Coming of Age in Casablanca
Early in 1966 President Lyndon Johnson said, Were going to turn
the Mekong into a Tennessee Valley.
Yes, he really did.
However that was only the long-term plan. In the short term, he was dropping
eight hundred tons of bombs a day on Vietnam, causing President de Gaulle to call
for the withdrawal of American troops and Buddhist nuns to burn themselves to
death in Hué.
By midsummer, when I arrived in Casablanca as a newly-appointed junior officer
for the United States Information Service, my duty as a public diplomat was
clear. When, as it often did, the conversation turned to Vietnam I would say,
How about them Red Chinese, huh? What the heck is a cultural
As far as I could tell, almost every overseas USIS officer in those days did
something similar. Mr. Johnson might even have approved. After all, the only
president we had was fond of saying, You cant shine feces. Those
would be his exact words, except for one.
I knew because this particular Johnsonism had been edited out of a profile of the
White House press secretary which I had done a year earlier for the Saturday
Evening Post. Those were gentler days in journalism.
My new boss in Casablanca, Thad McDowell, had been an artist and sculptor before
he discovered government service. He agreed with me a hundred percent on the
feces-shining thing. All that Vietnam junk goes straight to the
storeroom, he told me when a batch of it arrived from Washington a few days
after I did. If anyone asks, everybody loved the exhibit and we just took it
down last week.
Thad and I devoted ourselves instead to the propagation abroad of Americas
rich cultural heritage, a task which lacked urgency. You chaps in USIS
remind me of a man rushing about in the monsoon with a watering can, a
British businessman had told me during my welcoming reception at Thads
And so the two of us let the days slide pleasantly by. Casablanca had no tourist
attractions to speak of and it was an inconveniently long drive from the embassy
in Rabat. This meant we had few official visitors from the capital. Thad thrived
on the neglect, and so did I.
My dedication to the serious business of Cold War public diplomacy was as
incomplete as his. Back home in Arlington my wife and I had been stuffed into a
two-bedroom apartment with four sons, three of them still in diapers. (Dont
bother doing the arithmetic; two of them were twins.)
I was barely scratching along as a free-lance magazine writer when I was assigned
to do a profile of a high-powered Washington lawyer named Leonard Marks. I turned
the piece in to Esquire a few weeks before one of his clients, Lyndon Johnson,
appointed him to head the United States Information Agency. When I went back to
Mr. Marks to update the story, he asked me if I had ever thought of working
I began immediately to do so, particularly since I had once visited a cousin of
mine who worked in our consulate in Marseilles. There he lived in a swell big
house overlooking the Mediterranean and had a cook and a gardener and a nurse to
help his wife with the kids.
And now here I was in Casablanca with my own big house and a gardener and a cook
named Aisha who insisted on taking care of the kids as well, and life should have
been sweet. But I had brought my own serpent with me into the garden. After Thad
left for a new assignment in Upper Volta, leaving me in temporary charge, I
couldnt help thinking that I ought to be doing something for my money.
As the Brit had pointed out, selling our culture was redundant. Selling our war
wasnt fit work for a morally-grown man and would have been hopeless in any
event. What then? What defensible use of the taxpayers dollar could I make
at Dar America, the USIS cultural center in Casablanca?
Well, there was nothing to stop me from promoting our national ideals, as
distinct from the loathsome policies into which they had degenerated by then. And
we had a free library where those original ideals were still to be found, intact.
True enough, there were no waiting lists at Dar America for the books of Tom
Paine or Henry David Thoreau or James Madison. Still, a possibility existed that
some future Gandhi might one day stumble upon their works. And who knew? A spark
might fly on ready tinder.
But for this to happen, people had to come to Dar Americas reading room. And
they didnt. The center was lost on a side street so narrow that two cars
couldnt pass. We needed a stand on the midway.
A few blocks away on a principal avenue stood Casablancas Municipal Theater,
neglected and usually dark. What if I rounded up the gang and dug some costumes
out of the attic? Hey, we could put on our own show!
Only it couldnt be much of a show, since we didnt have much money.
Maybe it could be a show about shows. As it happened, I had a fair number of
musical comedy records at home. And so I made an appointment with the
He turned out to be perfectly willing to loan us his lobby for an exhibit on the
American musical theater. But as he didnt want to offend the Soviet Union,
he would have to offer the space to the Russians as well. This was fine with the
United States, I told him. Let every flower bloom.
Washington sent out photographs. We assembled most of the music locally, from my
own collection and from other Americans at the consulate. We already had a sound
system at Dar America that we could hook up in the lobby. We built the displays
and lettered the captions, and recorded in French and in Arabic a historical
commentary to go along with the songs. In a couple of months, at a cost of a
couple hundred dollars, we were ready.
On opening day and thereafter we played music over speakers outside the theater.
In the entrance I stationed Khadija el-Fekkak, a young and pretty member of the
staff at Dar America. Her job was to draw visitors in and steer each one politely
but firmly to a table where a librarian offered free membership cards. As a
barker, she was a great hit.
Fourteen thousand people visited the exhibit during its two-week run. Right away
our library began to fill up and any one of those unemployed youths now crowding
the reading room might just turn out to be Moroccos Attaturk--
Not long afterward the country public affairs officer happened to come down to
Casablanca on his way to Marrakech. Before his posting to Morocco Ned Roberts had
been one of the top officials in the agency--an associate director or assistant
director, perhaps. I no longer remember the title, but he had been responsible, I
believe, for all USIS operations in Africa.
He had never served abroad, though, and was therefore assigned to an overseas
tour. After a suitable marination in the field, it was expected that he would
return to Washington to resume his high place in the bureaucracy.
The PAO visited briefly with the local staff of Dar America, and then took me for
coffee to a nearby café. Terrific report on the musical theater
exhibit, he said when we were settled. I wanted to see what youd
think about one or two small changes, though.
As a former newspaper man, I had of course anticipated this. No urge known to the
human is so strong as the one to edit another mans copy.
Down here near the end you mention that the Russians had trouble getting
their exhibit together. the big boss said. Tell me more about
I explained that the Russian cultural affairs man had taken up the theater
director on his offer of equal time, but hadnt gotten his exhibit together
until after ours had closed.
How was their show? the PAO asked.
Pretty lame. They had these old photos thumb-tacked to the wall. Long shots
of the Bolshoi Ballet on stage. The Soviet Army womens choir on a flatcar,
entertaining the troops. That kind of thing.
How was attendance?
Whenever I went by, the place was empty.
Good, good, the PAO said. So it wouldnt be inaccurate to say
we were in a race with the Russians and we blew their doors off?
Well, our exhibit was ready first, thats true. I wasnt thinking of
it as a race.
Believe me, they were.
Even if they opened first, Ned, nobody would have gone. They didnt have
any music to bring people in.
Dont forget to make that point.
What I thought we might do is play up the whole horse race side of it a
little more, if its all right with you. Maybe even start off with that
instead of the library attendance.
I just thought since attendance went up seventy percent right off the bat
and its staying up--
And you and I both know thats the really important part. But let me
tell you whats going to happen to your report when it gets to Washington...
(Ed. note: Despite its natural, realistic flow, this conversation is not a
verbatim transcript of our conversation. But it is, as we say in the writing
...Every Thursday morning at eight-thirty, the eleven assistant directors
are sitting around a big oval table when the director comes in and sits down.
Then the guy on his left has three minutes to tell the director whats new in
his area. Then the next guy gets three minutes of the directors undivided
attention, and so on. Now what kind of thing do you think the director is going
to remember after he walks out of that meeting?
Not library attendance, huh?
Right. Library attendance is what you want the other guys to be stuck
with. What you want to hand the director is a little story he can take up to the
Hill at budget time. Thats when he gets his three minutes, and hes not
going to forget who gave him something to say.
Me? I said, hardly daring to hope.
Of course not. The Assistant Director.
But the Assistant Director wont forget the Country Public Affairs Officer.
Who in his turn--
Exactly, said the Country Public Affairs Officer.
Do you want to make the changes up in Rabat? I asked. Or should I
Youre the writer.
When I got back to Dar America there was the usual good crowd in the library.
Young influentials, I think we called them in our monthly statistical
breakdowns. Unfortunately none of these future leaders seemed to be reading
Common Sense unless it was hidden inside a copy of Life.
But somehow none of that seemed to matter any more. Tom Paine was just another
old, dead white man and I was a live young one who had recently handled himself
rather well, thank you, in a skirmish of the Great Game.