- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 30, 2003

Strolling past Russian Ambassador Yuri V. Ushakov’s residence at just the right moment Tuesday night, one might have heard James Wadsworth Symington’s melodic voice drifting down to the street from the second-floor Gold Room.

“Follow the fellow who follows the dream,” the former congressman and cabaret crooner sang as he finished a spirited rendition of “Follow the Rainbow” dedicated to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.

The vocal tribute to Mr. Billington’s remarkable library-building efforts sweetly presaged what was to follow when the author of “The Icon and the Axe” and other works was tested publicly on his vast knowledge of all things Russian before a standing-room-only crowd that included former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, former ambassadors to Russia James Collins and Thomas R. Pickering, Lucky Roosevelt, Priscilla Roosevelt, William H. Webster, Russell and Aileen Train, Wendy Burden Morgan and Libby Halaby, plus various Obolenskys, Tolstoys, Chavchavadzes and others of that ilk.

The invitation to the American Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation benefit promised “A Public Trial of His Expertise on Russia,” and the judges, Mr. Ushakov (on the Russian side) and Justice Antonin Scalia (for the Americans), lost no time peppering Mr. Billington with questions after the customary offering of bread and salt.

“Who was the first American chief of mission to my country?” Mr. Ushakov asked after drawing the first question from a traditional Russian fur hat.

“John Quincy Adams, appointed by President James Madison,” Mr. Billington replied, swiftly adding for extra good measure the name of the first Russian envoy to the United States.

“And who lent the money to the U.S. government to buy Alaska?” Mr. Scalia queried.

Another quick answer: “Riggs Bank, the building closest to headquarters.”

So it went, with the unflappable guest of honor demonstrating erudition throughout.

Though admirably acquitted to thunderous applause and adorned in glory with an Ivan the Terrible-style crown atop his head, the defendant had a confession to make.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have to tell you that I have just re-enacted the role of Charles Van Doren.”

All to great laughter, of course. No one cared if he had been given the questions in advance. It was just a show.

But not, as it turned out, a show trial.

“Oh no, the judgment is not quite the same,” Mr. Ushakov said, shaking with laughter as he made it perfectly clear Mr. Billington’s lack of concentration would not condemn him to a concentration camp in Siberia or elsewhere.

Justice Scalia also was contrite. “I’m ashamed of myself. We fed him the answers,” he said later as guests downed vodka and swarmed over the buffet in the dining room. Nonetheless, he did enjoy banging down his gavel each time a question was answered correctly.

“Even the chief [justice] doesn’t get to do it that much,” he said with a grin.

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