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46

OCTOBER 2016

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THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL

“Champ,” I said, “when you’re in the ring and someone has

you on the ropes, do you leave the ring?”

“I get your drift,” Ali said, and turned to the ambassador.

“Where’s downtown?” he asked.

Neither the ambassador nor I had the slightest clue what he

was driving at. But when the ambassador mentioned Tinubu

Square, Ali took me by the arm, “Let’s go there now.”

The long line of minibuses that had brought us from the

airport was downstairs waiting, press corps and State Depart-

ment delegation included. As we pulled into Tinubu Square, Ali

jumped out and began to shadow box with passers-by, of which

there were hundreds.

Soon he was recognized, and the growing crowd began to

chant: “Ali! Ali!” When he had whipped them into a frenzy, he

turned to me: “Where was that first appointment?”

I replied that I had gotten his drift, and off we went with a

large, chanting crowd in tow to the foreign ministry and our

first appointment. We saw other ministers, but not the Nigerian

president.

The score so far: one loss in Tanzania, one win in Kenya and

a technical KO by Ali in Nigeria.

The next stop was Monrovia, Liberia, a friendly nation once

founded by freed American slaves and sure to back us in our

pleas to boycott the Moscow Olympics. Having learned my les-

son in Kenya about Ali’s ability to turn meetings to his advan-

tage, I simply told him that President William Tolbert Jr. had

been a preacher. And, indeed, the president’s office was set up

like a mini-church, with rows of pews facing the chief of state’s

desk.

Tolbert was very formal, welcoming Ali and me with all the

old-style protocol of which the Liberian state was so enam-

ored. As he spoke, Ali leaned forward from his pew and began

to chant: “Speak to me! That’s right, speak to me! I hear you

preaching. Oh, my Lord…”

I thought, now you’ve done it—managed to get the champ

to insult a strong ally and probably lose sure support. But no—

His sense of timing and

his ability to get inside his

interlocutor’s head and heart

were a beauty to behold.

Tolbert began to rap back, and before my eyes the two were

transformed into brothers. We were on a roll.

As we pulled into the airport at Dakar, our last stop, there

was the usual press conference that we had encountered at

every stop. But this time, everyone was tired; they had heard

the questions and Ali’s answers over and over. The TV cameras

were turned off, and folks were about to take a nap—when a

reporter stood up and, with a heavy Russian accent, launched

into the same line about an imperialist ploy that we had heard

in Tanzania.

The press corps began to wake up when Ali looked at the

reporter and asked, “Are you a Russian?”

Yes, was the answer.

“Are you a communist?” Ali continued.

After some hesitation, a reluctant yes came out.

“Well,” said Ali, really wound up now, as if this were the last

championship round. “I’ve been to your country. You don’t

believe in God. Well, I’ll tell you something, we’re in Africa

here, and we believe in God!”

The Russian sat down, abashed, as the press corps and

onlookers cheered. The champ raised his arms in victory.

“Could I Be a Diplomat?”

Washington considered Senegal to be a sure thing, but I

told Ali that President Leopold Senghor, an honest man, had

refused to go along with an Olympic boycott against South

Africa on the grounds that politics and sports should not be

confused. He would not change his stance, I said, even for

Muhammad Ali—but as a renowned poet, he would welcome a

brother bard. I told the champ to enjoy the interchange.

And that’s what happened. Pres. Senghor invited us all to his

personal seaside residence, where he and Ali hit it off as they

recited their poetry. It was a perfect end to an extraordinary

mission.

As Ali’s plane took off for Washington with the press corps

and State Department delegation, I remained on the tarmac. I

had to get back to that aborted meeting in Luanda, I thought.

Ali waved at me with a twinkle in his eye, as I am sure he

recalled the several long conversations we had had along the

way centered on his question: “Do you think I could do more of

these missions? Could I be a diplomat?”

I had told him then, and I meant it, that he was “a diplomat

extraordinaire.” His sense of timing and his ability to get inside

his interlocutor’s head and heart were a beauty to behold. Ali

combined a sense of strategy, learned from the ring, with the

unparalleled ability to muster popular support, above and