When an Anwar Sadat is assassinated, or a Moshe Dayan dies, the world remembers their good deeds, forgets any mistakes, and pays them a respectful and deserved tribute. But for many public servants of lesser rank, death warrants only modest obituaries, and that's that: Except by their families, they're quickly forgotten.
In recent months, two men of vastly different backgrounds who played important roles in Washington--a score of years or more apart--died. And although both were distinguished men, their passing received only routine notice. One was Michael V. DiSalle, 73, one-time governor of Ohio but better known as Harry Truman's gutsy, roly-poly price controller who for a while dominated the domestic headlines during the Korean war. DiSalle died Sept. 15 on a visit to relatives in Pescara, Italy.
The other was Fernand Spaak, 57, a Belgian diplomat who for a four-year period beginning in 1976 represented the European Community in Washington. Spaak suffered a tragic death last July at his home in Brussels, shot by his wife Anne (who then committed suicide) just hours before he was due to fly to Ottawa as a member of the community delegation to the Ottawa summit.
Mike DiSalle (no one ever called him anything but Mike) was born in New York City, the son of immigrants. He put himself through law school at Georgetown University, practiced law in Toledo, worked his way up through Democratic ward politics in Ohio, and then won election as mayor of Toledo in 1947.
Ambassador Spaak, by contrast, was the very embodiment of the skilled and cultured European civil servant and diplomat. He was educated at Cambridge, a disciple of the famed Jean Monnet. He was the son of Paul Henri Spaak, the Belgian prime minister who helped set up the European Common Market and NATO. At the time of his death, Fernand Spaak was chef de cabinet to Community President Gaston Thorn.
But DiSalle and Spaak, in their different ways, had much in common. Above all, the American DiSalle and the European Spaak shared a faith in America and in America's future. DiSalle, the politician, was a liberal Democrat who was proud of his humble beginnings, his Italian heritage, and he was devoted to the idea that the Democrats are supposed to be the party of the working class. In recent years, he tried to instill in contemporary politicians his fear about the drift of Democrats away from New Deal principles.
I have never met a European who more admired America and Americans than the urbane Spaak--or who interpreted them better to Europe. It is perhaps not too much to say that Spaak had a love affair with America. As Andrew A. Mulligan, Common Market spokesman in Washington, reminded in a touching essay in Europe magazine on the deaths of the Spaaks, he visited 49 of the 50 states in an effort to understand not only Washington but the country's regional strengths and diversities.
Spaak liked nothing better, at the official community residence on Belmont Road in Washington, than to watch the television panel shows -- one after the other. Unlike some of his stuffier diplomatic colleagues, he was as good as DiSalle in getting along with newsmen and television commentators, sensing there could be a useful two-way channel of communication.
Spaak even had the nerve to make a public speech, in October 1979, warning the rich nations of Europe and elsewhere that they could not forever protect declining industries. He even suggested that they might have to abandon parts of their ailing auto industries to the Third World.
Needless to say, Spaak was wholly committed to the idea of European unity. When we last talked--barely a week before his death--he was enthusiastic about the prospects for a rejuvenation of Europe, despite the critical current state of its economy. "I have never been so optimistic about Europe's future," he told a colleague after setting up a series of 50 individual interviews with the most promising young civil servants in Europe.
DiSalle, who went back to Ohio to run for office after his price stabilization efforts in the Korean war, lost a couple of races before winning election as governor in 1958. Predictably, he was one of John F. Kennedy's early supporters and remained influential at a national level, until he lost his reelection bid in 1962. Since 1966 he had practiced law in Washington and helped promote the various Ted Kennedy boomlets. At a 70th birthday party in 1978, Mike said: "I am using this occasion to announce that I am not going to retire." He never did.
I doubt that Fernand Spaak and Mike DiSalle ever met each other, but they would have gotten along. I suppose the history books will give more space to Sadat and Dayan, and that's the way it should be. But those who knew DiSalle and Spaak as they worked at their jobs in this town should not forget them, either.