This is dedicated to the Canadian politicians who shamefully took selfies with war criminals like Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell last week, and who failed to raise issues of state criminality from racism and mass deportations to Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes. Here is a lesson in history from a Canadian who knew exactly how to behave at the White House. This brave woman, Carole Addesso, spoke truth directly to power in the belly of the beast. A brave and truly memorable protest. May it be repeated often in the future.
An edited version appears here: https://nowtoronto.com/news/the-canadian-who-shocked-the-white-house/ <https://nowtoronto.com/news/the-canadian-who-shocked-the-white-house/>
(Full text below)
The Canadian Who Kicked White House Protocol to the Curb
By Matthew Behrens
In the gushing coverage of last week’s Trudeau-Obama bromance White House summit, star-struck Canuck Cabinet Ministers behaved like they were on a trip to Disneyland instead of the site where the U.S. President hosts weekly “kill list” meetings to launch overseas drone strikes that have claimed thousands of lives.
But not a critical word was spoken, including at a State Department luncheon where Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains tweeted a selfie in which he declared it was “an honour” to meet a man many feel should be tried for war crimes, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Such unquestioning adulation had one former Canadian White House visitor scratching her head in disbelief. Indeed, when Cabbagetown-born Carole Addesso (née Feraci) attended a ceremonial White House gathering in January, 1972, she went down in history as one of the only entertainers to defiantly challenge a President to his face.
The setting was a Reader’s Digest 50th anniversary party, and Richard Nixon (then the focus of international condemnation and intense domestic protest for his ongoing war against Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), saw the occasion as an opportunity to connect with his conservative base in the comfort of his own home. The star-studded gala included the likes of Bob Hope, Lionel Hampton, Norman Vincent Peale, Charles Lindbergh, Rev. Billy Graham, and the complete cast of what would later be a long-running TV saga known as the Watergate affair. Entertainment included an easy-listening group, the Ray Conniff Singers, about whom Nixon famously declared: “If the music’s square, it’s because I like it square.”
Addesso – by then a Hollywood veteran who had appeared frequently on the Smothers Brothers show and sung with everyone from Johnny Mathis to the Doodletown Pipers – had been invited two weeks earlier to join the Conniff singers for the unpaid White House gig. She originally turned it down, because “I didn't want to sing for a man who’s killing people, but after thinking about it, I thought I should go and say something.”
With a planned protest in mind, she found herself on a pre-show tour of the White House. Recalling the incident by phone from her home in Temecula, California, Addesso says, “We were in the Oval office, and Nixon and his gang were next door in the war room planning their next moves in Vietnam, and I thought, ‘man, I am so glad I am here.’ Thinking about what they were doing gave me a lot of courage to do what I was going to do, because I didn't know what they would do to me. Would they shoot me? I had this thing in my dress and they might think it’s a gun.”
As the singers decked out in elegant gowns took the stage, the pre-song silence was interrupted when Addesso pulled from her bosom a handwritten banner that read “Stop the Killing.” She then looked into Nixon’s eyes as she said: “Mr. President, stop the bombing of human beings, animals and vegetation. You got to church on Sunday and pray to Jesus Chris. If Jesus Christ were in this room tonight you would not dare to drop another bomb. Bless the Berrigans and Daniel Ellsberg [a reference to two Catholic priests then in jail for destroying draft records and a whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers, the Edward Snowden of his day]."
“I looked at him the whole time, and Nixon was sitting there with a frozen smile, and he never bloody moved a muscle. He didn't know what to do, nobody did.”
After the first song, Conniff apologized to the audience, saying to Nixon, “I guess I’ll have to make sure from now on that my singers listen to your speeches. They don't seem to know what's going on.” As cries of “Throw the bum out” filled the room, Martha Mitchell, the inebriated wife of the US Attorney General, shouted out that Addesso should be torn “limb from limb.” Conniff asked Addesso to leave, and with typical Canadian politeness, she replied, “Certainly.”
After she walked off the stage, she was taken downstairs to a room with secret service personnel, White House Counsel John Dean and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. “Dean and Haldeman were just freaking out, and they kept saying, ‘It’s an incident, it’s an incident! We have to be careful how we handle this,’” she laughs, relishing the memory that both men would soon be facing their own questioning over illegal actions in the Watergate scandal. “Then they started questioning me. Is there illness in the family? Did I plan to kill the President? All kinds of dumb shit. I told them, ‘You didn't hear a word I said.” To her shock, the interrogation eventually ended, and she became the subject of another historic first: they called her a cab, even though that went against White House protocol.
“I was very calm throughout,” the 73-year-old Addesso says now. “I knew what I wanted to say and nothing was going to stop me. Like a lot of people, I would do whatever I could to stop this war.”
Addesso became the subject of almost daily conversation at the White House, confirmed later by the release of the Nixon tapes. “Every day when they had their Oval Office meetings, I was talked about for the next three months. What is she doing? Is she going to sue us? They were worried I would start an even bigger problem.”
She found herself the target of the FBI and was constantly hounded by the press. Jobs offers dried up, and when she faced deportation to Canada, she received calls from the era’s leading civil rights lawyers, including Mark Lane and William Kunstler (of Chicago 7 fame.)
Nonetheless, she harbours no regrets whatsoever, and chalks up her White House protest to a lifetime of standing up to bullies that began when she acted as an “angel of mercy” to vulnerable kids in her Parliament and Dundas neighbourhood. During her mid-60s tour with Johnny Mathis and The Young Americans, a racially integrated singing group, she remembers being just outside of Selma during historic anti-segregation demonstrations. “We were at a truck stop where they refused to serve the two black members of the group, so I said we’re not eating here and we got up and left. A short time later a big truck caught up with us and tried to run us off the road.”
As Addesso surveys the current American scene, she despairs at the obsession with celebrity over substance. Indeed, in an era when the White House correspondents dinner has become a glamour-infused red carpet affair akin to the Oscars, and Presidential awards are just another platform for self-aggrandizing selfies, Addesso says, “I don't get it, I really don’t. How could they go and feel like it’s an honour to be there when they're sitting in a den of killers? It’s just crazy.”