One of the more important tasks that an embassy deals with is the Congressional delegation or CODEL in Washington-speak. These visits by Members of Congress, usually during recess, are meant to give — theoretically, at least — a first-hand view of some of the more pressing foreign policy issues. They are usually short but can be very intense and in some instances, require thick skin and a great deal of diplomacy. For Michael Boorstein, then an Administrative Officer, his first CODEL to Sicily soon turned into a minor disaster. Vladimir Lehovich talks about his time in Saigon, where he was to do or get anything – anything — that Teddy Kennedy wanted during his visit there. Laurence Silverman, then Ambassador to Yugoslavia, recalls a similar encounter with the Speaker of the House.
They were all interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy, in 1997, 2005 and 1998 respectively. Read More No-tell CODELs and about how Senator Jesse Helms was convinced that the downing of KAL 007 was a Soviet assassination attempt. You can also read about the CODEL trip to Grenada shortly after the U.S. invasion.
“Oh my God, my career is over!”
BOORSTEIN: We didn’t have a lot of big wig official business in Palermo, but towards the end of my tour in the spring of 1973, we got word through a telegram that a professional delegation headed by Congressman Pogue who I believe was the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. A very big influential man from Waco, Texas was leading an Agriculture Committee CODEL to the Middle East and South Asia and had his own aircraft… They had to stop to refuel twice and one of their refueling stops was the naval air station in Sigonella in eastern Sicily… All they were doing was overnighting. There were probably 15 members of Congress plus staffers. It was a pretty big deal to plan for this. They didn’t want to fly into Palermo. They wanted to stop at the naval air station, which as I said was in Sigonella, which was very near to Catania and also very near to Mount Etna. I’m not sure whether we recommended it or they already knew from experience they wanted to stay at the Hotel San Domenico, which is a very famous resort above the ocean, above the sea….
Anyway, so, it was necessary to do an advance trip. I worked with the protocol officer of the naval air base in Sigonella. He was navy lieutenant commander, a young fellow like me and we had a good time and we went up the slopes of Mount Etna because they wanted to do that as a day trip and we went to some local restaurants that they wanted to see and whatever. The planning went reasonably well and I was prepared. When they were going to arrive…my wife came with me…and we were allowed to stay in the Hotel San Domenico because after all I was the control officer. We arrived at the naval air base in Sigonella waiting for the plane to land.
The time comes and no plane. We call up Embassy Rome. Embassy Rome calls down to the naval base in Naples. The information is relayed from the aircraft. The aircraft had already landed on the commercial side of the Catania airport. Then we had to high tail it over from the military side of the airport over to the civilian side, which you would think you could just sort of drive across the runway. Well, it didn’t work that way. You have to go outside and go around.
It took us about 45 minutes and the CODEL is cooling its heels. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, my career is over!’
Then the pilot gets off the plane with this piece of paper and just shoves it in my face saying, “Why weren’t you waiting for us here? We cabled you about this.” I looked at it, looked at all the addressees and Amconsul Palermo was not an addressee. The office that had dropped the ball was the visitors’ office at Embassy Rome. They failed to call down to me or to the consular people and say be sure you meet the plane on the commercial side of the airport. That’s what started out the CODEL visit.
I then wanted to get the passports for the group because in those years whenever you stayed in a hotel in Italy, the security people required a record from the hotel of every guest plus their nationality and their passport number. The air force liaison officer refused to give it to me saying they’re going to be locked up on the aircraft. “We don’t need them.”
I said, “I guarantee you that when we get to the hotel, the hotel will tell you to go back to the airport and get them.” He said, “I’ll take my chances.” Sure enough I was right and so I didn’t go down with them. I think there was someone from the hotel who went down with him or maybe the navy liaison guy from Sigonella went down with him, but I didn’t go and I basically said, look I told you so. He had to go down and get all the passports.
Then we had set up an evening of entertainment of Sicilian folk dancing and music at a local nightclub. None of the Congressmen wanted to go. All they wanted to do was sit around the bar and drink Johnny Walker Scotch….It was nice music and whatever and so my wife at that time was about 24 or 25 years old. They liked to have this young blonde woman there to liven the evening and we were there and the next day we all went up. They did go on the tour of Taormina. That was my first CODEL experience.
He’s gotta have it
LEHOVICH: I want to cover one other thing because it’s anecdotal and it’s huge fun. We had a non-stop stream of important visitors out there [in Saigon]. When I was at the American embassy for that one year, I was given some of the harder tasks of shepherding these people around, hosting them, being their control officer. The first one was Teddy Kennedy…
The Kennedy visit happened when I hadn’t been there for terribly long in my embassy incarnation. Suddenly, everybody began to move away from me a little bit, saying, “You really got the dirty job, didn’t you” meaning I was Teddy Kennedy’s control officer. I didn’t understand why.
First, the Mission Coordinator, a very senior officer and a very nice man called Phil Chadbourne, came up to me. He told me that “Kennedy wants one thing, he wants one thing only. He wants it every night,” and my job was to see that he got it. It was so important, I was told by the mission coordinator, Mr. Chadbourne, that I would be expected to dip into my “private stock.” I didn’t know what he meant by my private stock, but he kept saying, “My boy, dip into your private stock. It’s that important. Use your private stock.”
I didn’t have sherry or whiskey or anything like that. I didn’t know what the guy meant. I later learned… This was the day that Kennedy was arriving.
As his arrival time grew closer, I met Cabot Lodge in the corridor, who burst out laughing. He said, “You really got stuck with the dirty job, didn’t you, boy?” I laughed, too… He said, “I’m leaving for Thailand so I don’t have to meet the guy. I hope you’ll survive. Let me tell you something about those Kennedy boys. Those brothers are all the same. They want one thing. They want one thing only. They want it every night. Your job? Make him crawl for it.”
Q: We’re talking about two people from Massachusetts who hated each other?
Absolutely. We’re talking about [Ambassador to Vietnam] Henry Cabot Lodge, who had been beaten out by Jack Kennedy. That evening, I went to the airport to meet Ted Kennedy. I was immediately mobbed by many senior Americans who got between me and him and covered him with attention.
That evening, I went to the hotel to work out his program with him. I came to him and he opened the door. He was on crutches because he had a broken back. He had been in an airplane crash. Of course, all the people who had been telling me “He wants one thing and one thing only” didn’t realize that we were talking about a man in intense pain.
He opened the door. I introduced myself to him again and he said, “Can you do me a favor? I need something and I need it real bad.”
I was dreading this question. I knew what was going to happen. I said, “Senator, what do you mean?”
He said, “I need some aspirin and some soda water from the downstairs lobby.”
That’s what the senator needed. Very nice man, very nice man.
“I can’t protect you”
SILVERMAN: We had a particularly troublesome problem when Carl Albert came as the head of a CODEL to Yugoslavia. [He was] Speaker of the House. He was a terrible drunk, and when I found out he was leading the CODEL, at the invitation of the Yugoslavs, I was appalled, because I knew what a terrible drunk he was and what a cipher he was.
I actually went to the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry at one point when we were talking about the CODEL, and I explained that he was a drunk and that there was to be no alcohol served while he was in Yugoslavia at any official occasion. Well, I forget, the foreign minister or somebody said, “How can you say that, Ambassador? He’s the third-ranking official in the United States?” And I said, “Well, that’s more for show.” Which was an incredible thing to say.
But I was so anxious at that point not to portray a sense of weakness or a reality of weakness to the Yugoslavs – and I knew Albert from my days in the Executive Branch – and I was hopeful that they would take from me, adopt the position that he was a convenient figure for officials in the Congress – which was true – and he was not to be taken seriously. No liquor was to be served.
Well, the funny thing was, he would desperately try to get hold of liquor anyway. He was an alcoholic. And he was quite frustrated about my efforts to prevent it, and he got hold of Sheldon Krys, and he said, “I want a bottle of bourbon, and I know what the Ambassador’s doing, but he’s a political appointee, and you’re going to be around after he goes, and I will make sure you’re in real trouble unless I get a bottle of bourbon.”
Sheldon came to me, and I said, “Give him his bottle of bourbon. I can’t protect you.”