As Hu Jintao touches down at Andrews, I recall the one and only time I saw the man in the flesh. Through a friend at the State Department who was a favorite of the White House head of protocol, I managed to finagle an invite to the first ever official state visit by a Chinese leader in 2006 (or maybe 2005).
It was a hot day on the South Lawn of the White House, and the state arrival ceremony for Hu included a full fife and drum parade across the grounds, and a full honor guard snaking the staircases leading up to the south portico. President Bush spoke some words of welcome, joined by Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. And then Hu came to the podium. I remember exactly two things about the long, tedious Mandarin speech. The first is that, in my boredom, my eyes roamed across the honor guard and settled on a profusely sweating Marine about halfway up the right staircase, standing at full attention and shouldering a ceremonial rifle. I watched him for a few seconds and then, just like that, his knees gave out and he crumpled to the ground — presumably from heat-induced exhaustion. I recall thinking that even the way the Marine collapsed looked neat, efficient, measured, and dignified, and I recall the discipline of the servicemen around him, none of whom so much as moved an eyeball to help him. He lay for a solid two minutes before a White House medic approached to offer assistance.
The second thing I remember: Most of the dignitaries and invited guests were arrayed on the lawn to the left and right of Hu’s podium. The military and ceremonial contingents were behind him on the White House battlements. So the body that Hu was directly addressing was the press, seated in rows of collapsible aluminum bleachers a hundred feet or so in front of him. In the middle of his remarks, one female “photographer” in the stands stood, tore off a jacket to reveal a t-shirt with a slogan I couldn’t make out, and began screaming bloody murder, in Chinese. She was quickly seized and escorted away, and I’d later find out she was cursing Hu up and down for the Chinese regime’s ongoing human rights violations. But what struck me about the outburst at that moment was that Hu Jintao didn’t skip a beat in his remarks; his voice didn’t modulate even a half-tone; and his gaze didn’t break, any more than the gazes of the servicemen next to the collapsed Marine did.
I’m still not sure what that means, exactly. But I know it means something.