Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Don't miss the PPS added at 6 p.m. -- Bill Clinton brings home freed journalists from North Korea; a reminder of other hostages, other times

Back to the real world from the world of sports, briefly.

Watching the dramatic images this morning as former president Bill Clinton brought the two American journalist back to their families in California. Laura Ling and Euna Lee had been sentenced to 12 years hard labor behind North Korea's rusted shut Iron Curtain. Thank God, this time diplomacy won.

I'm reminded of a journey three local people made in 1980 during the Iranian hostage crisis. The three people were Norman Forer, Charles Dillingham, and Muriel Paul. Forer led the group. Forer, a University of Kansas social work professor, had embarked on similar missions before but this mission was particularly difficult given he and the others had no official backing from the White House. Unlike the former president, they took on this mission simply as concerned citizens not knowing what charges might be leveled against them when they returned.

I was working on the story under tremendous deadline pressure. My sister was a student of Dr. Forer and she arranged an exclusive interview with three travelers who had just returned home. Hostages were still being held. No other Americans had yet visited. I was writing for City Magazine at the time, and covering a breaking story on a magazine deadline is a difficult. So difficult, that when I finished writing the story I dictated it to a typesetter in Denver, with my editor on the line editing in real time.

I learned one important journalistic lesson right way in the story. If you can help it, never interview more than one person at a time. This interview happened on a Thursday night. We met at Dr. Forer's home in Lawrence, Kans. If I remember correctly, I brought two yellow legal pads to take notes, and filled them both, including the cardboard backs. I remember slipping into the bathroom occasionally to splash water on my face to try to stay awake.

I went home with my notes, never quite sure who said what in the interview, and worked feverishly without sleep to put the story together. I was working against a Saturday night deadline. I slept about four hours when I finished writing and I got up full of hope and no small measure of ego. I would actually be able to file this story early, maybe even by noon Saturday if the editing went well.

Was I in for a rude awakening! The story I had written in a fever was limp as a child when her fever breaks. It was full of politics, it had plenty to say, but , as a story, it was dead. It was one long polemic. I was so angry I tore up the manuscript and I went out for a drive. I may, or may not, have stopped for a beer. When I come back I looked through the story again and I realized the lede was burried on page 14 of the 19-page manuscript.

In fact nothing on the first 14 pages made it to the final version.

On page 14 I had the trio of Midwesterners careening through the streets of Tehran in a Jeep driven by a 14-year-old Revolutionary Guard with an M-16 strapped to his back. The Jeep delivered these private statesmen -- traveling without authorization of the United States government -- to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, where they told me they discovered the telephone in the elevator was plated in gold, a reminder of the extravagant dictator Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi , who had been deposed by the Revolutionary Guard.

Across the street, they said, tours were being given of the torture chambers of the Shah's secret police.

Here, dear reader, insert the lyrics to The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again." You know the line: "Meet the new boss / same as the old boss..."

Let's see. That 14-year-old Jeep driver is 42 years old today, if he is still alive. If he is still a member of the Revolutionary Guard, and if recent news reports are correct, his comrades are now the ones dealing out brutality on their fellow citizens.

One thing we see playing out in Iran is this: No revolution is safe from itself. Brutality exists, in the same way locusts return every summer and famine is always somewhere. We are, at rock bottom, a brutal species of animal.

The three Midwesterners did not free the hostages, as Bill Clinton did. However, they did, through my story and stories written by others, offer Americans more perspective on how and why the Iranian revolution happened. When I think of Iran, I think of the support we gave the Shah, its cruel dictator. When I think of Iraq, I think of the support we once gave Saddam.

And, I'm left to say we will probably be fooled again.

Meanwhile, It's ok to shed a tear for Hannah Lee, reunited with her mother after 140 terrible days.

--Lofflin -- more on this later this afternoon

I want to add a few quotes from the article I wrote in 1980 that are still important today. This is what Dr. Forer said to me about the trip. What he said is significant because Bill Clinton's trip was private diplomacy only in name. Dr. Forer, Mr. Dillingham and Ms. Paul went toIran on their own dime, unsanctioned, and certainly concerned about what might happen to them when they returned home.

This is what Dr. Forer said:

"I feel that if I never do another thing in my life, I will have justified my existence on earth. We were the first rational voice for a peaceful settlement at a time when there was total madness.

"You have to remember that at the time we left (Iran, 1980) no one was talking peace. Our ships were steaming toward the Persian Gulf. The question being asked was not 'should there be intervention,' but 'what sort of intervention should there be?' That's what the debate was. And the response from the other side was, 'well I guess we have to arm 20 million people.'

"At that point we figured, as insignificant as we were, that we either could become passive victims of this idocracy, or we could do something, because it couldn't be worse. It was a long-shot, but there has to be a voice raised for peace.

"If you see a man drowning and you know how to swim, the most natural thing is to jump in and swim and grab that person. Not to do it would have been an indecency. It would have haunted us."

Lofflin again, peace. out

1 comment:

  1. Wow, John. Great stuff. I remember hearing this story in class. I love the first quote from Dr. Forer: "I feel that if I never do another thing in my life, I will have justified my existence on earth." So powerful.
    --Matt Kelsey