Thursday, January 21, 2021

THE PRAIRIE EDITOR: A Very Special Program

As many of my readers know, I’ve worn many hats in my
professional life --- from poet to pundit, non-profit
organization executive to editor  and publisher, food critic
to cruise ship lecturer,  playwright to historian, but for 20
years, I also had the privilege and good fortune to be able
to participate in a rare long-term government program,
the International Visitor Program, in which I hosted or
escorted more than 500 political figures, journalists,
businessmen and artists from around the world in the U.S.

The program itself had existed for decades before I came
along, and had its origins in 1940 when a young Nelson
Rockefeller, working in Latin American affairs, organized a
program for 130 Latin American journalists to visit the U.S.
It was intended to counter the then significant propaganda
efforts by Nazi Germany seeking support in South America.
By 1948, the Cold  War with the Soviet Union was raging, and
bipartisan legislation, signed by President Harry Truman,
created the Foreign Leaders Program to counter communist
anti-American propaganda. This program, intended to foster
understanding of, and good will to, the U.S. evolved in the
next 50 years under the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) and,
later, the U.S. State Department, into the International
Visitor Program (IVP).

Thousands of promising mid-career figures, chosen by U.S.
embassy officials in their home countries, were invited to
spend one month in the U.S., all expenses paid, visiting
various cities and Washington, DC with a planned itinerary
and a program escort.

The itineraries are determined by the local host with
suggestions from the IVP program officer in DC. Various
international affairs groups in DC oversee the program and
provide the program officers and their staffs. I worked
primarily, but not exclusively, with Meridian International
Center, and with one particular program officer who was
wise to logistics of each itinerary, the needs of each visitor,
and what I could provide --- an excellent working relationship
that lasted two decades. At first, the programs took place in
Minnesota only, but since I traveled quite a bit as a
journalist, my programs expanded to other cities, including
primarily Washington, DC. My value to IVP was that I could
arrange meetings with top local, state and national figures
(whom I knew from my political journalism) that others
could not. Eventually, I was asked not only to arrange and
host visitor itineraries, but also to be a thematic escort for
individual month-long programs across the nation.

The whole experience was quite an education. I  was very
fastidious about providing access for my visitors to leaders
and officials of both major parties, as well as independents.
At the same time, IVP often sent out groups of visitors that
included differing points of view in their own countries. The
typical visit to a city lasted 3-5 days, but during it, I was
spending considerable time, morning through night, with
the visitors. I think I asked them as many questions about
their countries as they asked about mine!

As I said, I hosted or escorted more than 500 visitors from
more than 80 nations. Sometimes, there was only one visitor;
more often it was 3-5; occasionally as many as 25 -30. My
specialty, it turned out, was parliamentarians from India,
Pakistan and post-Soviet Russia. But I also had a number of
visitors from Mongolia, Argentina, Middle Eastern nations,
Australia and South Africa.

The program’s record is quite remarkable. Wikipedia lists
more than 300 visitors who became heads of state in nations
large and small. Names include Willy Brandt and Helmut
Schmidt (Germany); Nicolas Sarkozy and Valery Gidcard
D’Estaing (France); Margaret Thatcher, Edward Heath,
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (Great Britain); Bruno
Kreisky (Austria); F.W. de Klerk (South Africa); Anwar Sadat
(Egypt);  Indira Ghandi (India); Felipe Calderon (Mexico) ---
all of them before they were famous and played important
roles in history. Nor does that include literally thousands
more who made important contributions to their nations.

I met many interesting characters, including the then young
author of the current  Russian  constitution, a Mongolian
diplomat who was a New York Knicks fan, the Oxonian
godfather of Brexit who has waited 30 years to be
fulfilled, but is still  an M.P., a Polish senator who was a
sidekick to Lech Walesa, an Uruguayan legislator who
became vice president, Indian MPs who became chief
ministers or cabinet officers --- the list goes on and on.

I remain grateful to the numerous local, city, county, state
and national officials --- including mayors, governors,
legislators, congresspersons, senators, cabinet officers,
White House and congressional staff, speakers of the
U.S. house, presidential candidates, corporate executives.
local and national journalists, artists, farmers and so many
others who responded so generously to my many personal
requests to them to meet with the international  visitors.

One of the most satisfying groups I met were colleague
journalists from  around the world. Several are  still good
friends today, and keep me up to date about their part of
the world.

The International LeadershipVisitor Program has been in
suspension, like so much else, because of the current
pandemic. Before that, it was  bringing thousands of foreign
young leaders to the U.S. every year.  With a new president
and a new administration in Washington, DC, and U.S.
global standing in question, it would seem to me as a priority
to resume it as soon as possible.

Copyright (c) 2021 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.

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