Nixon in China, Max Frankel, and Me February 13, 2001
by Alice Slater
This Saturday I met my friend Nellie at the Ziegfield Theater on 54th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues, converted to a film house after its glory days as a Broadway Theater. We went to see Nixon in China which was being performed that day at the Metropolitan Opera and broadcast live in High Definition TV larger than life piped in to a huge silver screen with a surround sound aural system that beat the $150 orchestra seat ticket at the Met. You could see the sweat on the brow of the conductor during the overture, and just about make out the tonsils of the soprano ululating during the four separate heart-piercing high D’s as Chairman Mao’s violent wife. Madame Mao, Jiang Qing, was leader of the infamous Gang of Four that took most of the blame for the devastating Cultural Revolution that shattered so many in China during their time of terror and troubles.
John Adams the composer, as well as the conductor, has a Philip Glassian minimalist style so there’s not much to sing about in this dissonant opera. But it was great fun seeing Nixon and Mao carrying on in their groundbreaking meeting, with Pat, in her bright red dress and coat and Henry Kissinger going along for the ride with Chou En Lai. Max Frankel, the former Executive Editor of the New York Times, “reviewed” the opera today in the Sunday Times and as one who was present at those historical meetings, he was singularly unimpressed with the accuracy of the libretto. But then we had the Director of the Met talking to us on the big screen during the intermission and interviewing the singers, director, choreographer, librettist, noting what a breakthrough Nixon’s visit was to China after years of unrelenting hostilities between the two countries, ironically due to this very same Nixon’s antagonistic and provocative policies towards China. Even more tellingly, the Met Director was euphorically exclaiming to us on the historical significance of the Met’s lending its imprimatur to Nixon in China, by staging it for the first time since its debut in 1987, which just coincidentally happened to be the very day that the autocratic Pharaoh of Egypt resigned on a wave of unprecedented peaceful grassroots democracy that returned to Tahiri Square with their own mops and brooms today to clean up the mess of the last two week’s demonstrations. The live audience at the Met and our canned audience at the Ziegfield cheered wildly--acknowledging our joy at what had been accomplished in Egypt.
I had my own personal run-in with Max Frankel in 1998. India and Pakistan had just detonated their first overt nuclear tests (India had quietly tested once before in 1974 but when Clinton negotiated the Comprehensive Test Ban in 1996 and wouldn’t cut off laboratory testing and sub-critical underground tests, India broke out with a series of nuclear explosions so it wouldn’t be left behind in the technology race, swiftly followed by Pakistan). Frankel wrote a stunning mea culpa column in response, noting that the US had blown it, we had every opportunity to stop this proliferation, but we said, “I’m alright Jack. I’ve got mine” and we blew it. We did nothing to anticipate and prevent the breakout of other nuclear wannabes responding to our fierce attachment to our nuclear arsenals, unleashing potential catastrophe upon the world.
I wrote Max Frankel a long letter, thanking him for his observations and reassuring him that it wasn’t too late, we had lots of good creative initiatives to ban the bomb, we had generals, scientists, policy analysts ready to report on the enormous possibilities for ending the nuclear scourge and moving to a nuclear weapons free world, whose voices, if amplified by the New York Times would make an enormous difference in the world. He responded:
Dear Ms. Slater,
Thank you for your note, but I am a journalist, not an advocate.
Several months later, Nelson Mandela announced that he would be retiring from the presidency of South Africa. We organized a world-wide letter writing campaign, urging him to call for the abolition of nuclear weapons at his farewell address to the United Nations. The gambit worked. At the UN, Nelson Mandela called for the elimination of nuclear weapons, saying, "these terrible and terrifying weapons of mass destruction --why do they need them anyway?" The London Guardian had a picture of Mandela on its front page, with the headline, “Nelson Mandela Calls for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.” The New York Times had a story buried on page 46, announcing Mandela’s retirement from the Presidency of South Africa and speculating on who might succeed him, reporting that he gave his last speech as President to the UN, while omitting to mention the content of his speech.
I sent a copy of the front page of the Guardian to Max Frankel, writing:
Dear Mr. Frankel,
Grassroots activists from all over the world worked on a campaign to urge Nelson Mandela to call for the elimination of nuclear weapons and it was reported on the front page of the London Guardian, but I guess the New York Times didn’t think this news was fit to print!
Sincerely, Alice Slater
Three days later, I had to report to jury duty. I had been postponing my summons for over a year and this was it. No further extensions! If I didn’t serve now, they would send me to jail! I went down to the NY State Courthouse on Center Street, near City Hall and the Municipal Building. I reported to the jury room and waited in the large, smoky room where people twiddled their thumbs, knitted, read, looked at newspapers, before the days of cell phones and lap tops. One by one the citizens were called by name to report to various jury panels for voir dire, where jurors are questioned about their biases and knowledge to judge their suitability for service at a particular trial. After about two hours, they called out, “Max Frankel!” I looked up and saw this medium height, compactly built, slightly graying person walk out to the jury room down the hall. Two names later they called, “Alice Slater” and I was sent to the same jury room as Frankel. About twenty of us were standing in the marbled hallway, before locked oaken double doors, guarding the entrance to the jury room.
I went up to Frankel.
“Max Frankel?” I said.
“Yes”, he replied.
“I’m Alice Slater”.
He looked somewhat taken aback but reached out to shake my hand as the doors opened and we all filed into the jury room sitting on rows of benches to be called for the voir dire. I sat amidst a group of jurors on the bench behind his. Up on the wall was a bomb shelter sign, left over from the fifties with a fading yellow background supporting the black trefoil, a symbol of radiation. He turned around to look at me, smiling and pointing his finger towards the nuclear shelter sign on the wall. “A lot of good that will do you!” I said.
Neither of us were chosen on that jury. The next day I returned to the waiting room and there he sat, reading his New York Times and clipping out columns. And there I sat, reading my New York Times and tearing out articles for future reference. At lunch time, neither of us had been summoned and we were dismissed for lunch. I went up to him and asked him if he’d like to join me for lunch. He said he would welcome it so we strolled over to Chinatown and had a delightful meal, trading life stories and war stories. His autobiography was scheduled to be published the following month in which he describes his family’s fortuitous escape to New York from Germany, just before Hitler really got going, and his extraordinary rise to the pinnacle of the American Dream as the leading journalist at America’s most prestigious paper. He gave me his card and urged me to send him anything I thought he should see.
A few months after that he retired from the Times. We still can’t get the straight story published in that “paper of record”. I’m sure if people knew all the facts about the bomb and what’s keeping it in place, it would have been gone long ago. In that sense, we aren’t much different from the Egyptians who were kept in line for 30 years by a state controlled media and could only break out through the use of the internet. The Times is hopelessly establishment and is so immersed in the status quo, that it can’t even imagine another side to the story, or the role America plays in maintaining the nuclear terror.