It’s not exactly a story filled with Jewish particularity, normally the stuff of this column, but the fellow I find myself thinking of this week is Raymond Joseph. He has been in the news because he is Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, and it was Joseph who went on the air to defend his country after Pat Robertson broadcast his remark about how Haitians had, in exchange for their freedom from France, made a pact with the devil. Joseph’s reply was a memorable moment in diplomatic dignity.
It happens that I have known Joseph for some decades, because during the years I was foreign editor at the Wall Street Journal he was a reporter in the paper’s New York bureau. One day he came to me in a mood of frustration; he had been wanting to write for a competing paper in favor of Haitian democracy and against the regime of the then-dictator, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, a wonderful journalist in his own right, would have none of it, and so Ray had asked if he could have lunch with me.
When he explained his problem, I said, without a great deal of ceremony, that a reporter just had to do what the managing editor wanted. Rather than cut the lunch short, however, I asked Ray to tell me about his family. He told me that there was just he and his brother, Leo. I asked what Leo did, and Ray told me he was publisher of the Haiti Observateur. When I looked quizzical, Ray told me that it was the largest Haitian newspaper in the world—published in Brooklyn. When I asked who owned it, Ray replied: “I do.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “You own the largest Haitian newspaper in the world and you’re covering a business beat for the Wall Street Journal?”
To make a long story short, Ray Joseph quit the Wall Street Journal and went to edit his own paper, long a tribune for Haitian democracy. And when, a few months later, the Duvalier regime was finally ousted and the transition to democracy began, Ray was named Haiti’s charge d’affairs in Washington and its representative to the Organization of American States, where he signed the accord setting the stage for the first democratic elections. Ray resigned when the elections elevated Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency. Ray confided to his friends that the elections were fair and democratic but had been won by a non-democrat. So Ray returned to editing the Observateur.
The next time I saw him was when Howell Raines, then editorial page editor of the New York Times, joined the editors of the Forward for dinner. I’d invited Ray, because I’d been in touch with him during the period when Aristide was trying to trade on the fact that he speaks Hebrew and had spent time in Israel to curry favor with the Jewish leadership in the city. After the dinner, Ray confided to me that he had resented me for years.
The grudge he’d nursed was that he’d thought I was being cynical—a cats-paw for the top editors at the Wall Street Journal—when I’d suggested he go work for his own paper. He hadn’t realized until I’d fetched up at the Forward that neither I nor anyone else had wanted him off the Journal and that I actually believed in the importance of not only the big newspapers like the Journal but also the smaller papers.
When we launched the New York Sun, Ray came on as a columnist. He was still editing the Observateur when Aristide was driven into exile and the Haitians became free to set up a new government. It was a Sunday, February 29, 2004, and I telephoned Ray to offer congratulations. He invited me to rush out to Brooklyn for a small reception with some of his friends. Speeding across the Brooklyn Bridge, I asked my driver to stop by the house where my wife and I live so that I could invite one of the children.
One of our boys, then 11 years old, piled into the car, and when he and I walked into the modest living room in which Ray had gathered his friends, we received a standing ovation—for the Sun’s support of the democratic movement in exile. Ray went around the room, introducing us to each of the two- or three-dozen guests. This one a future chief of staff of the army, that a future justice of the high court, the next an about-to-be government minister. The details escape me. What does not escape me is the inspiring nature of the idealism of those who had gathered around plates of petites four and coffee at a turning point toward Haitian democracy.
When we left, I leaned over to my son and said, “That’s what it’s like to start a country.”
Ray Joseph himself drew the assignment, again, of representing his government in Washington, where, in the years since, he has been doing an eloquent job in seasons of hard work and frustration. He would be among the first to acknowledge how much work yet needs to be done, even without an earthquake. Whether Robertson was trying to make a useful point about the importance of religion and culture in Haiti, I do not know. He certainly failed. But he set Ambassador Joseph up for a riposte that will be remembered.
Ray, himself a devout Christian, did not attack Robertson, or even name him. What he did say, on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, was this: “I would like the whole world to know, America especially, that the independence of Haiti, when the slaves rose up against the French and defeated the French army, powerful army, the U.S. was able to gain the Louisiana territory for 15 million dollars, that’s three cents an acre, that’s 13 states west of the Mississippi, that the slaves’ revolt in Haiti provided America.
“Also the revolt of the rebels in Haiti allowed Latin America to be free. It was from Haiti that Simon Bolivar left with men, boats to go deliver Gran Columbia and the rest of South America. So what pact the Haitians made with the devil has helped the United States become what it is.”
It was a glimpse of a great newspaperman turned diplomat and a reminder, at a time of a crisis, of the history and sacrifices we share with the tragic nation to our south and of at least a part of the logic of the vast humanitarian response that we are witnessing today.