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The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Keep The New York Philharmonic On The Road

WASHINGTON -- Let us hope that the next president of the United States knows some history.And let us hope that the next president will know that the United States cannot call all the shots, or pick and choose which leader-dictator we will talk to or decide which countries can have unconventional weapons.

In other words, the U.S. should not rely totally on the arrogance of its formidable power in its foreign relations.

That is why the performance of the New York Philharmonic in the Stalinist-style closed society of North Korea is a remarkable breakthrough.

Music is the universal language. In the case of North Korea, the New York Philharmonic's concert last week may be viewed years from now as the small step that eventually opened the way for more cultural contacts and understanding between two countries that have been at sword-point since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Overwhelmed by the warm reception in Pyongyang, North Korea, Lorin Maazel, the Philharmonic's music director, told reporters: "I think it's going to do a great deal for Korean-U.S relations. We may have been instrumental in opening a little door."

The White House did all it could to play down its significance.

"At the end of the day," press secretary Dana Perino said, "we consider this concert to be a concert. And it's not a diplomatic coup."

How naive can you get?

Yes, it is a coup after years of hostility; the concert is already being hailed as "symphonic diplomacy."

Personally, I wish the Philharmonic had played George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" instead of his "An American in Paris." But it was a transforming event.

In another foreign policy putdown, President Bush used a news conference last week to splash cold water on any suggestion that, after 50 years, the U.S. might soften its policy toward Cuba.

"Sitting down at the table, having your picture with a tyrant such as Raul Castro -- (Fidel Castro's brother and successor) -- for example, lends the status of the office and the status of our country to him," Bush said, explaining: "He (Raul Castro) gains a lot from it by saying, 'Look at me, I'm now recognized by the president of the United States."'

Bush failed to add that any White House hospitality would raise a howl from the Cuban exiles in America.

The U.S. political and economic embargo against Cuba is vividly strange when you recall that we have talked to communist leaders from other countries for many years -- especially in Moscow -- and this talking has been all to the good.

In fact, we are talking to many leaders around the world -- especially in the Middle East who are not exactly models of democracy. But we talk because they are our friends and allies.

Some past U.S. presidents understood the yearning for peace and acted accordingly.

When the Cold War was well underway in the 1950s with the former Soviet Union, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said he would go anywhere, any place, any time in pursuit of peace.

But then Bush is no Eisenhower.

Pax Americana may be what Bush hoped for with his bellicose foreign policy. But he would have been better advised if he had extended an olive branch.

He came into office, looking for war with Iraq and shunning negotiations with North Korea and Cuba, among others.

Egged on by neo-conservative advisers and supporters, Bush mostly took a hard-line approach to most leftist leaders, leaving little room for reconciliation.

His first Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was undercut by the neo-cons and slapped down when he tried to pave the way for talks with Pyongyang.

A hawkish Bush somehow assumed everyone would roll over when he issued his non-negotiable threats.

So let's keep talking to our adversaries and keep the Philharmonic on the road. The world is ready to listen.

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Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas was an American author and former news service reporter, member of the White House Press Corps and columnist. She worked for the United Press International (UPI) for 57 years, first as a correspondent, and later as White House bureau chief. She was an opinion columnist for Hearst Newspapers from 2000 to 2010, writing on national affairs and the White House. Among other books, she was the author of Front Row at The White House: My Life and Times. Helen passed away on July 20, 2013.

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