Monday, April 30, 2012

Laird's Papal Faux Pas: Was it Black or White Smoke

Robert M. Gates tells of his most embarrassing moment when he traveled with Nixon and Kissinger and their retinue, including the Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, to Italy to meet with Pope Paul VI.  

 Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and 
General Creighton Abrams Lighting Cigars
An-Hoi Village, South Vietnam (1970)

Melvin Laird was a cigar aficionado, and it was his liking for cigars and his carelessness that caused this diplomatic faux pas.  I will let Gates's speech* do the talking:
Kissinger and Nixon decided that Laird shouldn't be invited to the meeting with the Pope, as a sort of Minister of War. 
And so, Nixon was in the next morning having his private audience with the Pope, and the rest of us were waiting outside. And who should come striding down the hall smoking an enormous cigar but Laird. He had clearly found out about the meeting, probably through good military intelligence.
And Kissinger was kind of beside himself, but he finally said, "Well, Mel, at least extinguish the cigar." So Laird stubbed out his cigar and put it in his pocket.
The American party a few minutes later went in to their general meeting with the Pope. The Pope was seated at a little table in front, Americans in two rows of high-backed chairs. Bacl row, Kissinger on the end; Laird next to him. A couple of minutes into the Pope's remarks, Kissinger heard this little patting sound, and he looked over, and there was a wisp of smoke coming out of Laird's pocket. The Secretary of State thought nothing of it. A couple of other minutes went by and the secretary heard this patting sound, slapping going on, and he looked over and smoke was billowing out of Laird's pocket. The Secretary of Defense was on fire.

The American party heard this slapping, and thought they were being queued to applaud. And so they did.

And Henry later told us, "God only knows what his Holiness thought, seeing the American secretary of defense immolating himself, and the entire American party applauding that fact."
Nixon with Melvin Laird

*Understanding the New US Defense Policy Through the Speeches of Robert M. Gates (Rockville, Md: Manor, 2008), 128.

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