Modest, humor-laden acceptance speechTuesday, November 3, 2009
Former Herald editor Robert Cox named 'Illustrious Citizen'
By Michael Soltys and Peter Johnson Former Herald editor Robert Cox was yesterday formally made "an Illustrious Citizen of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires" in the City Legislature - a recognition of his journalistic heroism and integrity which would have been richly deserved at any time in the last few decades but which was perhaps especially appropriate coming 50 years after he first arrived in Argentina and 30 years after he was forced into exile. Not to mention the 98th grandchild being identified by the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo on exactly the same day - something which Grandmothers leader Estela Barnes de Carlotto refused to consider a coincidence.
With typically self-deprecating humour, Cox described his delight at having his secret dream of effortless citizenship finally realized - a dream born out of his embarrassment over a foreigner status which also gave him a certain protection denied to others.
And with equally typical modesty, he spent most of his acceptance speech paying tribute to others, starting with the late rabbi Marshall Meyer. But he then insisted it was chiefly thanks to women that the military dictatorship came to an end - his own wife Maud, "braver and smarter" than himself who always tried to disabuse him of his illusions as to "moderates" within the military dictatorship, the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and even Margaret Thatcher! He recalled telling junta members that they stood no chance against the Mothers because the latter had principles.
His tribute then extended to former journalists both within and beyond the Herald, beginning with his News Editor Andrew Graham-Yooll (exiled even before Cox himself), who tirelessly fed information on disappearances to Amnesty International - dismissed as "Communist" by the junta even though the Herald carried Amnesty reports on mainland Chinese atrocities. He also praised James Neilson (his successor as Editor), saying that when such a staunch Conservative as Neilson could share his view of human rights, he must be on the right track! Nor were women omitted here with three journalists (two from the United States ) also mentioned.
Outside the press world his appreciation went to his eternal friend Harry Ingham (also for keeping him up to speed with Argentina in recent years) and diplomat Allen "Tex" Harris who contributed hugely to documenting the missing.
But Cox's humanity emerged even more deeply beyond the tributes. Rather than journalism being about human rights, the press is a human right, he insisted - and human rights are much more important than left. right, centre or any political position. It was also important to remember the crimes of leftwing terrorism before the military dictatorship (for example, the extended torture inflicted by ERP terrorists on kidnapped officer Argentino Larrabure) and he repudiated Mother leader Hebe de Bonafini's celebration of the 2001 Twin Towers terrorist attack but at the same time he asked his audience to consider how much she must be suffering to come up with such a position.
Cox's speech also included some insights into the inner workings of the 1976-81 military junta - he called Admiral Emilio Massera a "monster" outright but found military president Jorge Videla more "pathetic" than anything else (Videla once confided to him that he would like to step down but feared that his successor would be much worse).
The ceremony was introduced by the legislator introducing the initiative to make Cox an honorary citizen, the Civic Coalition's Sergio Abrevaya (a former schoolmate of Robert Cox Jr.), who paid tribute to Cox's choice to commit himself instead of turn a blind eye, sacrificing friendships and social acquaintances in order to save lives - even if Cox simply called it "doing his job."
Former shantytown priest Patrick Rice then delivered his testimony as one of those lives saved, describing how the Herald picked up his case within hours of his being seized, forcing the junta to answer questions in the United Nations and setting the Irish Embassy in motion - Rice and his catechist (now wife) Fátima Cabrera were transferred to Villa Devoto prison. Rice stressed that Cox denounced all violence, pointedly recalling a 1974 editorial which deplored the slaying of three policemen by guerrillas, and also rushed to the hospital bed of junta Economy Ministry official Walter Klein when his house was bombed. Yet this objectivity in no way made Cox neutral, Rice insisted, and he always showed an acute ability to "distinguish between the two demons."
Jorge Fontevecchia of Perfil recalled that the media were accused of "inventions" then (implying that they are now) and also paid tribute to Cox's objectivity - the Herald could not be accused of being pro-terrorist or anti-military before the dictatorship (rather the contrary), he said. Fontevecchia also paid tribute to Neilson and Graham-Yooll.
The last panel speaker before Cox's acceptance address, Carlotto said that in the early days of the Grandmothers (founded in mid-1977) she felt betrayed by the Church, political parties and trade unions but perhaps above all by the press which was silent apart from some items in La Prensa but above all redeemed by the crusade of Cox's Herald.