Inviting Condi Rice to dinner

ABOUT 45 years ago a visiting Indian journalist and a senior State Department official sat down to an impromptu meal at a small-whitewashed apartment in the heart of Washington’s Foggy Bottom.

By Shyam Bhatia (Washington Perspective)

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Published: Tue 6 Mar 2007, 9:46 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:18 AM

They ate with plastic knives and forks and the meal they shared —eggoletto in my father’s coinage —was nothing more than sliced boiled eggs fried in a mix of onions, tomatoes and garlic with a touch of yellow turmeric.

The visiting journalist and host was my late father, Prem Bhatia, who was in DC in 1961 as the temporary correspondent of the Times of India. He was actually the newspaper’s Delhi Editor and had decided on a whim to post himself to Washington to cover for the newspaper’s regular correspondent who was on six month’s leave.

The senior American official he entertained to dinner at his apartment in North West Washington was Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

Working off a tight budget, my father thought he would kill two birds with one stone by saving on an expensive restaurant bill as he cooked for Rusk before conducting his exclusive interview.

From what he told his goggle-eyed family many months later the eggoletto dish was a huge success and Rusk was duly appreciative.

My father was not the only one to have this kind of access. One of his English friends, Louis Heren of the London Times, did even better. He was invited to tea at the White House by President and Mrs Kennedy before he returned to the UK to take up a new appointment.

I thought of eggoletto and Rusk the other day when Secretary of State Condoleeezza Rice turned down my request for an interview over dinner —or at least she didn’t reply —at my small apartment, also located in the Foggy Bottom quarter of Washington DC.

Of course today’s Washington is very different from those days. It is a much larger city with a huge foreign Press corps and the idea of a Secretary of State ambling over to a foreign correspondent’s apartment for a meal and a drink is unthinkable in 2006. In this 21st century the process of explaining America to a foreign audience sometimes has to take its cue from anonymous briefings, an all-too-distant White House and comments reported on the Internet.

Something has changed. Maybe we should blame it all on 9/11, but there is a secrecy —opaque is another word that comes to mind —and lack of accountability that makes Washington a more difficult capital to report since my father’s day. Access is harder with even some State Department officials admitting that micro-management from above gives them less slack to get on with the job of ‘selling’ America.

For the purposes of getting out the message, far more importance is attached to conference calls, rather than the face-to-face exclusives with top officials that US and foreign journalists alike prefer.

Last year I was invited to listen to a talk at Washington’s Foreign Press Centre by a senior official from NASA. My expectations about some sort of meaningful insight into Space policy were killed by what turned out to a terrible briefing.

The White House-based official, who could not be quoted by name —we didn’t know his name anyway —spoke a bland gibberish. When I looked over my notes later that day I realised that this unnamed official had perfected the art of saying absolutely nothing of any value.

The problem with reporting this America through the eyes of official Washington is that it does not represent the rest of the country. And the harder we try to get to the truth about what is really happening in Washington, the less time we have to report what lies beyond. And there is a lot to report.

Sure, it is depressing to watch the newly elected Democrats squabble in Congress, or hear about OJ Simpson’s book describing how he didn’t murder his wife. Yes, the cost of American health care stinks; true there are racial tensions yes, the country is involved in questionable wars in the Middle East and, yes, human rights violations in Guantanamo make all our toes curl.

But there is another side to America —beyond the Washington Beltway —that we get to report far too infrequently. And that is a country of hope, prosperity, inclusiveness and a well-meant, warm-hearted curiosity about people from other countries.

It may be different at other US airports, but arriving at Dulles International outside Washington DC is an experience in charm and sheer good manners. Immigration staff greets you properly, treat you with civility and give you the benefit of the doubt. And then you are through.

Contrast this with experiences on the other side of the Pond. The last time I flew into London from Delhi, an overworked young woman examined my passport as if it had a bad smell. She looked at it left to right, right to left and upside down before she allowed me to proceed.

Washington is also a very clean city. Compared to Bangalore, Delhi or London, much of the capital is spick and span. Roads and pavements are wide, spacious and regularly swept. Householders care about how and where they live.

America’s legendary hospitality is as alive and true today as it was decades ago and it always takes me by surprise. Typical was my experience at Washington Harbour when a total stranger offered to pick up my restaurant tab so that I wasn’t late for the movie one block down the street. And this kind of impulsive generosity seems to have rubbed off on some of the newcomers who have made the US their home.

Earlier this year my taxi driver from Dulles was an American Sikh called Parminder Singh who drove me from the airport to a hotel in downtown Washington DC. The fare came to about $50, but would he accept payment? No.

A nephew of a former Indian cabinet minister, Parminder would not accept a cent in payment. I begged, I pleaded, but to no effect. Parminder was resolute. I was from the old country, he earned plenty of money and $50 would not break the bank as far as he was concerned.

Fortunately, he left me a telephone number. So sometime in the course of the year, I will track him down and hand him a gift-wrapped present to compensate him for the fare he refused to accept.

How refreshing as well for visitors to interact with a society with which they have no historical hang-ups, no shared nightmares of civilians mowed down by colonial forces when their country was part of some distant empire.

On the streets of Washington total strangers often wish me the time of day; “sir” is the preferred way of addressing total male strangers. More often than not traffic stops when I cross the street.

Finally, for some of us there is an irresistible and ongoing romance with the language, evident both in films and daily contact. Americans use words like zero, ditto, sidewalks —instead of pavements —with alarming frequency; and they seem to blur their Rs in the way they drawl when speaking of states like Maryland (Marryland in Americanese).

As for the names of their children: Everett, Chuck and Elvis for boys, Amber-Joyce April-Mae and Billy-Jo for girls, that’s enough to make your head spin with delight.

Yes, Americans have reasons to worry about where they are going. But self-flagellation after the recent mid-term elections, a collective wail that says ‘whither America’, equally needs to be tempered with pride of what and who they are.

I live in hope that Dr Rice will one day change her mind and accept my invitation. Before we get down to the nitty gritty of an interview and all the hard questions, I know what I will say to her over a glass of liquid refreshment: Salute to you Madam Secretary, but, more than that, Salute to the human America that thrives beyond the confines of the State Department, Capitol Hill and Embassy Row.

Shyam Bhatia is a British journalist based in Washington

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