Essay: Honorable leaders wanted

Past leaders could be wise, foolish, controversial, and not need to seek the refuge of cosmetic facades.

yehuda avner 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
yehuda avner 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is trouble in the paradise of the powerful. There is confusion among the men who sit in the seats of the high and mighty. We, the people, question their vision, their intellect, their humility and their integrity. So they put on masks, reinvent themselves, resort to Iago-like machinations and pretend to be other than who they are. It was not so a generation ago. A generation ago, spin doctors were given short shrift, public relations wizards were debarred. Leaders could be wise or foolish, dull or braggadocio, bold or controversial, but few sought refuge behind cosmetic fa ades. Most were too authentic for that. Such a one was prime minister Levi Eshkol (1963-1969). I was his English speechwriter, and to this day I wince at the memory of the time when I tried to put words into his mouth that were not his own. When he summoned me to his office for the first time, its magisterial authority so overwhelmed me that my throat clamped up and I stood there frozen, arms rigid, speechless. He beckoned me to take a seat, which I did, with the ramrod posture of a new recruit, and he then told me he was planning a trip to London to confer with British prime minister Harold Wilson. "Draft me a speech for a dinner of the Joint Israel Appeal [now the United Jewish Israel Appeal]," he said. "It's a black-tie affair. Every macher in Anglo-Jewry will be there." Panic-stricken at this sudden responsibility, I croaked, "But what do you want to say?" "I'll talk about our refugee immigrants and their human needs. But for God's sake, I don't want to talk about Israel being a light unto the nations. Let's be a light unto ourselves first." Came the day and Mr. Eshkol flew off to London's Heathrow Airport, where reporters barked a few predictable questions which the prime minister answered good-naturedly and unsubstantially. Whereupon he clambered into a glistening Rolls-Royce that was adorned with the Israeli flag, and set off along the highway to London, followed by a fleet of limousines bearing his entourage and escorted by blue-flashing police cars and outriders in cavalry formation. Entering the West End, he was driven along prestigious streets, around elegant squares and through beautiful parks to the Grosvenor House Hotel. IT WAS there, as the evening drew nigh, that the prime minister called me to his suite to rehearse his speech for the Joint Israel Appeal dinner, soon to begin in the banqueting hall downstairs. He was seeing much of it for the first time now. I had, in its preparation, torn up a dozen or more drafts, leaving tooth marks on my pen as I wrote and rewrote page after page, scribbling deranged doodles while mentally struggling for concise, rhythmic and alliterative descriptions in my amateur effort to give the prime minister a defining oratory. "Stam narishkeiten [mere nonsense]," growled the prime minister as he struck out the first few paragraphs with his heavy fountain pen. "Can't you write plain English?" Reading out loud as he went, he continued scribbling numerous corrections while I, naively, tried to persuade him to liven up his delivery and put more pep into it. But he fobbed me off, admonishing, "At my age I'm not about to pretend to be what I'm not - a performer." His chef de bureau entered to say it was time to go downstairs, so Eshkol handed me the pages, saying: "Give me these when I go to the podium. I hope for your sake the rest of it makes sense." People rose and applauded elatedly as prime minister Eshkol entered the banqueting hall. So many black ties and extravagant dresses! So many excited and grinning faces! After a long and flowery introduction by the banquet chairman, and upon the cue of a crimson tail-coated master of ceremonies bearing a golden chain of office who cried out in a ho-hum, high-sonic stiletto, "My lords, ladies and gentlemen, pray silence for the address of the prime minister of Israel," I quickly handed over the speech and, gnawed with hang-wringing anxiety, listened to him read it in fits and starts, his tongue twisting around wily consonants and tricky vowels, his mouth contorting like a fish in his hapless bid to anglicize his Yiddish diction, and pausing frequently to double-check what he was saying because of his many corrections. Soon enough he came to the paragraphs he had not yet reviewed and which spoke of the heavy drain on Israel's national economy caused by the mass inflow of penniless refugee immigrants. Incredulity crept into the prime minister's eyes and his voice trailed off in disbelief. Leaning across the podium, his eyes boring into mine, he called out in Hebrew, "What's this supposed to mean?" I cringed in mortification as audible rustlings, murmurings, titters, nods and nudges spread from table to table. "What I just said is not true," declared Levi Eshkol to his baffled audience. "The very opposite is the case." And then, syntax be damned, he proceeded to elaborate how every new immigrant was not a burden but an indispensable asset to the future growth of Israel's economy. When he sat down he was greeted with a sprinkling of clapping that swelled incrementally into a feeble applause, which then proliferated into a general acclamation, and finally crescendoed into a sustained and resounding standing ovation. They loved him. They loved his earthy honesty, his unabashed authenticity, his refreshing spontaneity. The adoration done, the prime minister beckoned me over, and in a thin whisper, his nose almost touching mine, rasped, "Boychik, if you don't stop writing your fancy-shmancy nonsense and start writing what I want, in my own way, I'll find somebody else who will." "Yes, prime minister," I mumbled, eating a slice of humble pie I would digest for the rest of my life. And now here we are, years later, asking almost to a man where to find such a trusted breed of authentic, law-abiding helmsmen, people of humility, integrity and honor. There are such. Oh, would that they could be persuaded to serve. The writer, a veteran diplomat, served on the staff of five prime ministers, including Levi Eshkol.