Welcome, Dear Leader!
Ike hosted Khrushchev. Let's bring Kim Jong Il for a visit.
Kim Jong Il, the eccentric and unpredictable North Korean dictator, has been misbehaving lately -- firing his missiles, testing his nukes, jailing American journalists and scaring the hell out of everyone by suggesting that he will appoint his 26-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him.
So what should President Obama do? Some people suggest diplomacy, others advocate overthrowing the regime, and yet others want to deploy Al Gore to Pyongyang. I've got a better idea: Obama should invite Kim to the United States and let him wander around for a couple of weeks, sipping cocktails with capitalists, visiting a home economics class in Iowa and mingling with Hollywood stars.
Fifty years ago, in similar circumstances, that's what President Dwight D. Eisenhower did. And it worked, sort of.
In 1959, Nikita Khrushchev, the eccentric and unpredictable Soviet dictator, was misbehaving, rattling his nukes and threatening West Berlin, which he described as a "malignant tumor." Negotiations over the city's fate proved fruitless, so Ike tried a different strategy: He invited Khrushchev to visit the United States. Khrushchev, who loved to travel, immediately accepted, replying that he'd like to ramble around the country for "ten to fifteen days."
The fat-bellied, thin-skinned, cranky communist dictator's resulting road trip through the wonderland of '50s America turned out to be one of the most bizarre diplomatic journeys in history.
The fun began as soon as Khrushchev landed at Andrews Air Force Base on Sept. 15, 1959. As Ike droned through a dull welcoming speech, the premier, a shameless scene-stealer, began mugging for the crowd, waving his hat, winking at a girl and theatrically turning his head to watch a butterfly flutter by -- and doing it, one reporter wrote, "with the studied nonchalance of an old vaudeville trouper."
It only got weirder from there. In Washington, Khrushchev joked with CIA director Allen Dulles at a state dinner at the White House, exploded with anger at a press conference and posed for photographers holding a squirming turkey at the Agriculture Department's experimental farm in Beltsville.
In New York, Khrushchev got stuck in an elevator at the elegant Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and his tour guide -- Henry Cabot Lodge, America's ambassador to the United Nations -- helped the pudgy premier climb out by pushing on his ample Russian rump. Later, Khrushchev toured the Empire State Building, partied with businessmen at Averell Harriman's townhouse and posed for pictures shadowboxing with the man he considered the symbol of capitalism: Nelson Rockefeller. The New York governor told the Soviet leader that the Empire State was home to a half-million immigrants who'd come to America seeking "freedom and opportunity."
"Don't give me that stuff," Khrushchev scoffed. "They only came to get higher wages. I was almost one of them."
"If you had come," Rockefeller replied, "you would have been the head of one of our biggest unions by now."
Rocky was probably right: Khrushchev possessed the kind of can-do, gung-ho, get-her-done energy that propels people right to the top in the good ol' USA.
Next stop: Hollywood, where Khrushchev demonstrated his world-class theatrical talents at a formal luncheon with 400 celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, Dean Martin, Marilyn Monroe, Charlton Heston and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Khrushchev invited them all to visit Moscow. "Please come," he said. "We will give you our traditional Russian pies." He told tales of his days as a Red Army soldier, drawing laughs and cheers from the stars. Then he abruptly changed his tone and began complaining that his hosts wouldn't let him visit Disneyland.