WASHINGTON -- What were you thinking during this past weekend's prodigal media coverage of Vice President Richard Cheney's heart retooling? Call me unpatriotic, but I was thinking of Cuba's President Fidel Castro.
Of all the forward-lookers of the last few decades, Fidel has been the most popular with the intelligentsia, except, perhaps, for the late Mao Zedong. His Western admirers were particularly agush about Cuba's high level of medical care, which is free. Unfortunately, as the vice president smiled through his medical procedures, I could not rid my mind of last week's photographs of Fidel wilting at the dais.
Possibly he should have spent more time with his world-renowned doctors. Perhaps he should have paid the vice president's a visit, notwithstanding the bills. Frankly, Fidel looks ghastly.
According to the press, the old boy suffered "a fainting spell" while doing what he has done for years, yelling his way through another morning. I did not see the speech, but given the photographs of his ashen countenance, the veins bulging from his skull, the glassy eyes, I should like to know how his handlers discerned the "fainting spell's" beginning and end. He has looked like hell for months.
Meanwhile, our vice president zips into George Washington University Hospital, takes off his shirt and our old-fashioned, fee-for-services docs pop a supercharged, twin-cam, New Technology pacemaker into him. The procedure took an hour. He was home by nightfall, and back on the job Monday. His doctors say he can resume his exercise routine and his work schedule, and probably spend a night on the town with his wife doing the foxtrot or whatever it is that Republicans on-the-town do at night.
Yet back in Havana, the man who for decades thrilled progressive intellectuals with his forward-leaning plans is in mothballs. For years, he has been a marvel of health and intellect, causing intellectuals and politicos alike to say the most extraordinary things.
In the late 1970s, the American writer Sally Quinn returned from Cuba having found it an Isle of Eros. Said she of the country that then housed thousands of political prisoners in dirty cells and torture chambers, "an attitude of sexuality is as pervasive in Cuba as the presence of Fidel Castro. You can feel sex in the atmosphere."
Former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern bounced around the Cuban countryside with Fidel in a jeep and survived to tell of it. Said he of a man who even then was sending arms and soldiers around the world to support communist terror and oppose American policy, Fidel is "soft-spoken, shy, sensitive, sometimes witty. ... I frankly, liked him." And Sen. Lowell Weicker, the Republican ever on the prowl for a presidential nomination, launched this line certain to illuminate his presidential qualifications. "Castro's been known to snow people, but he didn't snow me," Weicker asseverated. He spoke of Fidel's "enormous intellect and idealism" -- yes, idealism! He questioned why the United States did not take Fidel's side, the side of progress.
Well, perhaps someone in our State Department knew that if we just waited long enough, our medical science would develop that whiz-bang pacemaker cum ICI defibrillator that has returned the spring to the vice president's step. Maybe others recognized that people can have fine medical services without secret police, political prisoners and really appalling torture. The best book on the subject is "Against All Hope: The Prison Memoirs of Armando Valladares." I am told Valladares does not share the aforementioned Americanos' esteem for Fidel. Like me, he finds the increasingly feeble Fidel a feast for the eyes.
What has always absorbed me about Fidel's fans in the West is not that they settled their admiration on such absurd deceptions as communism's superior healthcare and -- even more absurd -- superior educational systems. Can one really have education without freedom? I said education, not indoctrination.
Rather, what intrigues me is his fans' terms of praise. Fidel has been sexy, witty, shy, kindly, idealistic and on into the wild blue yonder of idiocy. Now why would one say such things about a brutal dictator who made no effort to conceal his hatred of the American system of government and economics, a system that in its worst moments still was infinitely superior to Fidel's communism?
Given the vagaries of the human mind, I can offer no single explanation. I can recall that similar attributes during the century of the dictator were attributed to all the century's dictators, even Hitler for a time.
One other point : These are the attributes progressives never detect in, say, a George W. Bush or a Ronald Reagan. At home they find them in Kennedys, Clintons and other dynamic Democrats. It makes you wonder, does it not?