How I Came To Be A Democrat
The first political event I ever attended was a Republican rally for Barry Goldwater for President in Montgomery, Alabama. After serving in the Army in Vietnam and joining the Foreign Service, I may have become pretty liberal. What happened when I was assigned to Warsaw, Poland, in the mid-1990’s may have confirmed my then existing predilections.
I was assigned to be the Science Counselor at the American Embassy in Warsaw, where my main job was supposed to be to manage scientific cooperation between the US and Poland under an arrangement named the Maria Sklodowska Curie Fund II. It was Fund II, because the first fund had been closed during the bad old days of Polish martial law. An agreement to work under the second Fund had been signed just before I left for Poland, and it was to last for five years.
After about one year, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took over Congress and cancelled the funding for our Polish cooperation. The agreement had a clause that said if either of the parties was unable to fund the cooperation, it would end. This clause had been included with Poland in mind, because it faced so many financial problems as it came out of 50 years of Communist rule, but America took advantage of it. The Polish Foreign Ministry called me in almost weekly to complain that the US was not living up to its agreement. I told them that I would report their complaints to Washington, but if they were really serious, they would raise the matter with the Ambassador in Warsaw, or with the Secretary of State or one of his immediate subordinates in Washington. But Poland then wanted more than anything to be included in NATO, and it would not do anything that might endanger that goal, such as making a big stink about the Maria Sklodowska Curie Fund. So, they kept raising the matter with me. Although I knew there was nothing personal about it, I ended up taking it personally. I began to feel that I was at least partly responsible for American breaking its word to Poland. I began to feel that I could not represent an America that did not keep its word.
It happened that about this time I became eligible to retire from the Foreign Service, and after discussing it with my wife, I had about decided to retire, so that I would not have to represent a dishonest government. You may say that it is naive to think that any government is going to be totally honest. But I think that if a government is going to be dishonest, there should be a reason for it. For example, virtually every Foreign Service officer will have to lie at one time or another because he or she knows something from intelligence that he or she cannot admit knowing without compromising that intelligence. (Unless of course he has the same lack of morals and patriotism as Robert Novak.) But in this case, the United States was not going to be bankrupted by paying for continued scientific cooperation with Poland, which was the circumstance foreseen by the clause in question.
In any case, I was about to retire, when out of the blue I got a call from Washington asking me if I would agree to go to Rome, where the Science Counselor had be unexpectedly removed. He was not a Foreign Service officer, and the State Department said that after several years, he could not continue to serve in Rome without becoming one, which for some reason he would not do. So, my wife agreed to move from Warsaw to Rome with me.
When I got to Rome, it turned out that one of my main duties was to handle issues involving the North Korean nuclear program, in particular the follow-up to the KEDO agreement, which promised North Korea two Western style reactors that do not produce weapons usable by-products in return for shutting down the plutonium production reactor(s) that North Korea had been using. In addition, the US, Japan and South Korea promised North Korea to supply it with a certain amount of fuel oil to provide energy to replace that produced by the indigenous reactors until the new non-proliferating reactors could come on line.
Once again, the Republican Congress refused to appropriate the money for all the fuel oil that the US had promised. So, one of my jobs was to go the Italians (both in their national capacity and at that time as the Presidency of the European Union) and ask them to contribute money to make up for what the Congress had refused to appropriate. Following up on my experience with the Maria Sklodowska Curie Fund II in Poland, I was not happy. I felt that once again the US was failing to honor its promises. Thus, I told the Embassy that I would stay until Italy relinquished its presidency of the EU, but then I would retire.
Another more personal matter intervened, as well. After I agreed to move from Warsaw to Rome, my wife and I decided that it would save the government money, and would be interesting for us, to drive from Warsaw to Rome. We could have had our car shipped, and had the government purchase airline tickets, etc., but we could drive in a few days. Hotels, food and gas would certainly be less than airline tickets and the cost of shipping our car. Plus, we could carry stuff in our car that would reduce the amount we had to ship at government expense. In any case, we had packed everything. Big stuff had been shipped to Rome. The car was loaded to roof, and was parked outside ready to leave that night for Krakow, our first stop. I was saying good-bye to friends in the Embassy, and while I was in the defense attache’s office, someone came in to tell me that I had just had a call from Rome saying, “Don’t leave!” It was tough to get me the message, because the call had come to a Pole in our personnel section who could not come to the defense attache’s office, because it was in a secure, American-only part of the Embassy. So, the Pole had to find an American to deliver the message.
It turned out that the problem was that Newt Gingrich had closed down the American government, and only essential personnel could work. However, I had no place to live, either in Warsaw (since we had moved out) or in Rome. I was furious and called Rome. Because I was just being a good soldier and going where the State Department asked me to go, I didn’t know any of the personalities in Rome. It turned out that the DCM (the deputy ambassador) was an old friend from an assignment in Brasilia, Brazil. He arranged some deal with the personnel office in Rome that allowed us to travel. But for what I considered a personal insult, possibly stranding by wife and me with nowhere to live in Warsaw during a cold November, Newt Gingrich won my undying displeasure (a mild word). I also thought it was ironic that the Republicans claim to be the party of business, but if there is one thing that businesses have to do, it’s meet a payroll. Newt couldn’t do that. Now meeting payrolls is less important. Many businesses now leave their employees twisting in the wind, especially when it comes to health care and retirement. Newt was ahead of his time, unfortunately for us all.
Ironically, when we returned to northern Virginia after I retired, in the first election I voted in after my return to the States, I voted for Republican John Warner for senator, because I thought (and still think) he was (and is) a good man. But he was the exception. In general, no more Republicans.
However, I still think Goldwater, like John Warner and John McCain, was probably a good man, much better than most of the rest of the sleazeballs currently occupying the seats of power in the Republican party he helped create.