But the best was yet to be, and all of the U.N. was tittering about it. It was a diplomatic lunch. In the crush, President Castro extended his hand and President Clinton took it -- the first body contact between Castro and any of the nine American presidents who have served since he came down from the Cuban mountains.
The U.S. side of the political theater was nicely sustained: Press secretary Joe Lockhart, asked if it was true that Clinton and Castro had shaken hands, replied, no. Somebody somewhere got through to the White House to say, Look, this isn't going to work -- maybe 20 world leaders saw the handshake. So the White House said well, yes, there was just that, a little exchange. Then Secretary of State Albright hove in to promise that the two-minute exchange (a very long handshake, come to think of it) had contained "nothing of substance."
We do not know whether a blinking light signaled an appropriate end to this conversation, but we do know that nothing much is going on that would affect the current freeze on economic activity by Americans in Cuba, which is a bad idea, now that the Cold War is over.
But an end to the U.S. boycott would not alone relieve Cuba of its misery. And would have no bearing on the larger agenda Castro came to New York to consider. "Many in the present generation are losing confidence in the ability of the United Nations to make a difference between war and peace," Secretary-General Kofi Annan had said that morning, opening the session. Cuba does not have such problems as stopped the concerned world dead in Bosnia, East Timor and Rwanda in recent years.
It was Mr. Clinton's final appearance at the U.N. as president, and he did not let pass the opportunity to loose one of those cliches on which he thrives, and the world suffers through. "Until we confront the iron link between deprivation, disease and war," he said, "we will never be able to create the peace that the founders of the United Nations dreamed of."
That is U.N.-speak, at best silly, at worst contemptible. There is no such iron link. There are desperately poor nations that don't go in for genocide, and very rich nations that do. But Castro surely nodded his head in agreement, since impersonal causes of human misery are the mint of ideological dreamworlds.