Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Charlie Rangel Goes to Moscow

Today, Congressman Charlie Rangel is fighting for his political life in a Harlem primary battle.  He has fallen far since his halcyon days in the Democratic leadership, but he is still game for what may be his last political contest.

I first met Charlie Rangel in a very different context, as an escort officer of Codel O'Neill during its April 1985 visit to Moscow and Leningrad.  Charlie was just as irrepressible and unpredictable then as he was in later years, and he proved this beyond all doubt during the delegation's rather disorderly meeting with then-Foreign Minister Andrey 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 and interpreter Dmitriy Zarechnyak, 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.  His exposition was long, as usual, but considerably more intelligent than the Mesyats “agriculture is good” brief, and 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 meekly in his seat for the rest of the meeting.  It's the only time I ever rebuked a Congressman, and I got away with it -- but only because it was Charlie.

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