But three vice presidents have dropped in on Beirut. Joe Biden made it three in May 2009 with his seven-hour campaign stop. The first George Bush stopped by in unhappy circumstances in 1983, after the bombing of the Marines' barracks. And before them, Lyndon Johnson stopped by, as vice president, on Aug. 23, 1962--a lay-over that turned into a sunny bit of mixing.
An Unplanned Visit
Traveling aboard a Boeing 707, Johnson wasn't supposed to make an official visit. He was on his way to Iran, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and Italy. Lebanon was a rest and refueling stop. But Johnson decided to make it a bit more than that, being the highest ranking American official to ever touch down in the Land of the Cedars.
He was greeted at the airport by Foreign Minister Philip Takla and the American Ambassador, Armin Meyer (who died in 2006 and who, in 1973, headed a task force, appointed by Richard Nixon, to study international terrorism, following the PLO's murderous spree against Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics).
Johnson Pulls a Clinton
On his way into Beirut from the southern suburbs, where the airport is located, Johnson pulled a Clinton before Clinton was Clinton: "The vice president soon spotted a cluster of children at a roadside melon stand and the motorcade screeched to a halt," wrote Peter Braestrup for The Times. "Mr. Johnson walked over to shake hands and presumably influence people. His first convert was Ibrahim Sawaan, a 15-year-old boy in overalls and a cap emblazoned 'Champion Spark Plugs.'" "The vice president, squinting in the sun, shook the youth's hand and told him that the United States stood behind the 'integrity and independence of Lebanon.' The youth smiled."
I have no doubt that that same youth, if he wasn't killed or exiled during the civil war, was smiling today, too, but more wryly. Those are the same words he's been hearing American bigwigs tell Lebanese like him every time they've touched down there. It's as if the very same speech is being pulled out of State Department drawers every time.
A Texan at the Phoenicia
Later, an hour behind schedule, Johnson rested in a suite at the Phoenicia Hotel, one of Beirut's most famous landmarks. His room had been decorated with the flag of Texas.
Those were the days when Lebanon could just be a rest stop, the days when Beirut's hotels could be compared to Miami Beach's and Beirut's avenues to those of Paris. No one minded the faint whiff of western presumption (why weren't Paris' avenues and Miami's hotels compared to Beirut's?), or the condescending tones of western reporters finding the quaint, single dimensions of melon stands on the American president's route.
And yet how preferable those sunny days were to those that beat down on subsequent vice presidents' visits. The day an American dignitary--even a lowly secretary of state or an ambassador--stops his or her motorcade and mingles with 15 year olds at a fruit stand (these days the immediate trigger, in America's stereotypical mind, of terrorist possibilities) will be the day when the age of anxiety is over and America is no longer the perennial target in the Middle East.
No word, incidentally, on whether Johnson took one of those melons for the road.