Hollywood has its Oscars, and Washington has its White House Correspondent's Association dinner, while we here at the U.N. have the U.N. Correspondents Association Awards' Ball, a quirky annual celebration of U.N. journalists, celebrity do-gooders and diplomatic bigwigs, complete with a raffle for free iPads, a Vespa, and plane tickets for an Italian getaway.
This year's black-tie event at the posh midtown Manhattan restaurant Cipriani veered from Vaudeville comedy to tragic tales of the world's downtrodden. The guests included U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and film actress and U.N. good will ambassador Mira Sorvino. Sorvino delivered a heartrending, and extremely lengthy, account of the suffering of young girls sold into sexual slavery, followed by an invitation to the audience to hit the dance floor.
The evening's Italian theme owed much to the influence of the press club's Italian president, Giampaolo Pioli, who was rewarded for organizing the event with a spin on the dance floor with Ambassador Rice. But the prevailing sensibility was pure slapstick, with CNN correspondent and master of ceremonies, Richard Roth, channelling a Borscht Belt stand up comedian. The event's organizers highlighted a series of comic video skits starring Ban and Rice, with cameo performances by comedian Stephen Colbert and film star/body builder/governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was honored with a mock appointment as the U.N. ambassador for outer-space aliens. He was qualified for the job, he noted, because he had once been Mr. Universe. "And when I first came to America I was an alien in this country," Schwarzenegger added. (Colbert also argued he would be a perfect nominee to welcome aliens to Earth, "the official planet of America.")
Rice appeared in a video skit delivering a hard-knuckled ultimatum to the leader of a horde of invading bed bugs threatening to take up residence at U.N. headquarters. She uttered the F word 4 times (each bleeped out by the censors) as she sought to rally the U.N. membership to the cause. In fact, Rice, who is known for her disciplined and contained public remarks, cursed with such gusto and conviction that it made you wonder what she sounds like behind closed diplomatic doors. (Efforts to obtain a copy of the video -- which I guarantee would instantly go viral on the diplomatic circuit and beyond -- were unsuccessful. All I got my hands on was the above photograph.)
WikiLeaks provided even more fodder for jokes. In one video skit, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon revealed his private biometric information to a room filled with several U.S. diplomats who had been instructed to collect personal information from U.N. officials, as detailed in one WikiLeaks cable. As Rice watched from the audience, Ban flashed his platinum Am-Ex card up to the camera, as computer images of his drivers license number, his U.N. identification number, his Netflix account number appeared on the screen -- as did the disclosure of the existence of a tattoo on an unspecified location of his body.
Controversies that had plagued the U.N. earlier this year were made light of throughout the evening. Sha Zukang, China's top U.N. official, who gained a measure of international notoriety after Turtle Bay disclosed his drunken rant against the Secretary General at an Austrian resort, made a light-hearted video appearance. Sha was shown at his desk, yelling into his telephone that he couldn't stand his boss. Ban, standing on the stage, said he and Sha both "got a big laugh" out of the sketch.
John Prendergast, the co-founder of the Enough Project who received the global citizenship award for his campaigns to end mass killing in Sudan and Congo, warned the U.N. not to permit the release of the evenings video tapes, half-jokingly noting that conservative Republicans would not get the joke. "John Boehner is not going to understand this," he said, referring to the incoming Republican leader of the House of Representatives.
The actual award portion of the evening was compressed to allow time for celebrity speeches. More than a dozen winners were marched onto stage together -- including reporters for the Salt Lake City Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press, who were honored for coverage of stories on Afghanistan, Haiti, U.N. corruption, and climate change. Only first-place winners were allowed to speak, with the exception of Edie Lederer, the AP's veteran correspondent at the U.N.
(Full disclosure: I didn't win anything. But I did get seated at a cool table. Next to me were ambassador Rice; Talal al-Haj, the Al-Arabiya correspondent who won the broadcast journalism award for his coverage of climate change; Middle East trouble shooter Terje-Roed Larsen; and his Norwegian diplomat wife, Mona Juul, who wrote the legendary diplomatic cable describing Ban as a "spineless and charmless" leader. Judging from the way she and Ban casually shook hands, they've since made up.)
As the evening wound down, and the raffle prizes were awarded, a lucky young official from the U.S. mission won an iPad. Rice immediately put on her best battle face and waved her over to her table. "You've got to give that back, now." This time it wasn't a skit.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.