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The world as my oyster

Ralph J. Begleiter was CNN's World Affairs Correspondent from 1981-1999. He is currently Distinguished Journalist in Residence at the University of Delaware where he teaches journalism and political science. Contact him at Ralph.Begleiter@udel.edu or visit www.udel.edu/poscir/road/

Begleiter reports from outside the Kremlin in 1990  

(CNN) -- For a reporter covering international affairs, the decade between 1982 and 1992 was just about as good as it gets.

Think about it: Those years included an incredible string of international "hits" ...

The deposing of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines (1986), Israel's invasion of Lebanon (1982), the marine barracks and U.S. embassy bombings in Beirut (1983), the Lebanon hostage crises, the shoot-down of Korean Air Lines flight 007 by a Soviet fighter (1983).

The deaths of three Soviet Communist leaders and the rise of a virtual unknown -- Mikhail Gorbachev; the ideological battle over Central America (including Soviet-American proxy wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua).

The transformation of the Palestine Liberation Organization from a "terrorist" organization to an Israeli "partner" in peace; the collapse of the Soviet Union; Tiananmen Square (1989); the defeat of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; two Persian Gulf Wars; the rise of democracy from the ashes of military dictatorships in South America.

The reunification of Germany; the fall of the Iron Curtain (including Berlin Wall); the resurrection of holocaust-like ethnic cleansing in the heart of Europe (1992); unprecedented face-to-face Arab-Israeli peace talks (1991); and much more.

It was also a time when the news media were still interested in "live" accounts of the intricate diplomacy of global politics, as distinct from the eyewitness accounts of war and crisis that came to dominate a much narrower window for international news later in the 1990s.

CNN? What's CNN?

I also remember how CNN's status evolved from being a new kid on the block to the one it enjoys today.

Trying to get officials at the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA to return my phone calls in the early 1980s, for example, typically meant explaining what CNN was ("Ted Turner's all-news cable television network") and who I was ("former all-news radio reporter on WTOP in Washington").

I was also laughed off the plane when I asked for a seat to travel with President Reagan's secretary of state, George P. Shultz. (The State Department nowadays assumes CNN's presence on global diplomatic missions and sometimes actually begs for it).

Then I got the worldwide news break when Shultz abruptly decided, after decades of referring to PLO leader Yasser Arafat as a terrorist, to open a diplomatic "dialog" with him. Shultz did that in December 1988, after Reagan had become a lame duck. And I had Arafat's aides phone me personally to verify the story was correct.

Begleiter interviews Shevardnadze August 1990  

 VIDEO
CNN Correspondent Ralph Begleiter interviews Eduard Shevardnadze August, 1990
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Right place at the wrong time

A few memories that are "highlights" for me are barely footnotes in the history of the 1980s and 1990s. Here is one ...

There was a CNN courier waiting anxiously at the airport in Moscow when I landed in August 1990 after a lengthy and ground-breaking interview with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze aboard his diplomatic aircraft. It was the first time (and the last) that a Soviet foreign minister had invited a Western correspondent to travel with him. The courier at the airport was eager to grab my videotapes and rush back to CNN's Moscow office for transmission back to Atlanta.

I, too, was excited. Shevardnadze, in shirtsleeves aboard his plane, had answered my questions for 90 minutes. I felt it was the sort of interview other news agencies would quote. Partial transcripts might be published.

I had studied hard for the interview and had several yellow legal pages filled with carefully prepared questions about everything from the Kremlin's withdrawal from Afghanistan to Gorbachev's political reforms. I had spent almost five years trying to get the interview -- since I had met Shevardnadze at U.S.-Soviet summit in the Reykjavik, Iceland.

The CNN courier thrust his two-way radio in my face, saying CNN was eager to learn what was on the tapes I carried onto the tarmac. I grabbed the radio as the courier insisted, "They want to know what he said about Iraq; tell them about Iraq first."

Pause. "Iraq?"

"Yes, Iraq. That's what they want to hear first."

Iraq? What about Iraq? I had not asked Shevardnadze about Iraq (although a question about Iraq's relationship with Moscow had been near the bottom of my list, it never reached in the interview). The courier was incredulous. "You didn't ask him about Iraq? The invasion?"

"What invasion?"

It was August 1, 1990. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait while Shevardnadze and I were in the air. If Shevardnadze knew about it, he had not revealed it to me. And I certainly had no way of knowing (there were no global cell phones or worldwide beepers in 1990).

My exclusive interview with the Soviet foreign minister was buried in the sands of the Persian Gulf War story. At my request CNN aired a brief segment in the middle of the night, so for the record we could say it had been published. But the story never saw the light of day in the media's frenzy over Iraq. The tapes sat in my files for almost a decade. Today they are being reviewed by historians writing about the end of the Cold War.

Footnotes from the front lines

Here are some other footnotes to my decade of covering world affairs for CNN ...

Begleiter reports from the Iraq-Turkey border where thousands of Iraqi refugees took shelter after the 1991 Persian Gulf War  

• Accompanying leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide as he set foot in Haiti for the first time since his exile.

• Celebrating Easter mass just a few feet from Pope John Paul II at St. Peter's Basilica.

• Seeing Imelda Marcos' closet (with all her shoes) after she and her husband were ousted from Malacanang Palace in Manila.

• Reporting "live" from inside the Madrid peace conference when Arabs and Israelis met for the first time in 1991.

• Reporting from Damascus after learning that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated as I was doing a long interview with Syria's foreign minister (and later reporting from Rabin's funeral ... and still later from the funeral of Jordan's King Hussein).

• Recording the first-ever television "standup" inside the walls of the Kremlin after Gorbachev came to power -- without permission, although the practice soon became routine.

• Walking across a tiny wooden bridge separating Jordan from the Israeli-controlled West Bank after the Persian Gulf War.

• Standing with thousands of Iraqi refugees on a mountainside in Turkey.

• Reporting from Hanoi 30 years after the Vietnam War protests I experienced as a college student in the 1960s.

• Crossing Checkpoint Charlie before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

• Being among the first Westerners to visit all of the former Soviet republics after the U.S.S.R. died, and being among the first Americans to visit Albania after 35 years of Kremlin domination. On that occasion I cajoled a young telephone operator in Tirana who had never seen a laptop computer to allow me to connect mine to her console to transmit news to CNN headquarters.

• Arguing with a producer in 1987 over the insertion of "birds chirping" sounds into a television "standup" shot in Belgium -- because the producer thought the silence of the forest in which I was standing near a nuclear missile launcher was "unnatural."

• Defending (against carefully circumscribed "denials") my exclusive reports about the detailed progress Israel and Syria made in closely guarded negotiations in Washington in 1995. It would be several years before both sides publicly confirmed the accuracy of those reports.

• Sleeping in a railroad car (for lack of hotel rooms) in Windhoek as Namibia gained its independence.

• Sleeping on the roach-infested tile floor of a border crossing building in Hong Kong to be in place to report on China's takeover the next day.

And many more.

Just about as good as it gets!

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