A Clown? No Way. A Genius!

October, 1987
"The Miami Herald may as well close its doors if it believes it can take advantage of us economically while it belittles our ideals and misrepresents our people and our purposes."

- Cuban American National Foundation, Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman; from a full-page advertisement placed in the Herald

"No American newspaper can negotiate news coverage. We shall continue maintaining our professional standards. The Foundation represents just one part of the Cuban community, and we have to listen to all of them as well as to other, non-Cuban, Hispanics."

- Richard Capen, publisher, Miami Herald, quoted in the New York Times

January, 1992
"The Miami Herald takes and assumes the same positions as the Cuban government, but we must confess that once upon a time they were more discreet about it. Lately the distance between the Miami Herald and Fidel Castro has narrowed considerably.... Why must we consent to the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald continuing a destructive campaign full of hatred for the Cuban exile, when ultimately they live and eat, economically speaking, on our support? These attacks...aim to destroy the authentic and genuine values of the Cuban-American community."

- Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman, Cuban American National Foundation, in a local radio broadcast

"The allegations against the Herald and El Nuevo Herald are sad and painful and unfair.... We don't claim to be perfect - no human institution could - but we are newspapers and people who care a great deal about the future of this community for all of its citizens.... We have worked hard to be fair, and feel badly when anyone thinks otherwise. We will always remain willing to try and do even better."

- David Lawrence, publisher, Miami Herald; and Roberto Suarez, president, Miami Herald Publishing Company, in the Herald

Good news, friends: The circus is back in town! And I'm delighted to report that the clowns are more entertaining than ever before. Jorge Mas Canosa, veteran funnyman from the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), has outdone himself, his wickedly delicious sense of the absurd never more on target.

Richard Capen, unfortunately, has left the big top. His last great performance, cited above, surprised and thrilled everyone who had always assumed he was just a smarmy, glad-handing geek miscast as publisher of a major daily newspaper. A splendid and memorable bit of stagecraft.

But we knew we could count on the folks at Knight-Ridder when it came to replacing Capen. With Lawrence (and his sidekick Suarez), they've convincingly established themselves as masters at picking talent. I don't know about you, but those comeback lines knocked me out. Mas Canosa, with his legendary gift for the setup, goes on the air with a side-splitter: The Miami Herald sleeps with Fidel and foments a diabolical hate campaign designed to obliterate its most significant community of readers: local Cubans. This is great material.

But most journalists, creatures not known for quick wit and repartee, would have blown it. In less skilled hands, the response would have been a blast of self-righteous hot air - Dick Capen without the irony: "We don't make the news, you jerk, we report the news. And our only allegiance is to the truth, not to you, not to your lousy Foundation, and not to anyone else. If you don't like it, you can stuff it." Boring, boring, boring.

Not so the boffo team of Lawrence & Suarez. They saw their opening, stepped into the spotlight, and gleefully grabbed the mike: Gosh, Mr. Mas, sir, we've tried so very, very hard to be nice. How can you say these horrible things about our poor little newspaper? We know we're just imperfect humans, sir, but we'll try harder, by golly. We promise.

Genius! Dazzling! Sarcasm sophisticated enough to make Mort Sahl proud. (Note to Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry: Keep an eye on these guys. They're after your jobs.)

I've got to tip my hat to Lawrence in particular. My earlier assessments of the man have now been thoroughly trashed. Don't ask me how I got it so wrong, but there was a time when I thought (and, I'm sorry to say, wrote in these pages) that he was a transparent wimp so disoriented by the humid heat of Miami that he had confused his new job as publisher with that of a missionary plopped down among jungle heathens. I don't like the taste of crow, but I'll admit it: Boy was I stupid.

Lawrence only appears to be a clown. In truth he is as canny as they come. It is a testament to Lawrence's shrewdness that early on he saw Mas Canosa for what he is - a petulant child in a three-piece suit. What best revealed his sublime intellect, however, was his strategy for dealing with this character: disarm him with honey, not vinegar, and do it with such finesse that he never knows he's been had.

After the vitriolic outburst of the full-page ad in late 1987, Mas Canosa and his cronies were eerily silent. Lawrence arrived at the Herald two years later and began making the rounds among Miami VIPs, Mas Canosa included. In the meantime, his team of reporters quietly went about their work. And busy bees they were:

February 1990: the state's Free Cuba Commission (starring Mas Canosa) draws fire for operating in secret. March: the director of Radio Marti claims a power-hungry Mas Canosa forced him out of office. April: TV Marti makes its expensive debut only to be jammed in Havana. Disturbing questions are raised regarding its value. May: Ronald Reagan and Mas Canosa hold forth at an Orange Bowl rally, their words broadcast to Cuba via Radio Marti, which leads to charges of political manipulation. June: Radio comedian Alberto Gonzalez and his program La Mogolla garner attention for poking savage fun at Cuban big shots, including Mas Canosa. July: Questions are raised, and aired in the Herald, regarding Mas Canosa's alleged ambitions to become president of a free Cuba.

Clearly the pressure was building to a dangerous level. How many more insults could a man of Mas Canosa's stature endure? Just when it seemed (to me at least) that Mount Canosa would erupt again, Lawrence pulled from his hat an exquisite trick. In August he devoted one of his Sunday flatter columns to the man himself: Jorge Mas Canosa, widely publicized but badly misunderstood, complicated, a patriot, a loving family man, overflowing with compassion, harmless.

Brilliantly conceived, stunningly executed. I don't have to tell you I regret having so completely misread that column. Only a knucklehead like me would have described it as a "disgusting, egregious paean." In fact, Mas Canosa had once again been pacified, a baby with a bottle stuck in his mouth. Absolutely superb. And its soothing effect lingered longer than anyone had imagined.

But of course Mas Canosa is a temperamental man. It couldn't last, and it didn't. In April of last year, the Herald reported allegations of severe problems - and possible illegalities - within CANF's program to bring to the U.S. numerous Cuban exiles trapped in third countries. Given CANF's sacrosanct image, and the fact that the allegations were made by a state refugee official, this was explosive stuff.

Aides are said to have carefully peeled Mas Canosa from the ceiling of his office when he heard what the Herald was up to. Outrageous! How dare anyone criticize the Foundation's good deeds. He quickly marshaled his troops: "It's a bunch of shit," CANF director Domingo Moreira explained to the Herald. "We're not going to let one bureaucrat do this kind of political hatchet job."

You could almost see a sly smile creeping across Lawrence's face: Okay, Jorge, we know you just hate this sort of thing. Go ahead and blow your top. We'll humor you by printing your rebuttals, but we're going to proceed.

Which is exactly what happened. The Herald editorial board interviewed the local head of the state agency that had made the accusations, and then decided to publish an editorial about the subject. The editorial was to suggest that in order to lift any cloud of suspicion hanging over CANF's refugee program, an independent agency should conduct an audit and an investigation. Pretty straightforward - logically reasoned and calmly presented.

The editorial probably would have run as planned, but Mas Canosa was still pitching a fit. Rumors were flying: he was out of control with rage, he was threatening a boycott of advertisers, he was ready to crush the Herald. So crafty Dave Lawrence stepped in to work some more of his magic. Sources inside and outside the Herald say he met with the fuming Mas Canosa. (Lawrence says he's sat down with Mas Canosa "a number of times over the years," but can't recall a meeting directly related to Herald coverage of CANF's refugee program.) Then the editorial, ready for publication, mysteriously disappeared. (Lawrence, a truly modest man, says he knows nothing about the fate of that editorial.)

A virtuoso performance. This is the sort of breathtaking tactical maneuver that separates the foot soldiers from the four-star generals. Mas Canosa is left thinking he'd horse-whipped the Herald and spiked an irritating editorial, when in reality Lawrence and his lieutenants had already outflanked him. Distraction, deception, clever conceits disguised as genuine concessions. Chalk up another one for the Herald.

Dave Lawrence's brilliance may be awe-inspiring, but even he is not omnipotent. It was beyond his reach to alter a course of events over which he had no control whatsoever. Mas Canosa's world - a heady mix of power, money, and lofty dreams of a triumphant return to the homeland - had begun to crack around the edges:

* Ideological rivals in the Cuban diaspora began to gain worldwide recognition and legitimacy, particularly arch-enemy Carlos Alberto Montaner, a resident of Madrid but a columnist for El Nuevo Herald.

* An ill-conceived verbal attack against Cuban dissidents still on the island ended disastrously, with Mas Canosa's exile buddy Armando Valladares being sacked by Bush administration sponsors.

* Free-lance ventures into U.S. foreign policy (persuading the Czechs to withdraw as hosts of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., independent trade negotiations in Eastern Europe, efforts to cut deals in the new Moscow) gave some State Department officials serious headaches.

* Assaults were launched on his traditional control of Radio Marti and TV Marti, two pet projects under scrutiny by the General Accounting Office, the independent federal watchdog agency.

* The extreme right wing of the Cuban community, Radio Mambi maniac Armando Perez-Roura in particular, began to steal his rhetorical thunder. Right here in Miami, no less.

Jorge Mas Canosa, at a seminal moment in the history of Cuban affairs, a time when he should have been exerting maximum force, actually seemed to be losing it. On top of that untenable situation was the impetuous behavior of the hometown newspapers. No wonder he began to slip over the edge. During his time of distraction, the papers had the audacity to:

* Chronicle in all its sordid detail the legal battle between Mas Canosa and his younger brother, which ended with the courts awarding the brother substantial monetary damages.

* Provide juicy tales of intrigue and deceit within his sacred Foundation - stemming from another lawsuit filed against Mas Canosa and others by a former vice president of CANF.

* Give substantial coverage to a number of well-known local friends who, one after the other, were stepping in some nasty muck: Luis Botifoll and his Republic National Bank, Remedios Diaz Oliver, Alberto Vadia, and former acting U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen.

What finally appears to have shoved him into the abyss, though, were two recent acts of political heresy: a column in El Nuevo and an editorial in the Miami Herald. Both items were (conspiratorially) published on the same day, Saturday, January 18.

Andres Reynaldo, in his El Nuevo column, neatly skewered the weekend warriors who continue to advocate commando raids on Cuba. The Herald editorial had the temerity to argue that proposed federal legislation aimed at tightening the economic embargo against Cuba might instead work to the detriment of the Cuban people and to the advantage of Castro. Mas Canosa was a bedroom partner in conceiving that bill, and now here was the Herald blithely aborting it. He would look like a fool on Capitol Hill: If he couldn't influence to his favor the editorial opinion of the local paper, what sort of influence was he supposed to have in the corridors of Congress?

Exasperated, frustrated - and apparently with only a tenuous grip on reality - he did what he had to do, what any beleaguered autocrat must do: divert attention from his own problems and focus it on an external enemy. He took to the airwaves and declared all-out war on El Nuevo and the Miami Herald. "El Nuevo Herald manipulates information just like Granma [the official state newspaper of Cuba]. A better name for El Nuevo Herald these days would be El Nuevo Granma!" he roared. Reynaldo's column read like the work of a man "educated in another culture or in a Marxist laboratory." The Miami Herald "has placed itself squarely on the side of Fidel Castro and his government.... The Herald [maintains a] supportive stance toward Fidel Castro [and] reports the version of events most favorable to Castro." Off the air, Mas Canosa dropped dark hints to reporters that the Herald has been infiltrated by Castro's secret agents.

Upon hearing such menacing invective from a man who lays claim to enormous clout, some newspaper executives, I'm ashamed to say, would tremble in fear. Especially if their paper's profitability was being dragged down by the recession, and particularly if threats of canceled subscriptions or advertiser boycotts became a reality.

Dave Lawrence and Roberto Suarez, I'm proud to say, stand apart from those who would cower. They are so blessed with confidence that in their response they become sassy pranksters with a devilish sense of humor: Sure, fella, we are deeply saddened and hurt when you say we've not played nicey-nice with you. (Heh, heh.) "We have sought, always, to be accurate and fair. When we have made mistakes, we have been willing to correct those.... Like everyone else, we value our integrity above all."

Genius, I tell you. A judgment confirmed by the coup de grace delivered this past Sunday in Lawrence's weekly column, a supremely artful feint titled, "Come on, Mr. Mas, be fair." Poor, pathetic Jorge Mas Canosa. Tricked again into believing he'd bullied the most powerful institution in Miami. And to think I had once questioned Lawrence's abilities. Boy was I stupid.

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