Baba Wawa & Fidel: a love story?

Okay, so she’s not a full-fledged, 100%, dyed-in-the-wool stooge. As we noted in a posting in December 2016, Barbara Walters was one of perhaps two of the upscale Manhattan guests at Leonard Bernstein’s 1970 Black Panthers fundraiser – the one that Tom Wolfe made famous in Radical Chic – who didn’t drool all over the thugs in a repulsive display of limousine liberalism and nostalgie de la boue. While glamorous folks like high-society bandleader Peter Duchin and New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers oohed and aahed over the Panthers’ plans for an armed revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, Walters actually asked a sensible question: “I’m talking as a white woman who has a white husband, who is a capitalist, or an agent of capitalists, and I am, too, and I want to know if you are to have your freedom, does that mean we have to go?” No, she didn’t give them a dressing-down and then storm out of the party, but at least she stood apart from fellow guests who looked at the gun-toting gangsters and, somehow, saw angels about to usher in a golden utopia.

Similarly, when she interviewed Fidel Castro in 1977, she at least – to her credit – said on the record that she disagreed with him on “the meaning of freedom.” But that statement came at the end of a nauseating puff piece in which Walters did a marvelous job of presenting the murderous dictator as a world-class charmer. She interviewed him again in 2002. And over the years she spoke frequently about her encounters with the Caribbean tyrant, her main point invariably being that he was, as she told Harpers Bazaar in 2014, “very charismatic – very charming and funny.” (Following his death, she said the same thing:“The word ‘charismatic’ was made for him.) Once her 1977 interview with Fidel was in the can, she recalled, “Castro took us into his kitchen and made us grilled cheese sandwiches.” Walters laughed. “That’s an experience you don’t have anymore.” Adorable! During the same Cuba trip, Walters and Castro “dined outdoors on roast pig and Algerian wine at Castro’s mountain retreat.” It’s good to be the dictator. That night, at least two people in Cuba ate well.

As the Harpers Bazaar writer observed, “One thing that seemed clear to everyone was the chemistry between Walters and Castro.” Walters herself said: “People did tease me after that, asking if this was a romance.” When he dropped her at the Havana airport, “I reached up to kiss him on both cheeks, and he all but pushed me away. It was a friendly European goodbye, but I was in Cuba, not France.” We checked with a couple of friends who’ve been interviewed by major newspapers and TV networks. They say that the reporters who interviewed them didn’t lean in for a smooch at the end of the interchange – not once! Interesting that Castro seemed to understand, as Walters didn’t, that, under such circumstances, osculation (European or not) was unprofessional.

“Cuba is a very different country because of Fidel Castro,” Walters told Harpers Bazaar, “and I don’t know what he is proudest of or what he wishes he could have accomplished.” Proudest of? Accomplished? What planet has this woman been living on for the past half century? Even to think along such lines is to buy into this despot’s propaganda. Looking back on her meetings with Fidel, we’d have loved to see her lean over with a smile, put a hand on his knee, and coo confidentially: “What’s your favorite prison?” or “Whose execution made you happiest?” We certainly wouldn’t expect this fatuous talking head – this purported feminist media pioneer who long ago gave up any pretense of being a real journalist and has spent the last few decades lobbing softballs at airheaded celebrities and chatting about the latest gossip on morning TV – to actually interrogate somebody like Fidel, confronting him boldly about his monstrous crimes, his outrageous hypocrisy, and his blatant propaganda. Instead, Walters parroted his propaganda, echoing the oft-repeated claim that he’d given his people first-rate health care and education. Lies, lies, lies. And although she did, yes, admit that he was an autocrat who’d robbed his people of their freedom, nobody has given Fidel and his regime better press in the U.S. than this silly, overrated woman.

Bernstein’s noble savages

Jean-Jacques_Rousseau
Jean-Jacques Rosseau

The belief that primitive peoples are naturally endowed with goodness and purity, and that civilization poisons these attributes, is as old as civilization itself. The idea is embodied in the term “noble savage,” which first appeared in a 1672 play by John Dryden. The Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), whose views helped shape modern Western thought, routinely sang the praises of primeval man, untainted by what he saw as the decadence of civilization. During the Romantic Era of the late 1700s and early 1800s, authors, poets, and painters all over Europe depicted in an idealized way the lives of unlettered, uneducated men whom they saw not only as living in nature but as parts of nature themselves, as pure as the country air they breathed or the unpolluted streams from which they drank.

kirkpatrick-sale
Kirkpatrick Sale

Back then, many a European aristocrat embraced romantic images of the native peoples of the Americas, Asia, and Africa; more recently, authors like Kirkpatrick Sale, in books like Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (1990), have proffered the puerile fantasy that before European voyagers found their way to what they arrogantly called the New World, the natives led lives of peace and harmony, enjoying a rare bliss that the newcomers replaced with cruelty and destruction.

wolfe3
Tom Wolfe

Plainly, this is a mentality that was much in evidence at the Leonard Bernstein party immortalized by Tom Wolfe in his essay “Radical Chic.” For Bernstein and many of the moneyed celebrity friends whom he invited to his home on the evening of January 14, 1970, the Black Panthers who were the party’s special guests were just that – noble savages. It was an offensive attitude, a racist attitude, a patronizing attitude – an attitude, in fact, that enabled them to belittle the very real danger that the Panthers obviously represented. In his essay, Wolfe quotes a “Park Avenue matron” who, at one of the pre-Bernstein “Radical Chic” parties, exclaimed about the Panthers: “These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big—these are real men!”

bernstein1
Felicia Montealegre, Richard Bernstein, and Black Panther Field Marshal Donald Cox

In other words, they weren’t drab, dull, law-abiding middle-class blacks – they were real-life noble savages, embracing their nobility and their savagery! Such views on the part of Bernstein’s movers and shakers, needless to say, represent prejudice at its ugliest – prejudice dressed up as sensitivity and tolerance.

Among the Black Panthers who attended the Bernsteins’ fête that night were Robert Bay, who only a couple of days earlier had been arrested in Queens on a gun charge; Don Cox, the group’s Oakland-based “Field Marshall,” Henry Miller, its “defense captain,” and Ray “Masai” Hewitt, its Minister of Education and a member of its Central Committee.

Also present was lawyer Leon Quat, who at the moment was busy defending no fewer than twenty-one Black Panthers who, as Wolfe noted, “had been arrested on a charge of conspiring to blow up five New York department stores, New Haven Railroad facilities, a police station and the Bronx Botanical Gardens.”

stanton
Frank Stanton

Mingling with these criminals in the Bernsteins’ thirteen-room Park Avenue duplex were such nabobs as high-society bandleader Peter Duchin, CBS president Frank Stanton, popular songwriters Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) and Burton Lane (Finian’s Rainbow), New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, and the wives of such eminences as chic photographer Richard Avedon, film director Arthur Penn, and singer Harry Belafonte. Wolfe quoted Cheray Duchin, spouse of the bandleader, as telling society columnist Charlotte Curtis, who would break the story of the party in the next day’s New York Times: “I’ve never met a Panther—this is a first for me!”

More tomorrow.