How Fidel seduced (literally) ABC News

The lovebirds

On Tuesday, we examined the 1963-64 meeting, mutual seduction, and unconsummated hotel-room encounter between ABC News reporter Lisa Howard and Fidel Castro. It was, as they say, hot stuff. Today, our focus will be on what Howard did back home in the U.S.: publicly, on ABC News, she did her best to improve Castro’s image in America; secretly, as Politico reported recently, she served as a channel between Castro and JFK, and then between Castro and LBJ, urging both U.S. presidents to sit down with Castro and soften their line on his dictatorship.

Adlai Stevenson

When a ten-page letter to JFK got no response, she turned it into an article urging negotiations. She huddle with Adlai Stevenson and one of his U.N. flunkies in an effort to win Kennedy’s approval for a meeting between the flunky and Cuba’s U.N. guy. That ended up happening – at Howard’s own residence, which “became the hub for secret communications between the U.S. and Cuba.”

When she finally managing to put together a phone call between a high-level American official and a Castro sidekick in Havana, she confided to her diary: “At last! At last! That first halting step. Contact has been established!…A long, frustrating, tension-filled, but exciting experience lies ahead.” More than once in Politico‘s article on the Castro-Howard connection, one gets the distinct impression that serving as a diplomatic go-between was positively aphrodisiacal for the ABC talking head.

A clip from one of Howard’s ABC News specials about Castro, showing how much his people supposedly worshiped him

She later did a TV special from Cuba – which, from Politico‘s description, sounds exactly like every mainstream TV report about the island prison that has been aired in the decades since: “Howard and her crew traipsed around Cuba with the energetic Castro, filming him playing baseball, visiting a cattle farm and interacting with peasants. As much as Howard believed Castro was a dictator, the overwhelming public adoration he generated impressed her. ‘They mob him, they scream ‘Fidel, Fidel,’ children kiss him, mothers touch him,’ she wrote. ‘They are awed, thrilled … ecstatic, but mostly passionate. There is no doubt in my mind that the emotion Fidel inspires in all women is sheer undiluted sexual desire. He is the most physical animal man I have ever known.’”

Lyndon B. Johnson

This time when they went to bed, they went all the way. She later described it as “thrilling and ecstatic—as much as anything I have ever experienced.” Even so, she recognized that “so much of what he was doing was truly evil.”

What’s a poor girl to do? Well, in this case, she kept pushing the White House to talk to Castro. Nothing came of it. (The LBJ aide she lobbied was no dummy: he concluded that it was “likely” she was getting it on with the cigar-chomping Comandante.)

But again Adlai pitched in, and Howard was sent as a secret emissary to Cuba, where “Castro arranged for Howard to stay in one of the confiscated mansions that now served as a protocol house. The house came with a Cadillac and chauffeur, a butler and cook, air-conditioned bedrooms and a sunken bathtub.”

Castro and Che

Next thing she knew, however, Howard was discarded as a U.S.-Cuba bridge. Frustrated, she “seized on the visit of Che Guevara” to the UN to restore her bona fides: she “shepherded Guevara around town—together they attended a premiere of a new documentary film commemorating the life of Kennedy—and organized a soiree for him at her New York apartment.” She offered to arrange a meeting between Che and some LBJ honcho, but her days as a power broker were over. So was her TV career: largely because of her positive portrayal of Castro, ABC fired her. On July 4, 1965, age 39, she died of a drug overdose, having loved a brutal tyrant not wisely but too well.

Castro’s American amante

It’s a story that is only now being told, in Politico, “thanks to declassified official documents and, most important, Howard’s own unpublished diaries and letters.”

Lisa Howard with the Great One

Lisa Howard, an ABC News reporter, first met Fidel Castro at a Havana nightclub in 1963. They talked for hours. Their conversation was wide-ranging. She came away “impressed by Castro’s breadth of knowledge” and later wrote in a letter: “Never, never have I found a Communist interested in the sentiments of Albert Camus.”

Months later, they met again, this time in a Havana hotel room. Again, they talked for hours. She took El Comandante to task for his regime’s social repression.

“To make an honorable revolution,” she told him, “you must give up the notion of wanting to be prime minister for as long as you live.” “Lisa,” Castro asked, “you really think I run a police state?” “Yes,” she answered. “I do.”

Albert Camus

And then it happened: after the flunky who’d accompanied him was swept out of the room, Castro “slipped his arms around the American journalist, and the two lay on the bed, where, as Howard recalled in her diary, Castro ‘kissed and caressed me … expertly with restrained passion.’” They didn’t go all the way, not because she refused but because Castro chose not to: “You have done much for us, you have written a lot, spoken a lot about us. But if we go to bed then it will be complicated and our relationship will be destroyed.”

The next morning “a huge bouquet of flowers” was delivered to her room. She sent a four-page thank-you letter. “I wanted to give you something to express my gratitude for the time you granted me; for the interview; for the beautiful flowers,” it began. “I have decided to give you the most valuable possession I have to offer. Namely: my faith in your honor. My faith in the form of a letter, which, if revealed, could destroy me in the United States.”

George Bernard Shaw

In the letter, which she described as “a tribute, a poem to you—the man,” she told him: “I do not want you destroyed.…You possess what George Bernard Shaw called ‘that spark of divine fire.’” He was not a “ruthless, cynical tyrant,” she insisted. “I do not believe you have meant to hurt people, though, in all candor, I am both saddened and outraged that you have destroyed thousands and harmed many more without just cause.” She urged Castro to be true to his heart, as she perceived it:

What you have to offer the world that is meaningful and universally applicable is not some capricious brand of tropical Marxism (the world scarcely needs that), but your humanity; your compassion; your deep knowledge and sense of justice; your genuine concern for the poor; the sick; the oppressed; the defenseless; the lost; the despairing.…And your sacred duty, your solemn obligation to mankind is to make that quality ever stronger, to make it a reality for your people—all your people, every class and sector. Let flow in the most untrammeled way the goodness that is your substance and can be your salvation.

She closed the letter by addressing him as “my dearest Fidel.” She then returned to the U.S. And it’s what she did in the U.S. that really matters.

More on Thursday.

Holidays with Rahm

Lately we’ve been engaging in the pastime of cataloguing celebrities who travel to Cuba. Here’s another.

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Rahm Emanuel

Rahm Emanuel is the kind of political professional whom even his own friends don’t particularly care for. A longtime fixture of that grubbiest of all American political machines, the Cook County Democrats, he’s brash, rude, obnoxious. (Pick your synonym.) And yet, thanks to his native wiliness and (increasingly) his high-level connections, he’s moved from triumph to triumph.

Born in Chicago, Emanuel attended Northwestern, worked on the 1992 Clinton campaign and then in the Clinton White House, made over $16 million for four years’ work at an investment bank (despite having no background whatsoever in banking), and was a director of Freddie Mac during a major scandal. (According to ABC News, he and his fellow board members “misreported profits by billions of dollars in order to deceive investors,” thereby helping to precipitate the world financial crisis of 2008.) After spending six years in Congress (where he was head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), he was appointed Obama’s first chief of staff, then ran successfully in 2010 for mayor of the Windy City – a position he now holds.

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With Clinton

When Emanuel took over the reins of power in Chicago, the city was a nightmarish mess. He hasn’t helped. The toddlin’ town remains notorious around the country, in fact the world, for its high crime level – and, in particular, its gang killings. Its public education system is a scandal and an embarrassment. Its bond rating has sunk to near-junk bond level. Most recently, Emanuel has faced mounting criticism for his incompetent handling of the judicial aftermath of a police shooting that took place in October of last year. Incompetence, indeed, seems to have become a hallmark of his tenure. 

But he doesn’t seem fazed by any of it. After five years of spectacular failure in the job of mayor, he clearly hasn’t learned humility. On the contrary, one gets the distinct impression that he’s already working on his next step up the career ladder. A Senate seat? Perhaps even the presidency? “What you see in Rahm Emanuel is what you get, and what you get is raw ambition,” wrote Chicago author Joseph Epstein earlier this year in an acid profile of the mayor. Some public servants actually do think of themselves as servants of the public. Not Emanuel. This guy, observed Epstein, “is in business for himself.” Another pol in his current position might at least try to tamp down the insolence, lose the swagger; alas, the worse things get for Emanuel, the more often he seems to dial his legendary arrogance up to a 10. 

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A word in Obama’s ear

Case in point: at a breakfast event in early December, Mike Allen of Politico spent almost an hour interviewing Emanuel in front of an audience. Then Allen happened to mention something that Emanuel had told him backstage: this year, the mayor and his family were planning to spend the holidays in Cuba. Why Cuba? Allen asked.

It seemed a relatively innocuous question. But instead of immediately answering it, Emanuel launched into Allen, expressing his irritation at the reporter’s disclosure. “Well, first of all, thanks for telling everybody what I’m going to do with my family,” Emanuel said. “You had a private conversation with me and now you decide to make that public. I really don’t appreciate that, for one, I really don’t.”

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Emanuel and family

“I’m sorry,” Allen replied. “I didn’t know that wasn’t known.”

After upbraiding Allen a bit more, Emanuel got around to responding to Allen’s query. He wants, he said, to expose his kids “to other cultures, other parts of the world, and one of the things that we want is for our children to know that the world has people of different faiths, different backgrounds, with different ways of living and coping with similar situations.” He noted that he and his wife, Amy Rule, had previously taken their children to Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Vietnam, and Laos.

Aha! This list of Emanuel family vacation spots explained everything. Obviously, Emanuel likes to take his children to places that are even more horribly governed than the city of Chicago – places with even higher crime rates, lousier schools, crummier economies, more broken-down infrastructure, and more outrageous levels of government corruption, graft, malfeasance, and all-around venality. Get it? This way they’ll actually return home thinking that their father’s done a terrific job in Chicago. Kind of touching, isn’t it?

Lining their pockets with rubles

We’ve been looking at a few people in the West who like Vladimir Putin for free. Now we’re going to examine a few who do it for money.

Hang in there, because this gets complicated. You see, there are so many Washington PR outfits that are willing to take dirty money that it can be hard to keep track of them all.

It was not ever thus. As Luke O’Brien noted in a January/February 2015 article in Politico, there was once just one person in all of D.C. – an eccentric character who went by the apparently invented name of Baron Edward J. von Kloberg III – who was shameless enough to lobby for the likes of Saddam Hussein, Nicolae Ceausescu, and Mobutu Sese Seko.

That was back in the 1980s and 90s. Today, however, “Washington lobbying has turned into a multibillion-dollar enterprise in which much of the stigma attached to shilling for the unsavory has dwindled or been anonymized by big firms of lawyers and spin doctors….The thinking goes something like this: It’s just business.”

Yeah, just business. Just like in The Godfather.

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Ray Kotcher, Senior Partner and Chairman of Ketchum, and Rob Flaherty, President and CEO of Ketchum

At the center of this bucket of slime is a PR firm called Ketchum, whose CEO is Rob Flaherty and whose Chairman is Ray Kotcher. In March of last year, NBC News reported that according to Justice Department records, “the Putin government exerts most of its behind-the-scenes influence in the U.S.” through Ketchum, which during a six-month period pocketed over $1.5 million in Kremlin cash. (And that’s not all: until last year, Ketchum was raking in additional millions to flack for Russia’s state-run Gazprom Export, which ships natural gas abroad.) All in all, Ketchum has reportedly “earned more than $60 million from the Kremlin over the past nine years.”

What does Ketchum do for Russia? For one thing, it maintains the regime’s English-language Twitter account and propaganda website. At the G-8 summit in 2006, Ketchum arranged interviews with the goal of whitewashing Putin. In September 2013, Ketchum even managed to place a Putin-signed op-ed in the New York Times (an accomplishment that reflects even more poorly on the editors of the Times than on the creeps at Ketchum).

But pushing Putin on the American public hasn’t been an easy assignment for the long-suffering whores at Ketchum. When their client made war on Georgia, there was trouble in River City. No, the Ketchum folks didn’t experience a crisis of conscience about taking money from a warmongering tyrant. They wanted to do this dirty work. They just realized that the task was a very tough one, under the circumstances, and that their skills, honed on hawking FedEx and Delta Airlines, just weren’t up to the job. Still, the Ketchum crowd did their best, lamely peddling the frankly hard-to-sell line that it was the mean old Georgians who started the war.

Kremlin

According to O’Brien, the deal between Ketchum and the Kremlin resulted in something of a “culture clash.” You see, “Russian officials couldn’t understand why publicists weren’t simply able to buy journalists. Or manipulate them.” Ed Verona, former head of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, explained to O’Brien that in Russia such matters often involve “passing an envelope to somebody.” Well, an envelope full of cash may not buy some American journalists, but we know one thing: it’ll buy Ketchum.

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Susan Molinari

To be sure, Ketchum isn’t alone in boosting Putin. And here’s where the picture gets a little busy. At one juncture, some of Ketchum’s work for Russia was being passed on to a fellow subsidiary of Ketchum’s parent company, Omnicom, called The Washington Group, which at the time was headed by former New York Congresswoman Susan Molinari.

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Robert C. Jones

Later, when The Washington Group proved to be insufficiently capable of polishing Putin’s turds, Ketchum took on Alston & Bird, Bob Dole’s law firm, which gets $15,000 a month from the Kremlin coffers. Russia’s point man at A&B is Robert C. Jones, former counsel to the Senate Appropriations Committee and to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).

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William R. Nordwind

For a while, Ketchum retained another Omnicom subsidiary, Clark & Weinstock, to lobby for Gazprom. Here’s more: Venable, a “law and lobbying firm” in D.C., collects $28,000 a month from Ketchum to work on the Gazprom Export account, which is handled by William R. Nordwind, a former aide to Congressman Fred Upton (R-MI). Maslansky & Partners, co-founded by famous pollster Frank Luntz, collected a six-figure sum in 2013 to help develop Putin PR. Another firm that’s profited from the Putin-promoting game is Hill and Knowlton. And the Gavin Anderson firm made $100,000 a month in 2007 alone to do PR for Gazprom.

Then there’s GPlus, a Brussels-based Ketchum subsidiary that’s counted Microsoft and Visa among its clients. In 2006 the Kremlin hired GPlus (Gazprom hired it separately the next year) to promote Russia in Western Europe. Estimated take: “€3 million to €5 million a year in total in fees alone, excluding expenses.” GPlus, in turn, hired a number of “former EU officials and eminent journalists” to help promote Putin. Among them: sometime EU hacks Gregor Kreuzhuber and Peter Witt and ex-BBC journalist Angus Roxburgh (who blames Putin’s brutality on George W. Bush and has warned the West not to “alienat[e]” Russians by being nasty to their dictator),

Alas, GPlus fell into some difficulties: during the Ukrainian-Russian “gas war,” the EU yanked its lobbying rights “for failing to disclose the identity of three clients.” The life of a prostitute isn’t always easy.