15 December 2006

It took Ban Kee Moon only a few minutes to almost steal the show. The U.N. Correspondents Association's dinner on 8 December had reached midpoint. Former U.S. President Clinton had swooped in and out with the required security arrangements and appropriate photo opportunities. As the main reward recipient, he must have felt that he should speak at some length; so he did. Mainly about the Asian Tsunami. The crowd was not his usual audience. Either he didn't connect or he was in a rush to go elsewhere. Ian Williams, the originator of the dinner ten years ago, made some Scottish jokes to the special delight of someone in a central table who displayed his traditional kilt. UNCA President Masood Haider was moving around between the head table to the four corners of the Delegates Dining Room to meet and greet. CNN's Richard Roth, the master of stand-up diplomacy, was keeping the crowds at bay with his witty introductions and understated humour. The microphone was offered to newly-elected Secretary General as if an afterthought. He may not have realized that there had been a failed attempt to exclude him from that evening. Or possibly he did. "My name is Ban, not Bond," he quipped with a slight smile. Kee Moon, not Moonraker. And he's taking over as 007 approaches -- that is, the year 2007. He may not be as agile and equipped as the famous Bond, but he cautioned assembled correspondents that he will allude them with similar gusto. He was not nicknamed "slippery eel" by the press in his native South Korea for nothing. As to following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Mr. Ban cheerfully indicated he will not attempt to match his elegant attire. Not only would it be difficult for him to nurture an impressive goatee or wear those turtleneck sweaters during weekend Security Council emergency meetings, but it would also be foolhardy to attain the same tailor, who also dressed up James Bond. So he apologized in advance for his humility in that domain. Incidentally, should Mr. Ban change his mind, or should more resources become discreetly available for sartorial demands, the said clothier is known for very high maintenance. Until a recent brush up of name polish, some New Yorkers had associated that name with certain Sicilian Italian famiglias including a famous Don who passed away a couple of years ago.

Richard Roth picked up on the Bond analogy. "Dr. No" may not entirely apply to Ambassador John Bolton, but "License to Kill" was what CNN had done to his show -- the successful weekly Diplomatic License. Even Kofi Annan followed the trail, however tentatively. The outgoing Secretary General did not seem to be in a very cheerful mood, though very pleasant and accommodating. Mr. Annan usually does better on such occasions, particularly when using his own humour. He may have been taken aback by the murmurs of disapproval to his initial remarks, when he said the Secretary General did not have to deal with James Bond, but with James Bone. No one laughed. Some booed. Some expressed disbelief. Another quip also fizzled despite obvious preparation for it. While giving pointers of media advice to his successor, he suggested: "Buy a Hyundai" and stopped for a few seconds for affect. He repeated it twice, with a deliberate pause before continuing: "Do not buy a Mercedes." Again, no takers. It is amazing that until today, he does not seem to realize that the Mercedes question should have been handled differently a year ago; that it is not a joke but an embarrassment.

A pleasant surprise, after prizes were given and speeches were made, was a duo singing performance by Edith Lederer of Associated Press -- one of the toughest reporters and most charming individuals -- and BBC's Irish Eyes Laura, niece of legendary Middle East hand Sir Humphrey Trevelyan, in an amended rendering of "Arrivederci Kofi, Goodbye, Au Revoir." There was dancing in the aisles. There was also a Greek orchestra playing tunes of Zorba. Some worked. Some networked. All had fun, as usual. And as most reporters forewarned the incoming Secretary General that they will be watching him closely, the seemingly cool, calm and collected newcomer to U.N. Headquarters seemed undaunted. As he was about to conclude his brief appearance, he disarmingly went into a reworded Christmas jingle: "Ban Kee Moon is coming to town."

And for at least a few moments, the audience of journalists, diplomats and U.N. staffers were all standing up, dancing to his tune.