No Free Lunch A Black-cat News Story Was Tossed At Whittlesey

Posted: October 10, 1986

Though the rest of the nation remains insouciant to its every lurid detail, in these august purlieus a ghostly controversy now whirls in Washington about the name of Faith Ryan Whittlesey; and as is so frequently true its perpetrators have got it all wrong. Nonetheless, they have performed a public service. I now realize that last spring Whittlesey took me to the cleaners.

Whittlesey, our ambassador to Switzerland, has fallen victim to recent black-cat news stories. A black-cat news story is a Washington specialty, a news story - usually inaccurate - that is flung across the path of a public figure to scare hell out of him and to haunt forever his career, making him ''controversial" at least and badly shaken.

Thus the black-cat news story is not strictly speaking a piece of news. It is not written to inform readers but to manipulate them into useful indignation.

The black-cat news stories that have suddenly blighted the path of Ambassador Whittlesey were confected by a bevy of State Department fuddyduddies. In their smallness they envy her ability to run a proper embassy. What is more, they disapprove of her pro-administration positions on Central America and the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Most foreign service officers are of modest means. When one is made an ambassador it is rare that he or she has the resources or contacts to put together a proper "representational" or promotional fund. Politically appointed ambassadors such as Whittlesey can, and so in keeping with the pettiness of our era many at the State Department want to prohibit such funds.

To further this noble purpose, they hornswoggled an artless Washington Post reporter into creating the aforementioned black-cat news stories abounding with spectacles of Whittlesey's intrigue and extravagance. Extravagance, my hoof.

As the redoubtable Post has reported, I was one of the reputed beneficiaries of the ambassador's largesse. But the poor reporter did not know the half of it. I now do, and according to my calculations Ambassador Whittlesey owes me an apology plus a check for $155.18.

Before reading the Post, I did not know that she had raised a representational fund of "at least" $83,000. Moreover, I thought I was rather special when she asked me to visit her in Switzerland "the next time you are in Europe." She had purchased 50 copies of my latest book, so I thought she admired my art. Now the Post reports that I was but one of dozens of individuals - for instance businessmen and pols - whom she lured to Switzerland, and she got me in the off season!

Once I was there she admitted that she had bought my book "to explain the 1984 election to the Swiss." With $83,000 she could have bought a lot more books. There have to be more than 50 Swiss in need of them.

Truth be known, the two days I spent with Ambassador Whittlesey were arduous beyond the limits of the tolerable. When I travel in Europe life begins at 8 p.m. Mornings are spent en dormi, and I speak only for my usual fee. Ambassador Whittlesey had me up at dawn's first light. She ruined two dinners by demanding that I speak, once to a polyglot crowd in a place called St. Gallen and once in Zurich at the elegant Dolder Hotel, where I was confronted by the Swiss press.

On one unhappy morn, she forced me to hike for four hours up and down the inclines of scenic Appenzell with its governor as they talked of trade and dairy products. (I was photographed with a cow - my camera!) There is nothing I willingly do for four hours straight, save sleep.

After all this she insisted that I owed her $155.18 for telephone charges. She had cozened me into giving free lectures in a mountainous country, mostly at my expense, and she would not even pick up the bill when I called my office for sympathy. I hope she treated her other guests more considerately.

If news stories are to be believed, Attorney General Edwin Meese 3d and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle got to see the inside of our embassy. She kept me on the road for two days.

I suppose Whittlesey's fund sounded very sensational to our innocent reporter, but it had been examined and approved by the State Department as were all contributions to it. That is the custom with such funds.

The whole controversy puts me in mind of those lurid 1981 news stories of how Nancy Reagan talked patriots into buying new White House china. Again, no illegality was ever committed. The State Department fuddyduddies used a simple reporter much as Ambassador Whittlesey used me, admittedly in the national interest.

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