- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

Dinner for 2,000

I can never help wondering, when attending a big awards dinner at one of the city’s grand hotel ballrooms, how you get 2,000 medium-rare filet mignons and 2,000 pieces of salmon to all come out at the same time.

Not very well, would be the obvious quick answer, but that would be a cheap shot and usually not justified.

Such dinners are a regular fixture in Washington and part of the job for many reporters and editors. You go to show your respect for the people who invited you, to maintain contact with your sources, and in hopes of picking up a few snippets of gossip or inside information that might be developed into a future news story.

The idea, generally, is to talk to as many people as possible, suffer politely through the speeches and get out as early as possible without being rude.

So I was surprised and delighted at a dinner on Tuesday sponsored by the National Democratic Institute to find myself deeply moved by the proceedings and glued to my seat up to the end.

The institute, which along with its counterpart, the International Republican Institute, promotes and monitors democracy around the world, had assembled a stunning list of honorees, all of whom had taken grave risks and made great contributions in bringing democracy to their homelands.

First up was Corazon Aquino, whose “people power” revolution in the Philippines drove out the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Next came Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania of Georgia, one of the fathers of that country’s “Rose Revolution” that a year ago ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze after dubious elections.

Another award went to Bronislaw Geremek, one of the men who helped defeat communism in Poland and went on to become its foreign minister. Yet another went to Xanana Gusmao, the longtime East Timor freedom fighter who serves now as president of the world’s newest country, Timor Leste.

There were others — Amat Al-Aleem Alsoswa, the human rights minister of Yemen and the first woman to become a Cabinet minister in an Arab country; Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza of Chile, who helped end the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet; and Abdoulaye Wade, the former political prisoner who is now the president of Senegal.

Message to Kiev

It was no surprise, in such company, that most of the talk from the podium and at the tables was of the unfolding drama in Ukraine.

Apart from moving comments and reflections from several of the award winners, there was also a formal message issued to the people of Ukraine from the seven foreign award recipients, two American award recipients — Sens. Richard G. Lugar and Joseph R. Biden Jr. — and NDI Chairwoman Madeleine K. Albright.

“We have watched with wonder and admiration as hundreds of thousands of you have braved the cold and snow and the fear of intimidation in your call for democracy,” the message began.

“We stand in solidarity with you, in the conviction that the principles to which we aspire together, for a political process based on equality and respect for human rights, reflect the hopes and aspirations of people the world over.”

The evening helped crystallize for me why the Ukraine story has been so satisfying to cover. After months of grim news about beheadings, torture chambers, suicide bombers and shattered lives, here at last is a story that uplifts the spirit and makes us feel good about our fellow men and women.

The events in Ukraine bring back for us the wonderful days more than a decade ago when repressive dictatorships were falling like dominoes and our newspapers were routinely filled with news of happy events like the fall of the Berlin Wall.

One can only hope the January elections in Iraq will make it possible to feel that way about our work more often again.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]m.

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