Thursday, January 19, 2012

Power Trip

First come two blue-and-white police Skodas followed by a pair of black BMW X5s. Then it’s the president’s gleaming Audi A8 led by three lions on the number plate. Then follow two Scandinavian ambassadors in their black Volvos, dust-covered except for spotless national colors on polished stainless steel flagpoles. In pursuit is another X5, blue light flashing, and then two more cop cars. Then, straggling in the rear, behind the part of the motorcade any self-respecting terrorist or disgruntled ministry worker might want to blow up, is a rented silver van.

That’s where I am, in the back row of the van on a seat covered with what I hope are only food stains. The motorcade has just blown the light at the Viru roundabout, and instead of mowing down three American Indians in buckskin and war paint toting a synthesizer and drum set across the street, our driver has applied the brakes to wait out the light.

I ask my fellow passengers if we’ll arrive at our destination before everything is over with.

“Maybe they’ll serve you salted peanuts or give you a logoed umbrella as a souvenir?” a journalist remarks, compelled to put the new guy in his place for displaying too much enthusiasm.

“If you arrive in time, you’ll get to see Ilves present his guest with a painting of a ship made from tiny bits of amber,” adds another.

It’s my first Estonian motorcade, and I have to admit I’m excited. Were I not here, after all, I’d be staring at a computer monitor, or scooping up dogshit in the yard, or any number of less interesting things than watching diplomats and government officials preen and pose.

But the passengers on this bus are jaded journalists or ministry officials so far down on the food chain that they don’t even rate a ride in an unwashed Volvo. These are the ministries’ coffee fetchers and bag carriers, whose moments of glory come when a pissed-off minister wants to vent and they just happen to be in the room. A thankless job, but it’s the only action in town. I mean, not everybody can work for Skype.

But, hey, it’s a job, and these ministerians are already nicer to me than the journalists. “There are always delays,” one soothes me. “You’ll get to see what there is to see.”

What there is to see, of course, I have no idea, but the invitation to join the entourage was the best offer of the week and, really, how many times in your life do you get to join the circus? True, I may not be a full-fledged clown, but cleaning out the animal cages I still see more of the Big Top than the average Joe who drinks beer and farts in front of his television every night.
In 1994, during President Clinton’s visit to Riga, I was part of a group invited to meet Mrs. Clinton. Asked to be present a full three hours before her arrival, I was x-rayed and metal-detected and then ushered into a room with about fifty other people. A few moments before her arrival, Secret Servicemen entered the room with two German Shepherds who both put their noses right in my crotch to pronounce me First Lady fit.

When Mrs. Clinton came through the line it came out that the mother of the guy next to me was a major donor to the Republican Party of Arkansas. Although the man’s mother was an enemy of Mrs. Clinton, the First Lady knew her, and they chatted as if old friends. When Mrs. Clinton arrived in front of me, I knew I would have to do better.

“My mother hates his mother,” I said, and she laughed and asked my name.

“Vello?” she queried. “What kind of name is that?”

“Gypsy,” I replied. “We’re palm readers, but we’re Democrat.”

“Well,” she stepped back to take in two such distinguished mothers’ sons, “today has certainly been interesting for me.”

The higher a government official moves up the food chain the duller his days become. When you reach the highest levels, a huge part of your day is devoted to public appearances where you spew complete bullshit to people eager to be hit in the face with it.

Imagine the hundreds of people who said things to Mrs. Clinton like “Oh, I am just the biggest fan of yours.” And she replied, “Thank you for saying that,” while all the time thinking, Jesus, why can’t I go somewhere and get high?

The cool thing about living in a small country like Estonia is that it provides easy access to power, and I don’t just mean that you might find yourself seated next to the president in a restaurant.

In 1993, I was literally an arm’s length from John Paul II, but instead of touching His Holiness, I allowed Estonians to take my place to cop a feel of his ermine-lined red velvet shoulder cape. I could only imagine how they felt, a people separated from the West for fifty years and then one of the first foreign dignitaries to arrive after independence is a frail old man dressed in white who rides around in a bullet-proof golf cart while an Armani-clad security force jogs beside him. So this is what we’ve been missing? they must have wondered.

It was in a similar spirit that I met President Bush in Tallinn in 2006. In a tiny, packed hotel conference room a disk jockey played “Hail to the Chief” and the crowd rushed a velvet rope as Mr. Bush entered the room and leapt upon the dais. “I’d like y’all to meet Condi, my Sec-uh-tary uh State,” he said in that faux-cowboy voice which comedians had down pat. Then he spoke nonsense for a few moments before working the rope, paying careful attention to those who couldn’t be bothered to fight the crowd to press presidential flesh. Somehow the two of us got to talking about how the dry season had influenced fishing on his Texas ranch. “Well, let me know ahead of time,” I offered, “and we can go fishing here.”

“Really?” he seemed stunned. “People fish here?”

“Mostly with explosives,” I replied. “But a spinning rod works, too.”

That got the president thinking. “Explosives,” he nodded. “Wow.”

So I have never understood why journalists don’t get more excited about hanging out with dignitaries. It is what you make of it, and if a journalist is bored, well, it’s his own damned fault.

In 2000, David Foster Wallace chronicled life in the John McCain entourage, in “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and the Shrub,” the Twelve Monkeys being the starch-shirted reporters for newspapers of record who, at least as Wallace saw it, traveled with jumbo-sized cobs up their asses.

The only starch that the reporters seated around me on this bus have ever encountered, however, is in a potato, and it didn’t take me long to conclude that the ministry coffee-fetchers held more potential for fun.

So I ask one of the ministerians, an attractive 20-something in a pair of governmental pumps, what drew her to the job. She didn’t miss a beat: “I wanted to help my country.”

“Hey,” I hold up my hands in surrender, “you’ve already got the job. You can tell the truth.”

Estonians aren’t good bullshitters, and if you give them the chance they’ll often tell you the unvarnished truth. She thinks a minute and replies, “Well, I get a front row seat to what everybody else has to read in the newspaper.” Then another pause. “And it’s kind of cool to be around power.”

I gesture toward the starch-free journalist who by now was now paying rapt attention to our conversation. “He agrees with you,” I tell her. “He just refuses to admit it.”

The rest of the discussion doesn’t take much imagination. The journalist calls me a sellout whore for not taking my job seriously enough. I call him a sellout whore for writing down whatever officials spout instead of piping up with intelligent questions. He argues that if journalists caused too much trouble nobody’d be invited. I argue that missing Reflector Day at Paide High School isn’t a major sacrifice. It quickly degenerates into one of those did-not-did-so discussions, which can end only by insulting each other’s mother.

But before a fistfight can start the light changes, and the driver jumps on the accelerator as if kicking at a cockroach and we pull a few Gs racing after the motorcade. By this time there are too many civilians between us and our destination, and the silver bus has no blue light. The young ministerian reports that we’ll probably miss the national anthem but that we’ll surely catch the second half of the speeches.

“And the other half we can read on Facebook!” I exclaim with enough visible joy to irk the journalist. But inside I’m really a bit depressed. Because I can imagine how everyone might have enjoyed it if we were there for the national anthem, me there in the back with the bus people, the only guy in the crowd bravely singing along.


The Collected Vello here.