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As Long as We Remember...

May 1, 2007

Slava, Jack and The Queen

Roy Meachum

Working in Frederick has brought few regrets. I love this city and most that live here. When Pushkin and I take our daily walks, it seems everyone in the historic district knows the English pointer.

Occasionally, of course, I miss people and things happening in Washington, where I worked for all those years. Three, in particular, are on my mind.

Britain's Elizabeth II and consort Philip arrive this week, to help celebrate the 400th Anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, which now sits on a Tideland road, running to Williamsburg.

When I met the royal pair, there was another celebration going on, commemorating these colonies' independence from the queen's ancestors. It took a French army to make it really happen.

On July 4, 1776, as every American schoolchild knows, British troops and German mercenaries held slices of the future nation. The French lined up against London to give its traditional enemies a black eye. Royal Army flutes did not play "The World Turned Upside Down" until at Yorktown, five years after Philadelphia's Liberty Bell told the world a new nation was taking shape.

Her Britannic Majesty's Bicentennial procession took place only after her embassy staged a party for the contentious American journalists. Throwing drinks and tidbits to the press corps was meant to sweeten up reporters and editors. It worked.

The gin might have helped, for no one acted rudely to the royal party who were let loose at the embassy to meet the media, which included me.

Elizabeth and Philip really worked the crowd, separately but equally effective. She and I chatted briefly about the acting company made up of embassy diplomats; he told real-men's stories to the press corps, which was short on females at that time.

I've seen the published photos of what the pair now looks like; we have all aged, of course, but I would rather keep the queen's image in my mind as it was 30 years ago. Besides I wasn't invited this time around.

The latest royal visit comes in the wake of the passing of two men I once swapped smiles and jokes with.

It would take a considerable stretch for me to claim Jack Valenti as a friend of mine. We both exited-and-entered, frequently, the White House when Lyndon B. Johnson occupied the Oval Office.

Jack was factotum to the president, in charge of making things work. He was both a whipping boy for the hot-tempered LBJ and a man who pulled off slick feats. They were fellow Texans and that mattered a lot.

With Mr. Johnson's twilight coming on fast, Jack managed to make a connection with the movie industry. The diminutive Houston "cheerleader" invented the code system, which effectively shut the mouths of politicians and appointed officials who preached the source of all evil in this country could be found in Hollywood.

In addition to consulting with White House Social Secretary Bess Abell about the performing arts, I put in time for The Washington Post broadcast division, which included Channel 9, then known as WTOP-TV. Among my chores was a TV interview show, at noon Sundays.

For my life I can't remember who approached me about putting Jack Valenti on the show and on a date very significant for his hoped-for rating system. Every man, woman and presumably each mouse in Capitol Hill cupboards and walls had been invited to watch that Sunday. We taped several days before.

Rarely, in all those years in the broadcast business, did I encounter a guest so determined to exercise control, which was usually the job of the host. Finally, the camera light went off and the floor director "cut his throat" with a finger, signaling we were done.

Jack immediately asked if I would mind doing the show again: What could I say? Not waiting for an answer, the high-powered ad executive - that's what he had been before the White House - was on the phone to Program Director Jim Silliman, offering to pay all expenses for shooting once more.

The second time around brought smiles from the future movies tsar; he poured effusiveness all over the studio. As you know, he got the job.

Our relationship proceeded on the pleasant side until "The Exorcist" came out. As a critic I found the flick emotionally dangerous to kids and others who might take sensitively the tale of possession by the devil.

Both The New York Times and the National Journal, a spin-off from the Wall Street Journal, liked the rhubarb I kicked up over what was then the most-talked about film in the country. They asked me to write for their papers.

Mr. Valenti liked nothing about the published pieces that said his rating system had let down moviegoers, of all ages. To The Times he wrote a reply that indirectly accused me of being a traitor to him, his system and the president from Texas we had both served.

After the whirlwind died down, I moved to Frederick; the only time I saw my sometime friend was in the airport when he was pumping hands, warmly smiling and dazzling most who beheld him. We were in Los Angeles coming back to Maryland.

By nature, I can't abide confrontations, which is odd in a man who has generated arguments all his professional life. My beard helped. No one in Washington had seen the hairs stuck on my chin; that was a recent thing.

In the event, Jack never looked my way in the airport that day. His death last week, coming after a stroke, touched me with sadness, only because he had been an integral part of my world once upon a time.

Mstislav Rostropovich kissed me when we met. As his obituaries last week said, I belonged to a large and satisfied group. He grabbed many a man in a bear hug before smacking a smacker on his cheeks and smack-dab on the mouth.

Slava, his nickname to everybody, was the most Russian of any Russian I've ever known, and as readers know there have been more than several. He directed the Washington National Symphony Orchestra for 17 years, promoting his compatriots' music at every opportunity. The NSO gained immense stature under him. By merely walking into a room, the great maestro, could endow each and everyone with high self-worth.

Reading last week his obituaries, I was neither astonished nor impressed that the world's community had bestowed every honor before he died Thursday. He was recently 80. And on that occasion Mr. Rostropovich had received the highest award Russia had come up with lately. He had received others from his native land.

While I said Slava was flagrantly notorious for kissing and clutching most people that came within his reach, I received a special embrazzo, so fierce as to threaten to break my bones.

At the first press conference after he had been named to head the National Symphony, his English had not reached the later maturity. Whatever he was talking about seemed appropriate, to me, to mention Pushkin.

Not my English pointer companion but the greatest of Russian poets, Alexander Sergeyvich Pushkin. The maestro was thoroughly delighted and said so later. He came to a party of expatriates at my invitation. Concert bookings kept him jumping borders, however.

In any event, we stayed friends, until I left for Egypt and eventually moved to Frederick. He played a dirge for Roger Stevens' memorial service in 1998 in the Kennedy Center and I was there; but we did not speak. He exited back stage and never appeared out front.

One final note, the ton of stories last week mentioned that he delighted in pretty women and it was very true. On more than several occasions I noticed his eye wandered and sometimes heard a remark, always respectful but very appreciative.

Mstislav Rostropovich, a great musician and even a greater, more vibrant human being!

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