The great Australian journalist, who died last September, recalls his first trip to the US as an honorary Asianby Robert Haupt / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
William Fulbright began the visiting programme that bears his name in 1946, by tacking it on to an aid bill before the US Congress. Part of the lore surrounding the upstart from Little Rock, Arkansas, says that he put his idea forward on the spur of the moment, not so much the Fulbright Amendment as the Fulbright afterthought.
Having changed the lives of thousands of people with his bright plan for study trips he changed mine, too, 27 years later, in 1974, when I became a kind of Fulbright afterthought squared. A hirsute thing in his 20s, I had been chosen as Australia’s representative on this trip because a vacancy had been created, late in the day, by someone in the US state department who had decided that Australia and New Zealand were part of Asia.
Already chosen were journalists from Thailand, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, and Laos. The Vietnam war was over for Australia, but it was still on for the US (and, of course, Vietnam)-something that had a lot to do with the absence of a representative from Cambodia, and the presence of one from Laos, a state Nixon still hoped to save from communism.
We gathered in Honolulu. Our party of five Asians and two Antipodeans (the New Zealander was even taller than I) resembled a kind of geopolitical freak show, a display of Asian Pacific journalism such as might have been mounted by ethnographers at the Smithsonian Institution. As a group we looked like a human tableau of the lower end of Manhattan, representing the skyline between Wall Street and the World Trade Centre. My being in my beard phase did nothing to diminish our impact on all who encountered us. To say that no one we met knew what to make of us does not quite capture it.
Five Asians were explicable, especially in Honolulu where in their neat business suits they would be taken as another delegation come to buy a golf resort. Two straggly Australiomorphs might, just, have been accommodated into an American frame of reference, probably bearing the label, “kinda weird.”
Together, we were a jolt to the quality Americans value above all others: urbanity. We jolted American urbanity in Honolulu, we jolted it in San Francisco, we lost money jolting it in Las Vegas and by the time we reached Chicago we had so accustomed ourselves to our extraordinariness that we did not flinch at a lecture from a midwest farmer’s wife on the virtues of hard work. One night we were driven half-way across the state of Illinois in order to jolt the urbanity of diners at a catfish restaurant, where by the refracted light of bourbon bottles we must have made an almost zoological impression. It was there that I was first congratulated on how well, as an Australian, I had learnt to speak English-confirming a view others have expressed, that Senator Fulbright’s afterthought has chiefly brought visitors from abroad to discover for themselves how little Americans know of the outside world.
From our side of the cage, America and Americans seemed to comprise an infinite series of variations on a monotonous theme: money, success, fame, urbanity. Cars of unbelievable size, with trunks capable of swallowing up our pitiful pile of baggage at a gulp, materialised to swim us around freeway whirlpools then ditch us up, bewildered, beneath porticos where pillboxed porters were waiting.
It was impossible to discover what my Asian colleagues made of their experiences, or even what experiences they were having. At one end of the spectrum of adventure, the man from Laos would retire early to his room and emerge late, evidently spending the hours in between composing letters, of which he seemed to have at least 20 on hand every time we passed a post office.
At the other end was the man from Thailand, who had a nose for detecting illegal night clubs that would have given him a job in any vice squad. These clubs he attended with his colleague from Malaysia, a young man already run to fat who had an inexhaustible supply of travellers’ cheques: you could tell it was inexhaustible because the Thai spent the whole trip trying, without success, to exhaust it.
At group interviews, it fell to New Zealand and me to open the batting, hold up the middle order and then play on till stumps, much as we tried to shirk the load. We filled this role out of politeness, the requirement to offer a syllable to fill a silence not being part of our colleagues’ code. Laos barely uttered a word for the whole trip, possibly out of writer’s block. The result was a series of conversations between Americans and Antipodeans before a gathering of Asians who looked with absolute imperturbability upon subject and interlocutor alike.
Every Fulbright trip involves a visit to Little Rock. That is the least the programme could do for the senator whose invention it was, and it must be a staple of the local motel trade. Mind you, the motel we stayed at in 1974 showed few symptoms of cosmopolitanism: their collection of Bordeaux reds was kept resolutely in the refrigerator.
After the buzz of San Francisco, Chicago and New York, I had expected to find Little Rock quiet, which it was until the last evening, a Saturday. That is when a burglary at the Democratic headquarters in a little known Washington building became non-trivial: I had entered the Watergate generation.
Until then, the Watergate affair had been a counterpoint to our travels-Sam Ervin’s hearings on Capitol Hill seemed to be on every television set and Spiro Agnew resigned as vice-president shortly after we arrived from Honolulu. The nightly replays of highlights from evidence were achieving enormous television ratings: it was a sort of OJ Nixon case. But it was hard to say how important it was.
Each of us had been farmed out to a different Little Rock family for dinner that Saturday night. Oh, how often the folks of Little Rock must have wished that their senator had never had his afterthought! What it did for the motel industry, it snatched from their larders. My dinner was with top-drawer society: a leading banker, an industrialist, a couple of politicians, an editor. I was struck immediately by two things: how freely these men discussed their political affiliations (the banker was Republican, the others Democrats, though it was hard to see what difference this meant in practice), and how freely they used the word “nigger,” which they pronounced nigrah. The role of their wives seemed to be to ask me polite questions to fill the silences between their husbands’ declarations.
The aphorism that English conversation is like tennis, American like golf, seemed well borne out, and I was looking for an exit when we were summoned downstairs to the games room. The games room was not a basement with a ping pong table in it, as I had imagined, but a plush over-furnished family room that was to my eye indistinguishable from the plush, over-furnished sitting room directly above it. Then you noticed the difference: a metallic grey television set obtruding from a broad wall of books.
After our host had thrown the switches to light the gas in the log-fire and found the television remote control in the upholstery, the snub nose glowed into life to show a hysterical crowd surrounding a police detachment that seemed to be ushering men out of a building. Some of the men were crying. This, it turned out from the urgent commentary, was the Saturday night massacre, the night the special prosecutor investigating Watergate was fired, his investigation wound up, and all files sealed. It was so graphic that 21 years later I do not have to look up the prosecutor’s name: it was Archibald Cox.
The sitting room upstairs had heard, in confident drawls, that Watergate was a concoction by the Washington Post to bring Nixon down out of spite for his having beaten McGovern in 1972. Nixon men all, they had said upstairs that the attempt was bound to fail. But they were not upstairs any more. Suddenly, the issue was not what the Washington Post was trying to do to the president, it was what the president was trying to do-heck, was doing, right in front of their eyes-to the constitution.
I could see these Nixon men becoming ex-Nixon men as they spoke. Forced to choose between being Nixon men and being constitution men, they became constitution men, to a man. That meant that their wives, who had been the wives of Nixon men, became the wives of constitution men, so I could count eight Nixon couples becoming eight anti-Nixon couples inside half an hour. When I returned to Australia the question was, “Is Nixon really in trouble?” “Deep trouble,” I replied.
What sealed his fate that night in the games room was the sealing of the files. Like the constitution, the files were pieces of paper. But they were pieces of paper protected by the constitution. They were not the president’s pieces of paper, to do with as he saw fit; they were pieces of paper that belonged, in a mystical way I could not quite grasp, to some entity outside presidency or special prosecutor, Justice Department or Congress-perhaps to the people, or to the founding fathers, or for all I knew, to God. And when the hysteria and weeping was over and the screen reverted to submarine grey sometime after midnight, it was this extra human element that seemed to matter most. A government of pieces of paper, not of men.
Senator Fulbright came to call on us the next morning at our motel. Fulbright was a straight-backed, no-nonsense, short-whipped-back-grey hair man with jug ears and glasses, who was right about Vietnam. Robert McNamara shared that appearance and was wrong about Vietnam, which shows that even in American politics, whipped-back hair and jug ears can take you only so far: a fact Ross Perot was later to confirm. Somehow, over coffee and grapefruit, William Fulbright managed to squeeze comments out of our Asian colleagues, leaving New Zealand and me to a supporting role at last. I only met him once, yet I am glad I did, and not just because of the improbable trip I made in his name. He was that rare bird in any country: a politician who achieved something. When I heard of his death, aged 89, these recollections came to the surface and I set them down at once.