By Richard Hoover
As the ancients well knew, comedy has the power to transform what is grave and unfortunate into something light, even ridiculous. Humor! What a device it is in the tool box of a clever diplomat. The best example I ever saw took place in Cold War Prague, back in '75 or '76.
Here, then, is what was grave and unfortunate: in an endless flood of "revelations," the world press reported how America's diplomats played "dirty tricks," not only on their Soviet and Eastern European rivals, but on their Western embassy friends. I remember particular damage being done by the foreign edition of the New York Times. Read by every embassy denizen alive, whether from the East or the West, the International Herald Tribune carried these stories in spades!
Maybe it was all a plant, Soviet "disinformatzia." But who knew for sure? And the guidance we received, to avoid dirty tricks discussions like the plague, only made us look guilty as charged! A second secretary at Embassy Prague, I remember getting the fish eye from a number of my hard-earnedEeastern European and host country contacts. Naturally, no matter how deep they were into their own dirty tricks, they were unforgiving when it came to reports of ours! My Western contacts also seemed to be keeping their good distance. Invitations, tennis matches, lunches and other types of encountering -- just some of the ways an embassy officer gets the news in a secretive Communist environment-- were drying up. Big diplomatic chill!
In the middle of this mess, I received an invitation from Ambassador and Mrs. Albert W. Sherer to an enormous dinner party at the residence -- probably the most glittering American ambassador's residence in the world. The Sherer's, "Bud" and Carol, were among the senior darlings of the Prague diplomatic corps -- talented, cultivated, generous and witty. To add to all this luster, Carol was a "Singer," of sewing machine family fame.
Among the diplomatic notables, the guest list included British Ambassador and Mrs. Ronald Scrivener. The Scrivener's were also enormously active and popular. Both were old-line Empire; she, the goddaughter of Queen Victoria's last surviving grandchild, Princess Alice, countess of Athlone.
The British residence abounded with Indian memorabilia. I remember a rug made from the tiger shot by the ambassador while a young district commissioner, just after the second World War. I remember a turbaned servant who bore a striking resemblance to "Punjab," the right hand of Little Orphan Annie's benefactor, Daddy Warbucks! As you might imagine, such a stirring and authentic ambience drew me in, though it hardly reflected the prevailing "Winds of Change" laid down by Harold Macmillan 15 years before!
At table, Sherer called for Champagne all around. Then he launched into that grave and unfortunate topic making headlines throughout Europe: "I know," he said, "that every one of you is following press reports that Washington is intruding upon your lives -- reading your private mail, tapping your telephones, even, breaking open diplomatic pouches to read your classified documents."
When the ambassador served yet a second helping of what was grave and unfortunate, I saw the jaw of our deputy chief of mission fall straight into his dessert. Another embassy colleague, the one who knew the most about dirty tricks, gazed at the ceiling in an attitude of prayer. The electrifying silence with which the aAmbassador's remarks were received was such that even the downward whoosh made by the proverbial dropping pin could be heard around the hall. Ambassador Sherer was one of America's most seasoned diplomats, the best we had. Had he just snapped, flipped out?
And then: "Friends, it's not for me, but for history to judge whether or not these operations are morally justified; however, I must say this" -- and here he lifted his glass and turned to Mrs. Scrivener on his left -- "if we did not do these terrible things, how would we have ever known that today is Jane's birthday!" With that, tensions dissolved in an uproar of smiles, laughter, cooing and applause, whether produced by relief, by amusement, by love for Mrs. Scrivener or by all three at once!
That was the night Ambassador Bud Sherer took care of business in an Iron Curtain capital. I have no idea how long it took media reports of American skullduggery to blow over in other European centers. In Prague, however, the effect of Sherer's birthday toast to Mrs. Scrivener, of his boldness in confronting what was grave and unfortunate, and of his success at turning it into something light, if not ridiculous, was palpable. In following days, the atmosphere warmed, invitations poured in, my invitations were accepted, and I was back in business.
Richard Hoover is a retired Foreign Service officer (1969-95) who resides in southern Warren County.