The premiere of “Nixon in China” tonight at the Metropolitan Opera has stirred memories of the historic trip in 1972 that changed U.S. relations with China and introduced many shaken visitors to maotai.
Av Westin, then the executive producer for ABC News, accompanied President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, to snowy Beijing. On Monday, many surviving members of the trip’s press corps attended the Met’s dress rehearsal of John Adams’s 1987 opera. A banquet followed at Shun Lee which recreated the dinner hosted by Zhou Enlai.
We spoke yesterday at Bloomberg’s New York offices.
Hoelterhoff: What do you remember of the flight?
Westin: We flew from Washington, landed in Hawaii, overnighted there and then went on to Guam, where we stayed about three or four hours -- the president was getting acclimated to the time shift -- then flew to Beijing.
Hoelterhoff: What was the mood on the press plane?
Westin: Exciting. It was like walking on the moon. Ted Koppel and I wrote four songs. As in:
I wonder where’s Kissinger now
Is he huddled somewhere with Mao
Or as we all fly to be with Zhou Enlai
Has he slipped off to be with Lin Biao.
Hoelterhoff: It was Kissinger’s trip as much as Nixon’s.
Westin: At the banquet Monday, I spoke to a guy who had been at the U.S. Embassy in the Soviet Union. And he said it was clear the Soviets were on the verge of panic because they found themselves isolated not only by their known enemy, the U.S., but by the other “potential enemy.” He thought that essentially was the change in the Cold War.
Hoelterhoff: What did you think of the operatic Kissinger?
Westin: He is too peripheral, though in the ballet scene he does whip women and there’s some simulated sex. I assume it’s simulated. I was pretty far back and didn’t have my glasses.
Hoelterhoff: And this is different from the real Kissinger, the sage who put power and aphrodisiac in one sentence?
Westin: When we did “Action Biography” at ABC, a number of the women working on it commented that he was making moves on them that were not exactly journalistic or diplomatic.
Hoelterhoff: Were you allowed to go where you wanted in Beijing?
Westin: Yes, but they had cleaned the streets and rehearsed everything.
At the Ming Tombs, we were greeted by happy families having a picnic -- children playing, folks with friends listening to radios and everyone having a great time.
After taking the expected pictures, some of the reporters recognized that it was pretty odd to have 8-year-old kids in makeup!
Then Ted Koppel’s car broke down and he ended up staying behind with his crew filming the picnickers all lining up and turning the equipment back in. You know, “Radios over here, please.”
Hoelterhoff: In the opera, Pat Nixon visits a model pig farm.
Westin: We witnessed an acupuncture session. They took out somebody’s appendix while we were there.
Hoelterhoff: How close are the historic and operatic Maos?
Westin: Mao wasn’t quite as falling-over infirm. But he spoke through aphorisms and that is portrayed quite well, with the Nixon character turning to Kissinger asking: “Do you get this?”
Hoelterhoff: What’s your most vivid memory of the trip?
Westin: If I close my eyes I can visualize the streets filled with blue-coated humanity that’s coming at us, just coming at us.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)