Hands I have Shaken, or Not

Nothing political, nothing philosophical to chew on, just a few vignettes about some encounters over the last seventy or so years. It’s long for a blog but you don’t have to read it all in one sitting. After all I didn’t write it all in one sitting.

I’d like to say this is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth but the real truth is it can’t be because some of the people I met was due to situations which I cannot discuss. It’s the way of the world in intelligence. Suffice it to say that the actual descriptions of the people, my reactions and assessments are as true as I can make them. You may have a different take on some of these people, in fact, I know you will, but these are my remembrances.

I have to say that my first solid remembrance of anything Presidential was the Eisenhower inauguration parade in 1953. It was on television and I remember it because I watched it with my father. I had never heard or seen Eisenhower but my father had heard him speak on several occasions and did not think him an orator or much of an actual leader. We were Democrats and my father lamented that there had to be somebody better than Adlai Stephenson to represent the party. Over the years, as I’ve written, lectured and taught leadership skills, I took a look at Eisenhower and my dad was right. He was a clerk, a very good clerk but some of his political decisions, especially when he was Supreme Allied Commander Europe, were not the best. If he had given Patton the 400,000 gallons of gas Patton needed to continue his drive into Germany from the South the Battle of the Bulge would never have happened because the Germans would have had to pull their reserves out of the Ardennes area and throw them against Patton. Instead Eisenhower gave the gas to Montgomery who managed to get himself stuck in the low countries. Eisenhower was, however, a great organizer. Douglas MacArthur described him as the best clerk he ever had (Eisenhower was on MacArthur’s staff for seven years.) Say what you will about MacArthur but he lost fewer troops in the entire Southwest Pacific campaign than died at the battle of Monte Casino in Italy. His landings at Inchon, while exceedingly risky, reversed the course of the Korean War and his governorship of post-war Japan was masterful to the point he was almost as revered as the Emperor. He was a great orator who in WWI was awarded seven Battle Citation Stars (renamed the Silver Star Medal) for gallantry in leading men into battle.

My father liked JFK because he was a veteran, young and a Catholic. Now JFK was the first President with whom I shook hands. It was November 21, 1963 in San Antonio, Texas and my mother, who worked for the Air Force couldn’t get me into the facility at Brooks AFB to hear the President’s speech but she did get me along the rope line outside. I didn’t have football practice that day because we had an open week and I intended to take my girl-friend to watch the Harlandale game that Friday night because they were our next opponents and arch rivals (Harlandale Indians and McCollum Cowboys.) I stood along the rope line with lots of other people but someone saw the limousine stop by another door and many people went running over towards it. That left just a few of us at the original rope line as the doors opened and the President and Mrs Kennedy came out. He shook the hand of the lady next to me and stuck out his hand and I took it. I looked into his eyes and they looked very tired. They were the opposite of the smile on his face. His grip was weak and his hand a great deal softer than I would have expected. Now, I have and have always had large hands, size ten and a half, so my hand covered his for what I’m sure was a very short period of time, although he had stopped walking and it felt like a long time to me. He called me “young man.” He wasn’t what I had imagined or what I had hoped. My coach would have insisted he get a haircut.

I never shook hands with Lyndon Johnson, thank God, but I did get a chance to have some direct intelligence collected through a cracked door in the Oval Office. Having gone to high school in Texas I knew Johnson’s reputation as a shady politician and bully. My father hadn’t liked him but my father was dead when in the Spring of 1968 I was invited to Washington, D.C. to participate in an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps event at the National Air Museum which was then a rather large metal building near the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building on the Mall. There was a group that went to the White House for a photo op with the President. According to one of those who went, who shall remain nameless, they were waiting in a little hallway outside the Oval Office when Johnson tore into somebody about something. Four letter words flew left and right, threats were made and my informant believes at least one breakable item was thrown. He and the others were quickly ushered out, no photo and a caution never to mention what they had seen, or heard, in the White House. That meant, of course, that several “Best Friends” would know about the activity before the next morning. My opinion of Johnson was affirmed and, as a Democrat, I was glad he did not run for re-election that fall.

Hubert H. Humphrey had a fleshy hand and nervous eyes but he seemed like a pragmatic idealist to me and in 1968 I was very much into the promise of the Great Society. I shook his hand at a speech he gave before the 1968 election. It isn’t on my list of really good handshakes. He wasn’t much of an orator in that he didn’t “move” people emotionally and he didn’t seem to be the type of of person who could stand at the front and lead. Yet, he seemed sincere. He had been 4F in WWII, which many of his generation snickered at. I thought him a better selection than Nixon that year but I could never get out of my mind the resemblance between Humphrey and the character Frederic March played in the movie “Inherit the Wind.”

Nixon, surprisingly had a firm handshake and was taller than I expected. He was smiling and seemed personable when I shook hands with him during his first visit to the Pentagon in January 1969. I had an interview with a panel because I was being considered for a regular commission coming out of ROTC. He was walking through the halls and they had placed ropes across the intersecting ring hallways. The panel members said, “let’s go see the President,” and we all went out into the hallway and stood by the rope with lots of civilians. The President walked by, stopped and shook hands with most of us. There’s a variety of film on the internet of that visit and while I can find my future boss, Lt. General Raymond Furlong, I don’t see myself or any of the panel members. That would be the only time I saw Nixon in person. He seemed an ok guy and I did like his efforts to close down the Vietnam war. Much more so than Johnson who claimed our bombing raids on North Vietnam were “messages,” and who refused to wage an actual war with the intent of winning, all the while dividing the country politically. Many of the aviators delivering Johnson’s messages never returned.

In 1970 I met Lieutenant General George Simler who would become my prototypical idea of what a general officer should be. General Simler saved me from being grounded and reassigned as a missile launch officer by assigning me to his staff while we waited on a USAF Chief of Staff decision on whether a helicopter pilot must be physically capable of flying fighters. It was an Air Force policy that all pilots must be able to fly any weapon system. It was stupid and wasn’t actually enforceable because there were other discriminating qualifications for piloting fighter aircraft. Anyway, after serving with General Simler most general officers would fall short of my expectations, many of them falling into the same category with Lyndon Johnson as egotistical, self-serving schemers. Yes, the CoS approved my waiver and I went to fly helicopters which was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Too bad getting there was as painful as it was, body cast and all that.

I got into the real handshaking part of my life when I became the Chief of Protocol and Special Assistant (aka Dog Robber) to Lt Gen Raymond B. Furlong, Commanding General at Air University in 1976. We hosted over three thousand distinguished visitors each year and my staff was responsible for taking care of them from scheduling the visits, living arrangements, meals, events and whatever. Henry Kissinger, Curtis LeMay, Melvin Laird, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Jimmy Doolittle, Jimmy Stewart, Chuck Yeager, politicians, scientists, military heroes, secretaries of this and that, they all came to our National Defense Symposia or to speak at the Air War College, Air Command and Staff College, Leadership Management Center or one of the many seminars and topic specific confabs hosted by the Air University in any given year. Brigadier General Jimmy Stewart was my favorite, what you saw on the screen was what you got in real life. I was his escort officer for the banquet and ball in celebration of the USAF 30th anniversary. He was very much a real person and very bright. Anyway, I shook all their hands and developed an opinion of each. I remember thinking, during a dinner at General Furlong’s, that I was getting to do something a lot of people had always wanted to do and that was yell at General Curtis LeMay. The man was almost stone deaf and you had to pretty much yell, especially if you were at the other end of the table as I was. General Furlong often had his special assistant (that was me) sit at table with the guests or be available to field questions on the Air University curriculum. He was a General Simler category general.

I listened to all these people speak and observed how they interacted, or didn’t interact, with people. Kissinger was imperious, as was Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, a few were rude but most were interesting and engaging. It was a real education for me. Oddly, it was as the escort officer to the AF Chief of Staff that provided the proverbial straw to the camel’s back in my leaving the Air Force. General David Jones, CoS USAF, came through in early 1978 and spoke at almost every venue we had. His pitch was that without a new bomber to replace the B-52 we would lose our ability to defend the U.S. He encouraged every member to whom he spoke to write their congressperson, to get into the local speakers’ program at their home bases and push for the bomber program. He made a strong case and his energy was almost palpable. A few weeks later we began to receive notices from Hqs AF to remove all references to the experimental bomber program from our educational material and to take down all the pictures of prototypes and artist renditions. All mention of the replacement bomber program was to be scrubbed. These guidance cables went out AF wide. Not long after that the White House announced that President Carter would be replacing General Brown the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs with General Jones. General Brown was an Air Force General and the Chairmanship generally rotated among the services so it was apparent General Jones had sold out for personal advancement. So, I resigned my commission and accepted the Agency’s offer. They had been recruiting me for some time.

On my first assignment in Sri Lanka the Prime Minister lived next door to me, the former President lived down the street and the current President lived one street over. The only thing between my house and his was the East German embassy. Point is I knew a lot of the government ministers and we often spoke in passing. During this tour I got to work with and know well Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick who was the U.S. Ambassador to the UN and acting as a special envoy to a series of meetings with the Sri Lankan government where I was her second chair. She was an incredibly smart lady and there’s a story I could tell about her were you cleared for it, but you’re not. It’s funny though. We were remotely related in that she was born Jeane Jordan and we shared some distant ancestors. During our discussions, in the lead up to our meetings with the Sri Lankans, she discovered I had been a Democrat choosing to leave the party to become an independent thinker valuing pragmatism over idealism. We discussed this and less than three years after our conversation she would leave the Democratic party, eschewing them as too idealistic in their desires to change human nature rather than use human nature to achieve equitable ends for all.

Remarkably, more than two decades later I saw her just before her death. Turns out we shared the same doctor in D.C. and met in the waiting room. She was very kind. She remembered our little escapade and remembered me for my strong defense of pragmatism. It was a pleasant moment for me and I think also for her. BTW, she had a very strong handshake, most of the time covering the grasped hand with her left hand almost as if she intended to pull you into her world and her way of thinking.

When I met the King of Saudi Arabia he didn’t offer his hand and if he had I’m sure it would have felt like squeezing a piece of pound cake. His pupils were dilated, his hands swollen and I’m sure his legs and feet matched. He was obese and pretty much just barely there. He didn’t rise until 4pm and most business was conducted after 10pm. The King of Jordan, on the other hand, had one of the firmest grips I ever encountered, had the eyes of a desert cat and displayed simultaneously the edginess of a prey and the assurance of a predator. He was impressive in his ability to walk the very narrow line afforded him in the world of international politics. We talked about being pilots and I’m sure he was every bit as good a pilot as he was a king.

Yassir Arafat was indeed a pudgy man when I met him in the Royal Terminal at the King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah. By that time he understood that he was little more than a puppet of his financial backers, not all of whom were on the same page with establishing an actual Palestinian state. He had not yet made his biggest mistake of siding with Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf War. But we didn’t speak of politics when he invited me to have tea with him in his seating area. He was waiting on the arrival of the Boeing 737 the Saudis loaned him and which he kept too long each time, and I was waiting on, well I was waiting on my own aircraft to arrive and take me somewhere. He was a self-deprecating person who told me, “do you think I would look this scruffy if I could actually grow a beard.” His eyes looked like those of a ferret, his voice a nondescript alto and his nose exceedingly prominent. Most interesting however, was his skin, he wasn’t brown except for the mottling of brown spots on an otherwise pasty prominence. Sort of a Pillsbury Dough Boy with Cinnamon sprinkles. When I left he stood and shook my hand thanking me for joining him. Like his body, his hand was pudgy and soft.

Mohammand Zahir Shah was a nice man who really never should have been a King. He wasn’t suited for it just like Jimmy Carter should never have been a President, he wasn’t suited for it. Both were well-meaning likable people who were too easily taken advantage of by the real power brokers. I met MZS in Rome a couple of times and Carter in Sudan when he was trying to broker a deal between the Northern based government and the Southern rebels. Carter was a joke with the Sudanese politicians. Many of them did not know I spoke Arabic and what they said about him during a reception made me want to show them the back of my hand, it being too hot in the desert for gloves, but I kept my Arabic under my hat.

During that same tour Usama bin Ladin lived four houses down from me. I bumped into him one night as he was leaving a mosque. I rounded the corner and bumped into him, literally. I backed off and apologized in Arabic but he said nothing. His eyes were like those of a dead fish. Round and black and still. His had very long narrow hands more skeletal and not very fleshy. Two silver Toyota Land Cruisers pulled up to the corner as we eyed one another. He got in the first, the second was full of Mujahadin toting long guns of different varieties. It wasn’t long after that his people began following me through the streets of Khartoum. We looked like a parade and many people thought I had my own set of bodyguards which I did but they were behind bin Ladin’s men. That’s why we looked like a parade.

Before bin Ladin or Khartoum, I was invited to the White House in July 1991 for a private breakfast with President Bush the elder. I was most impressed. He had a good grip, hands actually larger than mine, knew our business and was most gracious. But I had met him earlier and he remembered me from Rome where we had played tennis when he visited as the Vice President. I always hated playing left-handers even in doubles. The match was just days before a car bomb exploded at the corner of the embassy and some homemade mortar shells with nails and ballbearings were lobed inside the compound from a balcony of the Ambasciatore Hotel across the street. I was just entering the Via Boncompagni gate when the car bomb exploded at the corner of the Via Veneto and Via Boncompagni about sixty yards away. Had it been a Palestinian bomb I would be dead but it was a Japanese Red Army effort and I wasn’t even singed, just startled. They used black powder instead of plastique.

Previous to the White House I had been invited to tea with the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace. When she extended her hand it wasn’t for shaking but for bending over which I did as any gentleman would do. She did not know exactly what I had done but she was thankful that I had done it, or so she said. I should point out that other than a bite of a breakfast pastry at the White House and a small cucumber petit four at the palace I had no opportunity to actually eat anything. I did sip some coffee in the hour I was with the President and enjoyed a couple of sips of a strong black tea with her Majesty, but other than that the meals weren’t, meals that is. I had been well instructed before attending the event at the Palace. Only eat what the Queen was eating and only drink when the Queen drank. A nice experience but nothing to write home about.

At embassy Rome I had been the Ambassador’s resident tennis pro (he referred to me as his “Hit Man”) hence the tennis with the Vice President. As such I got invited to the ambassador’s private parties which none of the other embassy staff ever attended. He was a decided movie groupie so I met a lot of Italian movie people and actors. Sophia Loren in heels is taller than I am. Carlo Ponte and Marcello Mastroianni are not.

Speaking of movie stars; in Sri Lanka we hosted Bo and John Derek and Richard Harris to dinner while they worked on the film Tarzan. Regardless of what you may hear otherwise Derek and Harris were not good ambassadors for their craft, their industry, or just men in general. Their behavior was more than obnoxious. Bo Derek, nee Mary Cathleen Collins, was nice but completely eclipsed by the licentiousness of her cast mates. Miles O’Keefe, who played Tarzan in the movie, was actually a Sewanee graduate. He had certainly fallen in with bad company, as had Ms Collins.

In India my son was chosen to play the hero as a child in the mini-series, “The Far Pavilions.” I met and interacted socially with a number of the actors in the movie: Ben Cross, Amy Irving, Rosanno Brazzi, and Robert Hardy among others. Cross was distant, Irving was flighty, Brazzi was decidedly ‘out there,’ Hardy was a good guy, serious but humorous at the same time. Of all though, I was most impressed by Omar Sharif. He was a great raconteur, had a nice firm handshake, spoke multiple languages, had a degree in Math and Physics and was a devastating bridge player, having partnered Charles Goren a number of times. Next to Jimmy Stewart he was my favorite from the list of those actors I have met. It is not generally known but Sharif was born Michel Chaloub and was Catholic.

In London I met Maurice Micklewhite aka Michael Caine and Roger Moore while they were shooting a movie. Michael Caine was personable, Roger Moore not so much. Let’s see how much of this story I can tell… I was with one of my MI-5 colleagues and we were to meet a contact arriving from abroad. The initial meeting, a simple brief encounter, was set for the arcade shopping area of a major hotel in the West End. When we arrived the lobby was completely closed off by heavy curtains and they were shooting a scene. We found another entrance and were waiting at the edge of the shopping arcade when we heard, “CUT!! Who the Hell is that?” Looking around the corner we saw the contact had pushed his way through the heavy curtains and was in the middle of the carefully set up scene. Can you say Oops? Anyway, afterward we had the occasion to meet the actors and Michael Caine was bear-like. He was tallish, wide and a very pleasant fellow with a good firm handshake. Moore was biggish but fleshy, and his handshake lacked conviction. He was also a chainsmoker and his clothing smelled strongly of stale, smoked tobacco. I told Caine how much I had enjoyed his Harry Palmer roles. He thanked me and said how easy it was to play an MI-5 officer because they were all so disaffected and shallow. My colleague almost choked, his face turning Soviet Union red. I laughed. Caine, of course, had no idea who we were. The encounter would become a running joke for the rest of my interactions with MI-5 officers, but I never let it slip to my MI-6 colleagues.

These are a few anecdotes of people of note who have touched my life, there are many, many others; like Bush the younger, Cheney, John le Carre (aka David Cornwell), Frederick Forsyth, George Wallace, et alia. There are some I’ll never be able to write about and some that I may include in future comments, when they have been dead a sufficiently long time. When you write about some people you have to use the disclaimer, “the names have been changed to protect the guilty,” for I seldom dealt with the innocent. But I can say this, generally all people play roles, some play more than one and when you get to know them and are astute enough in your observation and elicitation skills you will start to scrub off the stage make-up of those roles and what you find may surprise you. Sometimes, if your skills are good, it may only take a casual encounter to learn one or more things that will cause you to question the why of the outward persona. It’s great fun, especially when you get to do it for a living.

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