Can a chief-of-state allow himself to have a sense of humor? And if so, what kind of humor is it? These questions came out of hanging out briefly with a man who once had a great deal of power.
The former President of Romania, Emil Constantinescu, is a handsome and melancholy man who lives obsessed by his legacy and by the malevolence of his enemies. Can't say I blame him. He was the first non-Communist leader elected after the military coup of 1989 that brought to power, like elsewhere in Russia and Eastern Europe, an ambitious gang of thieves determined to carve between them the corpses of their socialist economies, to get rich quick, and to 'join' the world economic system.
They succeeded very well, but they made mistakes in the process, one of which allowed Constantinescu, a geology professor, to ride a wave of popular discontent to the highest office in the land. But once there, he told me, 'the wave that took me up receded and I was left up there all alone.'
All alone, it goes without saying, with all the bad guys installed there by the former occupant. The new president (1996-2000) did all he could to stop the thieves and tried also to bring to justice the murderers who created the fake revolution of 1989 in Romania, an event during which more than a thousand people were assassinated at random to give the world the illusion that an actual revolution was taking place. This is a long and sordid story, told in many books, including one by me, and unresolved to this day. The new president jailed some of the killers (most of them escaped), but none of them did any time when he was voted out of office and the bad old guy came back.
Now one would think that someone who had such experiences and is now walking down Bourbon Street in New Orleans with yours truly wouldn't have much of an appreciation for a multi-colored pile of vomit on the sidewalk or a drunk college student baring her breasts while oversized beads are being dangled in front of her by an equally drunk middle-aged businessman from Ohio whose family will be mortified to see him (as they will) on the Bourbon Street Webcam. You'd be wrong: the former chief-of-state, preoccupied with betrayal, global politics, and secret mafias, did indeed find these things (somewhat) amusing. And this without taking a break from a story he was telling, pretty amusing in itself in a certain way, about the leaders of certain former Soviet republics who stood up at their first NATO meeting and declared themselves '100 percent behind NATO and the U.S.,' a percentage that elicited smiles and raised eyebrows from leaders of Western European democracies who had never seen such percentages and knew them only too well to be old myths of the supposedly dead dictatorship of the proletariat.
The former president has cojones, I'll grant him that. We were having this conversation in the absence of his bodyguards, who'd gone either shopping or girl-watching (they were pretty good-looking, muscular guys), and there was a touching humanity about the man. I felt sorry for him because he was so full of knowledge about evil things and so weighed down by thoughts he couldn't help having. I was glad to see that he didn't miss the insanity of our permanent circus. I was glad he didn't step in that puke, either. He did a last minute save that could have been the fruit of many years' experience.