In the early 1970s, when Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel, Henry Kissinger incurred a lot of Israeli wrath in his shuttle-diplomatic efforts as American secretary of state. There was a joke going around Jerusalem that was intended to show disrespect for Kissinger. (Actually, I think it showed more disrespect for the comedians of Israel, but that’s not the point!)
Kissinger, according to the jokesters, had some very fine fabric he wanted to have made into a suit. His American tailor had told him there was too little for a suit, but advised him to take the fabric with him on his next trip to Israel, as the Israeli tailors were good at miracles. And, indeed, the Israeli tailors made three handsome suits out of the cloth. Kissinger marveled, wondering aloud to the prime minister how the Israeli tailors could do such a thing.
“Simple, Henry,” said Golda. “You see, here in Israel you’re not such a big man!”
Laughs! That, I leave to you. The message of disrespect, not just for Kissinger personally, but for American diplomacy, did get delivered.
Jump with me back to Miami Beach, Fla., in the 1950s. There was a “Grand Lady of Vienna” working the front desk of a hotel, the Essex House, owned by my beloved Uncle Bill, at the corner of Collins Avenue and Tenth Street. She spread more cheer among the guests than a Sachertorte overloaded with schlagsahne. One day, she was crying very much out loud and a gracious woman was trying to comfort her. I heard enough to know I didn’t want to hear any more. She wasn’t Jewish, a concentration camp survivor or anything of the kind. She wasn’t a Nazi, either. She was part of the group we don’t hear much about, happenstantial residents of a thug-regime who did nothing wrong; she just lived there.
And she had lost everything! And it was quite a fortune.
She was crying because she’d just had to do something like teach a Cuban maid how to empty a garbage can or she had just got herself bawled out by an electrician over some stupid upscuddle that wasn’t her fault and suddenly the weight of her new life of disrespect crashed in upon her. I think I went to my room and cried, too. It may be the first and only time I ever cried for a non-Jewish grand dame from Vienna who, instead of dancing that night with a Croatian count of provable Hapsburg lineage at Schonbrunn Palace, was instead being yelled at by a Baltimore woman in her late eighties to hurry upstairs and help her look under the bed for her hearing aid.
The enemy – disrespect – had pierced the perimeter of the stockade and started doing its emotional slaughter.
America is now feeling the pain of that disrespect. The more you know, the more you feel. If you were just born, you feel nothing. If you wore the American military uniform during the 1950s when America ruled the world in so many important ways, you feel it all.
Hey, you with the Obama bumper sticker! Unclench your fist! Can we make a deal? I’m not saying Obama is the only villain of our loss of global respect. I’ll give you this: America’s respect has declined incrementally since we “ruled the world” under Truman (1945-1952) and Eisenhower (1953-1961). Here’s what you have to give me.
No president has so damaged and lost so much respect for America in as short a time as Barack Obama. He doesn’t seem to feel it. I qualify to feel every jot-and-tittle of it, having worn the uniform at a time when American college hitch-hikers were treated to the screeching sound of European brakes whenever Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, German, Dutch, Belgian and French drivers saw young Americans with American flags on their backpacks thumbing for free rides across Western Europe.
I wouldn’t dare try that journey today. I’d fear a slit-throat the first time a jihadist realized I was an American before I realized he wasn’t really a German. Go ahead and rant. I’m the world’s foremost authority on what I fear.
I’m far from the first American to feel the sting of disrespect. In the 1800s, Vice President Chester Arthur (later president) took a train from Washington to Baltimore for a conference and when he returned to his hotel he saw there’d been a small fire that put the firefighters in command of the lobby, which they had roped off. He had a train to catch so he ducked under the rope and started walking up the circular staircase toward his room.
“Not so fast,” yelled the fire chief. “Who are you?”
Chester Arthur swung around and said, “I’m the vice president,” and continued walking.
“Wait a minute,” continued the fire chief. “Vice president of what?”
Quite annoyed, Chester Arthur replied, “I am vice president of the United States of America,” and continued his upward march.
“Get the hell back down here,” yelled the fire chief. “I thought you were vice president of the hotel”!