- but he eventually relented on the assurance that I was discreet, knew Russian, had good contacts at Embassy Moscow, and could provide expert help as a Soviet specialist to O'Neill and others. The Codel would be the first high-level U.S. delegation to meet with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev since his predecessor Konstantin Chernenko's funeral on March 13, and O'Neill would be carrying a message to Gorbachev from President Reagan reaffirming our interest in an early Summit meeting. In view of all this, O'Donnell was persuaded that a little expertise couldn't hurt. Accordingly, in early April I packed my bags, took a taxi to the Rayburn Building and boarded the bus for Andrews AFB with the rest of the Codel.

The Codel contained a star-studded field, from both sides of the aisle. It included Speaker Tip O'Neill, Dan Rostenkowski, Silvio Conte, Minority Leader Bob Michel, Ralph Regula, Charlie Rangel and seven others. With a lot of House staffers going along as well, we fairly filled up the VIP 707 that had been allocated for the purpose. I sat next to staffer Bob Huber during the flight out and back, and we became good friends during the trip.

This was my first trip as an escort officer for a full-scale Codel -- usually, I was on the receiving end instead -- and because of my unique vantage point I came to understand a great deal more about the whys and wherefores of Codels than perhaps I should have. In the first place, there was no stinting on luxury. The VIP 707 was configured for maximum service, and the cabin crew included 13 very attractive stewardesses, one for each Congressman on board, and more than enough to cater to every need of the 44-person Codel. This wasn't too much of a chore in any case, since most of the Congressmen appeared to be involved in floating poker/hearts/pinochle games for much of the trip across the Atlantic. The meals were of course first rate, and even in the back of the plane, where Bob and I sat, the seats were wide and comfortable.

Shannon.
The first intimation I got that not absolutely everything about the trip was devoted to business was a “fuel stop” at Shannon airport in Ireland. Our 707 was bound for Munich, and easily had the range to make it in one hop, but the chance for a bunch of Irish Congressmen and their aides to visit the Emerald Isle, if only for a few hours, was too great a temptation to pass up. A couple of staffers, including O'Donnell, playfully kissed the ground as others looked on and laughed appreciatively. We had landed in the wee hours of the morning, and Shannon was closed at the time, but the airport was opened up for us, and the Irish Coffee flowed with great abandon in the main hall, which was otherwise almost completely deserted. Local officials came out to say hello and pay due obeisance to Tip, and everyone had a marvelous time. As for Bob and me, we lapped up the Irish coffee and did not complain.

As the flight wore on, I began to appreciate some of the Congressmen quite a bit more, and others much, much less. Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) adopted the pose of a hail fellow well met, but clearly demanded deference from everyone, including Bob Michel (R-Ill.), who obliged. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) seemed to treat everyone with a touch of arrogance that I found unbecoming in a Congressman of his power. He seemed to expect that as usual, he would get everything he wanted and needed to make no real effort to be cordial to the staffers and other minions scuttling about. I instinctively didn't like him, and I steered clear. Similarly, I got a kind of a queasy feeling around Silvio Conte (R-Mass.). Something about him just didn't add up. The one Congressman who I got on the best with, and who treated everyone as an equal, was Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), or, as one wag called him, “a Regula guy.” Charlie Rangel (D-New York), a flamboyant Congressman from Harlem, was also a fun person to be around. He livened up the group a good bit, although his unorthodox behavior occasionally crossed the line.

Munich.
We arrived in Munich early the next morning and settled into the local Hilton Hotel for an overnight stop before proceeding on to Moscow. During the day, the Codel's activities were almost entirely devoted to tours, lunches and dinners sponsored by various Washington lobbyists. I went to the dinner that evening at a glitzy downtown restaurant. There were over 200 people in our party, and our meals were nothing short of fabulous. I caught myself wondering how the Congressmen would explain such largesse to their constituents if it ever became public. In the event, no reporters seemed to be present. As my expertise was not needed in Munich, I spent much of my time visiting with ConGen Munich's plentiful control officers for the visit, especially Darcy Hoffman, a very attractive Junior Officer who seemed to share my views on the whole Codel experience.

Moscow.
We flew into Moscow the next day, landing at Vnukovo II, the VIP airport, and were spirited off in a large convoy of vehicles to the Hotel Sovyetskaya, on Leningradskiy Prospekt. I had heard of the hotel, but none of us had ever stayed in it before, because it was primarily reserved for visiting Party delegations. On this occasion, however, I was told that the Soviets had decided to make an exception for Codel O'Neill, in view of the importance of his visit (in past years, the Soviets had also made the hotel available for Codel Albert and Codel Ribicoff, among others). All the stops were pulled out to make O'Neill and party comfortable. Moscow's control officers told me that the hotel staff had been tearing their hair out about one problem in particular: Tip O'Neill's bed. Tip was a big guy, and wherever he went, his staff made sure that his room had a king-size bed. There was just one problem: there weren't any such beds in Moscow. Eventually, the hotel staff cobbled two large double beds together, found linen of sufficient size from somewhere, and got everything set up just before Tip and company arrived at their rooms. Our first major foreign relations crisis was thus averted.

Mesyats and “Cropping.”
Being a Democrat, and inclusive, I suppose, Tip insisted that his entire party of 44, Tech Sergeants and off-duty service personnel alike, accompany his delegation to every meeting with Soviet officials. This was no problem at first, because before getting to the big meetings (Gromyko and Gorbachev), Codel O'Neill first made the rounds of lesser lights in the Soviet firmament. Without exception, these meetings were all a colossal waste of everyone's time, but were nonetheless quite entertaining. There was one particularly memorable meeting with Valentin Mesyats, who was Soviet Minister of Agriculture. Mesyats, something of a blowhard even by Soviet standards, met us all in his huge office at the Ministry of Agriculture and began by launching into a typical 40-minute set-piece extolling the glories of Soviet agriculture. As I looked around, most of his audience appeared to be nodding off, but not me. Increasingly, Bob Huber and I began having difficulty suppressing the urge to laugh at this ridiculous performance, particularly in view of the well-known condition of Soviet agriculture at the time.

Our efforts to muffle our hysterics were not aided by the fact that Mesyats' interpreter, a beautiful young girl, was clearly out of her depth in performing her interpreting chores. In the course of her exertions, I heard many new words invented for the benefit of the English language, with the word “cropping” being one of the standout examples. With each new hilarious mistranslation, and each new buffoonish statement by Mesyats, Bob's and my efforts to contain our hysterics threatened to fail. Finally, Mesyats cracked a very weak joke, and we used the opportunity to burst out laughing and relieve the tension (Bob was almost turning purple by then). To our surprise, the rest of Mesyats' audience was in the same boat, and laughed uproariously as well. Lord knows what might have happened if Mesyats had tried to stay serious, because Bob and I really were about to lose it. Summary execution, I guess.

Gromyko.
The next day, the serious meetings began, with Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko up first. The entire delegation -- almost -- filed into St. Catherine's Hall in the Kremlin for the meeting. Gromyko and his colleagues were a bit taken aback at the size of the American group. In addition to 12 Congressmen at the table, Ambassador Hartman, interpreter Dmitriy Zarechnyak and I as note taker, there were over 40 people scattered about in a kind of irregular peanut gallery behind the main American group at the table. Never one to be nonplussed, however, Gromyko greeted Tip and proceeded to launch into his own version of a set-piece on U.S.-Soviet relations, although his exposition was considerably more intelligent than the Mesyats “agriculture is good” brief, and was spiced up with periodic Gromyko corrections of Viktor Sukhodrev's already perfect interpretation (Gromyko was good at English, but not that good).

Gromyko was about halfway through his 45-minute presentation, and the peanut gallery was beginning to get a little restless, when suddenly the double doors to the Hall were flung open, and in strode the thirteenth member of the Codel, Charlie Rangel. He was carrying one of the largest portable video cameras I had ever seen, and had taken the opportunity to film large portions of the Kremlin, as long as he was there. He had gotten lost a couple of times, but was eventually escorted to St. Catherine's Hall by helpful security officials. When he saw Gromyko, his face lit up. “Smile!” he cried, and then began taping the participants. Gromyko and his cronies didn't quite know what to think about this, so they sort of went with the flow and Gromyko started in on his disquisition again. Charlie eventually got tired of taping and sat down in the chair next to mine, at the very end of the table. As note taker, I was having a hard time following the conversation between Tip and Gromyko, which was all the way at the other end of the table, and now I had Charlie whispering in my ear, asking, “What's going on?” and “What did he say?” This couldn't go on for long, or I would lose track and not be able to draft a sensible reporting cable. In desperation, I turned to the Congressman and said “Charlie, not now, I've got to take these notes!” Suitably chastened, Charlie sat quietly in his seat for the rest of the meeting. It's the only time I've rebuked a Congressman, and I got away with it -- but only because it was someone like Charlie.

Gorbachev and NODIS Cables.
Nothing of overwhelming significance occurred at the Gromyko meeting, but the back and forth was interesting, and Tip dutifully brought up a few human rights and marriage cases, which was good of him. The next morning, I returned to the Embassy to type up my notes, as I wasn't invited to the Gorbachev meeting (after the circus at St. Catherine's, only four Congressman were invited to meet with Gorbachev, with Ambassador Hartman along as note taker). Tip presented the President's message, which must have been a disappointment to the Soviets, who I think were expecting something much more substantive. But, whatever the Soviets may have thought privately, they said they were pleased with the results of the visit, and played it up in the media. I typed up my cable, and fortunately had Dmitriy's interpreter's notes to check against my own, so the cable turned out pretty well. Security could have been better, however. The cable was Secret NODIS, so it had to be typed up in the Embassy, but conditions were very insecure (unshielded electric typewriters). The clearance process was even worse, however. In order to run the cable by the Congressmen, I had to take copies of the NODIS over to the hotel, where the Congressmen busily pored over them and passed them around liberally, all the while with Soviet employees like Raya (aka The Colonel) hovering nearby. It was certainly a new experience for me. In this particular case, however, I figured it was all right, since half the people sitting on Gromyko's side of the table were KGB anyway, and undoubtedly had better notes of the meeting than I did. Ambassador Hartman's cable got similar treatment.

Leningrad, then Marbella.
With the arduous work of the visit done, we all packed our bags and headed off for Leningrad to take in the Kirov Ballet. It may seem strange, in view of the fact that I was about to start a tour of duty as Deputy Principal Officer in Leningrad, but I can remember almost nothing of our visit there. The only impression I have is of riding in from Pulkovo on an Ikarus bus with the rest of the delegation. It was a beautiful day, and everyone marveled at how bright and clean the city looked. Of course, it later turned out that, Potemkin-style, the entire route of our visit and been scrubbed, painted and cleaned the day before.

The next day, we boarded our plane once again, and flew off to the southern coast of Spain to take a well-deserved rest, courtesy of an even larger group of Washington lobbyists than had been present in Munich. Our 707 touched down at an airbase near Madrid, and the entire group of us was received very graciously by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain. Our weary group then continued on to Marbella, where we spent three days at the Hotel Puente Romano, luxuriating in the sunny climate, stuffing ourselves courtesy of numerous lobbyists, and hobnobbing with minor European royalty. I sat across from Ferdinand Bismarck on a couple of these occasions. He was a direct descendent of Otto von Bismarck, but on brief acquaintance appeared not to have picked up much in the way of his ancestor's legendary political savvy.

Most of the time, Tip kept to himself in his villa. He was one of us who actually had been doing a lot of work in Moscow, and he was truly exhausted. About midway through our stop in Marbella, we got a message from the President congratulating Tip on his successful visit to Moscow. I took the message to him, and, after a moment's hesitation, Kirk O'Donnell let me deliver it personally. Tip was sitting up in bed, his white hair askew, his face slack-jawed, and in general, he looked like death warmed over. “Don't worry,” I was told, “He always looks like this at the end of a trip.” Be that as it may, Tip seemed to have rested and recovered nicely by the time we took off for home. We stopped in Lajes on the way back -- I guess Shannon was just too far out of the way, even for a planeload of Irishmen.

Leaks.
The flight back was unremarkable, except for the fact that most of the Congressmen on board were insisting that they be given copies of the NODIS reporting cables on their meetings in Moscow. I was still very by the book then, and ticked off a few of them when I told them that due to the classification and distribution markers I would have to check with the Operations Center before releasing the cables. Silvio Conte was particularly insistent. Eventually, I got permission to release the cables, and spent most of the rest of the flight making copies on the portable Xerox machine set up in the aisle of the 707. A couple of days after we got back to Washington, the inevitable fruit of my labors over the Xerox machine manifested itself in an April 18 Washington Post article entitled “Lawmaker's Notes Offer Glimpse of Gorbachev,” written by Walter Pincus. The report was allegedly based on “voluminous notes” taken by Congressman Silvio Conte, but was in fact mostly a word-for-word lifting of passages from the NODIS cables. I guess it was a convenient fig leaf to get out the good news on the visit, but it still galled me a little. Needless to say, there was nothing in the report about the two days before Moscow or the four days after, and it was probably just as well.

All in all, the members of Codel O'Neill probably worked considerably more than most Codels did, but there was plenty of time to play as well, and all at taxpayer (and lobbyist) expense. For me, the whole Codel O'Neill experience was both pleasant and instructive. It prepared me well for one of my principal tasks in Leningrad over the next two years: the care and feeding of the dozens of official U.S. delegations that would descend on the city during my tour of duty there.

Less than three months later, my tour in SOV was over, and I was on my way to Leningrad. It had been a wonderful tour of duty. If I had been in the Civil Service, and not the Foreign Service, I would have been content to stay in SOV forever. But I could not, and I did not. I moved on to my next adventure.

End of Excerpt.

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