Arthur Ashe, tennis player and would-be ambassador, gets a little training and a few shocks on a Government-sponsored tour of Africa
From Sports Illustrated, March 1, 1971
The whole place was ours alone. There was no one else for as far as we could see, and we could see nearly to Zanzibar. Palm trees at the back of the beach cut of the rest of the world and also served as our shelter from the sun. Otherwise, we had to escape into the water, which was the Indian Ocean, wonderfully temperate, tinted azure blue. Beyond a reef it appeared a grass green, and beyond that a royal blue. The beach itself was ivory white. All the colors were pure in the antiseptic air.
We had been transported to this setting by a pretty girl from California, who had materialized from somewhere with a car and picnic lunch. She drove the car in her bikini and gave the lunch to the servants, who were back in the beach house, to keep for us while we swam and sunned on the beach. We lay there and listened to U.S. songs, most of them recently recorded, as well as the commercials, call letters and other drivel from a Sacramento station. They were dear, reassuring sounds that Arthur Ashe carries with him all over the world. Were a man to close his eyes and pretend that he was surrounded by throwaway bottles and 50,000 people playing Frisbee, it would seem that he was truly back at any fine American beach. We all lolled that way awhile, then stretched and walked down the dazzling sand into the water.
We were floating there, suspended carefree, so far as anybody could tell the only people in the whole world taking advantage of the facilities offered by the Indian Ocean. Arthur, cooled, satisfied, stood chest-deep in our briny pool and surveyed the whole scene. Then he shook his head, smiled and said: "You know, I don't feel much like an athlete anymore. I'm beginning to feel like a politician."
After we had had enough of the water, we enjoyed our picnic, and then the pretty girl drove us back to town, to the residence of the Ambassador of the United States. His Excellency was visiting the U.S., but the house had been turned over to Arthur and all the servants placed at his disposal. His friend Stan was also permitted to stay here.
We shall, for the moment leave Arthur there, changing into more formal clothes. This evening he will be presented to the vice-president of our host country. We are, you see, on a goodwill tour of 2,500 miles around Africa for the U.S. State Department. Arthur is supplying the goodwill, giving tennis clinics and interviews and playing exhibitions with Stan, whom he invited along as his associate.
Bud Collins of the Boston Globe, Richard Evans, a British writer, and I are in the company to report events. Then there is the U.S. Information Service camera crew, variously described as makers of film documentation or propaganda. We shall all be there as Arthur meets the vice-president, and later there will be time to visit a nightclub, where a nimble USIS officer will pick up the check and then tell Arthur's driver to take him directly to the residence.
So Arthur is right when he says he feels like a politician. I didn't read Drew Pearson all those years without knowing that every Congressman on the Airports' Repair Committee was forever traveling to the four corners of the tourist world to examine airstrips at the taxpayers' expense. At last I have to face it: I am swimming in the Indian Ocean with the taxpayers' money. After a while, though, Arthur has to be let off the hook because he is a bargain for the taxpayers. For every dollar spent on him, you get change back.
The trouble with State Department tours is that there is not enough swimming in the Indian Ocean. A State Department tour is a beast of excess. If real life were this way all the time, it would put the guys who stick bamboo shoots under fingernails out of business. It is a special kind of conflicting hell. You are not allowed to do anything for yourself, yet you must do something on schedule every waking minute of the day. On the whole tour, with stops in six countries scattered all over Africa in 18 daysif it's Tuesday, it must be ZambiaArthur had only one evening to himself. Promptly he went out and ate two steak dinners, back to back. At that point he was obviously getting a little shaky.
Mostly, a State Department tour is grueling, repetitive, demanding hard work. And nothing is left to chance. We had seven vehicles assigned to us every minute of the day in Nigeria, plus an eighth backup car, and lengthy detail sheets explaining where everybody was, is now and will be. Everything is so organized, it becomes, at last, surrealistic, coming around the other way. People are always saying: "Are we supposed to be here now?"
Adlai Stevenson once said that the three prime ingredients of diplomacy were protocol, alcohol and Geritol, and a tour confirms this. The first element is essential, the second one makes the first tolerable and the two together cause aging. Naturally, because this one was a typical American endeavor, it was also an even more wearing trip. It would be too simple and inexpensive just to have a man travel and teach tennis. Consequently, the four-man crewJim, Bill and the two Dickswas dispatched to come along to film what the one man did. This multiplied the cost factor several times, to a level commensurate with our high American standards of inflammation. It also made it impractical for Arthur to have any time off. (Obviously, here we have the solution to our traveling-politicians problem. All we have to do is send movie crews along to film the politicians' every move. It would be expensive at first, but pretty soon no more politicians would be traveling.)
To keep the cameras grinding, every moment of the trip was orchestrated. You learn quickly. You grab at the itineraries as soon as you arrive in a new country and scan them as fast as possible to see if there is any listing for FREE TIME or SIGHT SEEING or SHOPPING. You know you are in trouble if you see any of these time periods listed. If the schedule is so filled that they have to list when you are free, you ain't never going to be free.
It was hard enough for me, and I didn't have to give tennis clinics to children every day, or play matches in the broiling afternoon sun, or give interviews and meet everybody several times each, and always be genial and on display, the way Arthur did. Bud kept score. There were 25 parties to attend to in those 18 days. The Duchess of Windsor never attended 25 parties in 18 days. In the very middle of her hot streak, Baby Jane Holzer never attended 25 parties in 18 days.
The ceremonial content was high because few American celebrities ever get to Africa. James Brown's face was plastered on every billboard in Nigeria when we got there, but he was being brought over to sing by Philip Morris, not the U.S. Department. At different times in the last year or so, track stars Lee Evans and Bill Toomey had made appearances in a couple of countries, but those two were apparently the only American athletes to have visited Africa recently under government auspices. Officially, these tours are "cultural" presentations controlled by the USIS, but the budget has been cut back and the big entertainment guns that have gone abroad recently have been directed mostly toward Eastern Europe.
Obviously the State Department was delighted when a black celebrity of Arthur's rank volunteered to go on a tour of the continent. They lined up in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana for him and he approached the trip with affection and purpose. "Usually on these things," said Arthur, who is an old hand at Government tours, "you get the Government contact man, your mother hen, and you ask him to cut a few corners for you. But not here. I'm trying to be overly patient and generous. I'm determined to give of myself completely. For three weeks, I'll do anything they want me to."
Arthur said, "One thing I haven't seen is may blacks in our Embassies over here." We were at lunch on a cool veranda with another gorgeous view and servants attending to our every whim. The Embassy man mused on that statement. Arthur was impressed by the Foreign Service officers and USIS officers we met, and this particular man was the brightest and most personable of them all. We'll call him Steve. "Maybe blacks don't want to serve in Africa," he said.
"What?" Arthur cried. "You got to be kidding. This is where I'd want to be."
"That's you. But a lot of blacks in the diplomatic service believe that if they go to Africa they're going to be looked upon as window dressing."
"Wow," Arthur said. He asked around the table for other reactions. "They don't want to serve in Africa."
"Listen," Steve said. "At least a black man has a choice. If you're Jewish, though you can't work in our Embassy in Israel. If you're an Arab-American, you can't go to a lot of countries. Same with the Irish, and I think maybe the Chinese, too, and I think it used to be that way with the Italians."
"What's the reason for the policy?" Arthur asked.
"Just the obvious," Steve replied. "A feeling that the ethnic, racial and religious pressures, whatever they are, are such that a man would be disposed to prejudge a situation on the basis of his heritage and not make an altogether balanced determination."