Happy Endings All Around

The odd final speeches of the Elian drama


The morning after Elian Gonzalez was flown back to Cuba, Attorney General Janet Reno opened her heart to reporters who attended her weekly press briefing. "I just wish he were with his father in a democratic, free country," Reno said.

On the very same day, President Bill Clinton held one of his extraordinarily rare press conferences. When asked if he had any second thoughts about the boy's return, Clinton defended his administration's actions, claiming that, "I don't know that we had many different options…." (One of those options was to leave the matter in family court, where the INS originally sent it.) But before he said anything about the case, he let the press corps in on a presidential secret. "Well if–if he and his father decided they wanted to stay here, it'd be fine with me."

Curtain speeches are a grand theatrical tradition. The evening's drama ends, with virtue apparently rewarded and vice repaid in kind. But before members of the audience file out, a character steps forward to address them, bringing not only the play to an end, but the spectacle with it. Thus, Shakespeare sends Puck out after the final curtain of A Midsummer Night's Dream in search of cathartic closure. He addresses the audience on the play's possible flaws and asks for a round of forgiving applause. "If we shadows have offended," says he, "think but this and all is mended. That you have but slumbered here, while these visions did appear."

Such speeches have long been out of style, so it was fascinating to see this interminable federal drama end with a series of curtain speeches by many of its major players. Of course, it wasn't merely dramatic catharsis that was at stake. Figures such as Reno and Clinton might have been carefully repositioning themselves in advance of the story's unpredictable Cuban conclusion.

After all, who knew how Americans might have reacted once they noted what was happening in Havana? Though the Clinton administration had justified its actions with a story line about a boy belonging with his father, that boy and his father had gone directly from the airport to a secluded government facility.

Furthermore, while the armed April 22 raid had been justified in part by dark warnings about the dangers to the boy's physical and emotional well-being if he remained among his Miami relatives, the Cuban government was promising to "convert [Elian] into a model boy." Whatever that might mean in Cuban government language, it appeared not to concern the very pediatrician who had publicly raised the issue of "imminent danger" to the boy after viewing a videotape. Irwin Redlener, the doctor in question, was interviewed by the Associated Press in the wake of Elian's departure, and provided a brief curtain speech, too. Redlener had seen the boy for the first time on May 31, in the course of a two-hour social call. According to him, Elian "looked terrific … like a completely normal 6-year-old." As for the future, Redlener said that "there was nothing … that would suggest [Elian] would need anything special except to get some stability with his family, going to school and being home."

Dr. Paulina Kernberg was similarly reassuring. Kernberg had been assigned to the case by the INS, and her view was that the boy had been harmed in Miami because, as she told the AP, "He was turned into an icon and that was stressful." Following the INS raid, said Kernberg, "His life regained a sense of safety with a routine appropriate to the life of a child and not an icon." Regarding the boy's future in Cuba, Kernberg hoped that "they will have … our professional counterparts there to continue the work that the little boy will still need to … (talk through) the grief, the loss of his mother and all the stresses." In fact, the Cuban government seems to be focused on other matters. Its promise to turn Elian into "a model boy" went on to promise that the former-icon will become "the pride of Cuban educators," and, indeed, a "symbol."

In the end, of course, it was only the pariah Miami Cubans who were paying much attention to the details of Castro's totalist welcome. For anyone else, attorney Greg Craig offered a reassuring curtain speech of his own. In an interview published in the July 1 Miami Herald, Craig characterized Juan Miguel Gonzalez as a "strong-willed father who has some leverage on Cuban officials." Craig predicts that the father "will be able to keep some zone of privacy around the family."

Finally, in the Think-But-This-And-All-Is-Mended Department, are the breathtaking thoughts of Rev. Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches. That organization paid Greg Craig's legal billings in the case, and otherwise spared no effort in the return of Elian Gonzalez to Cuba. Rev. Campbell was interviewed by ABC's Martha Radditz on the occasion of the boy's return; Radditz reported Campbell's remarks on the PBS program, Washington Week in Review. "Look," said Campbell, "you have to remember that childhood memories change, and they are mostly centered around your family, the picnics in the park, the walk down to the ocean. Those are the things that matter. He'll forget about the cell phones. He'll forget about the–the $200 sneakers, and once he's down there settle in."

Of course, countless Cubans have taken a walk down to the ocean, and then jumped in, risking everything to get away from Castro's paradise. But it is Elian Gonzalez, says the Reverend, who has made good his escape from crass materialism and consumer products. As the curtain closes on this show, there's just nothing like a happy ending.