Spare a thought, in all his troubles, for Kofi Annan's official social life.
At dinner every night the poor guy has to sit next to not just an endless round of U.N. ambassadors, visiting foreign ministers and 57 varieties of dignitaries, but their wives. Global small talk can be a global drag.
I sampled a whiff of Mr. Annan's world for the second time in two weeks at a dinner in Manhattan for the Turkish prime minister, where I was placed between a genially incomprehensible Turkish cabinet member with laryngitis and a brilliant but equally inaudible publisher. There was a senior figure from the New York Times on the other side, but he provided fewer interventions than usual because (a) he had spent the whole morning with the minister already, and (b) he was in recovery from another glittering dinner -- yes, for Kofi Annan -- where his ability to hear the remarks had been obliterated by being seated next to an industrial-strength air conditioner.
Even so, the Turkish dinner climaxed in a coup de theatre: fresh from the White House, the commanding figure, booming voice and convivial mustache of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. When he rousingly denounced the infusion of religion into politics -- even though he is the leader of an Islamic party -- he redeemed for a moment the excruciating, mysterious ritual of social diplomacy.
Kofi Annan must have been relieved for once to find himself next to an unthreatening spouse, this time the prime minister's smiling wife, Emine. Other dinners loom where he risks being more thoroughly grilled than the salmon. Just when the flak about the oil-for-food scandal seemed to be in abatement pending Paul Volcker's final report, Annan has been hit, in the same newspaper, with something like a good cop-bad cop routine. On Monday the New York Times's Warren Hoge previewed the basically positive contextual ameliorations of the impending Gingrich-Mitchell report, but on Tuesday came a firecracker from the Times's Judith Miller about a memo that suggests Annan's possible presence in a compromising meeting with his son's employer Cotecna before it was awarded a lucrative contract. Today, unless headed off at the pass by eight former U.N. ambassadors, a resolution from Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) threatens to cut U.N. funding if reforms are not enacted.
In the last few weeks Annan has been trying to combat all this with some Tony Blair-style crucifixion evenings in which A-list hosts urge the professional skeptics at the table to ask him, off the record, tougher-than-usual questions. But his transparent decency, serenity and reasonableness are like the low timbre of his voice -- you long for him to turn up the volume and show a more forceful repudiation of the delinquencies that occurred on his watch.
That kind of response is not in his DNA. His imperturbable demeanor suggests an explanation for the ruinous behavior of his son Kojo. If Kofi Annan were your father, you too might have to embark on a career of outrage just to provoke a reaction.
The latest assaults on Annan's reputation seem only to have made him more beloved in the higher reaches of New York City. From his first year at the U.N. he bonded with the city's elite and became a permanent member. Now that he's in image rehab they encircle him protectively with feel-the-glow dinners all over town. The irony is that some of Annan's most devoted supporters are the same impatient CEOs who, when they find themselves part of a U.N. task force, are driven nuts by the bureaucracy. The fact that Annan can bear the molasses-slow consensual minutiae of the U.N. -- so foreign to Manhattan's barracuda boardrooms -- may itself be part of his mystique. He even seriously believes U.N. members will cooperate with his reforms.
Why do New York's power circles (except in the neocon ripples radiating from the Manhattan Institute and amplified in the New York Post and the New York Sun) hold Kofi in such a close embrace? Much of the affection is personal -- his gentle aristocratic charm, his absence of megalomania, the loyalty of his luminously graceful Swedish wife, Nane. But it's also been about Park Avenue's perennial quest to refine its fortunes, too. Annan's presence in the striving salons of Manhattan's newly rich always lent the halo of higher purpose. They were all about money. He was all about doing good. His appearance at their tables was a kind of benediction for their evolving conscience.
Of course there's a conviction here that Annan has represented the fair face of international cooperation -- freedom for East Timor, peace in the Balkans, the elections in Iraq. That's one of the reasons the Rwanda horror didn't hurt him more. The opening of the film "Hotel Rwanda" was, shall we say, an awkward moment. But Kofi supporters prefer to note that the secretary general openly accepts the stain of responsibility for that catastrophe even though it was due at least as much to the failure of political will in the Clinton administration and the U.N.'s other indifferent member states.
And the constantly erupting oil-for-food scandal? The view in these circles all along has been, as one guest at a recent Annan dinner put it, that dumping all the blame on Kofi is "like Edgar Bergen . . . slapping Charlie McCarthy." The real oil-for-food scandal was the conduct of individual Security Council members, including the United States. Kofi does not have the powers of a CEO at the U.N., however much Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) wants to treat him like one. Sure, Kojo duped his dad; yes, Sevan (Benon V. Sevan, former director of the Iraq program) was a rogue; admittedly, Kofi's paternal writhings made him absurdly passive when the first media reports broke. But whatever the ominous implications of the newly disclosed Cotecna memo, nobody here can bear to think Kofi Annan could do anything truly shabby. Scapegoating him is another exercise in Republican voice-throwing -- almost as skillful a deflection as when the White House pushed the blame for the Guantanamo abuses off onto . . . Newsweek.
New York is an international community and that's why they won't give up on Annan easily. There's unlikely ever to be a more pro-American U.N. secretary general than Kofi Annan -- that's the real irony. He's pro-American, though, in the FDR/Bush 1/Clinton/Colin Powell tradition, not the John Foster Dulles/Jesse Helms/Bush 2/John Bolton tradition. And in this bastion of internationalist longing there is a desire to shore him up and get him to the end of his term with his dignity intact. The Bushies have the Senate, Congress and cowed media. They can't have Annan too.
(c)2005, Tina Brown