To visit the UN in summer suspension helps wonderfully toward recognition of the general law of development for political institutions conceived in revolutionary idealism, which is that they begin as expressions of conscience and become in due course agencies for the issuance of licenses and the distribution of patronage.

The Human Rights Commission is meeting in Geneva, to be sure, and experts from bastions of liberty like the Soviet Union and Argentina are subjecting to rigorous examination any claim Norway might make that its concern for the freedom of its citizens is as profound as their own. But Norway need not worry overmuch about the final grade.

When Upper Volta suspended its constitution, it explained that “entitlement to political rights remains and it is only their exercise that is temporarily curtailed,” and was forthwith given the all-but-universal A for Administrative Excellence. The progress from initiation as a crusade to institutionalization as a club has established certain privileges of membership and one of them is that the cashiers accept any check you write without question.

Since the UN’s mind is seasonally relieved from every worry except housekeeping, the only issue that occupies it at the moment is the identity of the next secretary general, the job title employed for the manager of the hotel.

Secretary General Kurt Waldheim is most anxious to be elected to a third term, which would not only establish a record for longevity in office but preserve such compensations for his pains as the villa in Salzburg and the Mercedes-Benz that waits for him there and the house on Sutton Place and the charge account at Bloomingdale’s.

Waldheim has the Central European’s tragic sense of life, which is to say that he is a dreadful crybaby and has often been heard to wail about the cruel burden of having to serve 154 masters. As masters, they mainly aspire to avoid being overlooked when there is an opening on the staff that might be filled by their wives, their children or, in some unheard of case, a fellow national who isn’t a relative and might even be qualified.

It is said that no less than a quarter of the telephone calls Waldheim gets from ambassadors have to do with finding someone a job. He has labored earnestly to give satisfaction; and the original dream of an international civil service that would put the good of the world above all nations has given way to a patronage system that has the secretary general’s office dealing out posts for clerks and secretaries the way Tammany Hall used to dispense pothole inspectorships.

In a decently corrupt society, all these favors ought to have assured Waldheim his glory unto death or disablement. Instead, he is beset by rivals. The Africans have put forth Salim Ahmed Salim of Tanzania, and the Latin Americans seem to lean to Carlos Ortiz de Rozas, Argentina’s ambassador to Great Britain. Both are widely respected. But here a candidate is judged less for his capacities than his patrons; and Salim is handicapped by the suspicion that China is his patron.

Waldheim is not overmuch liked, and he has no large-sized patron, but that may be an advantage; he could well slither through, thanks to the weary resignation that is the UN’s general mood at middle age. His most dangerous opponent, curiously enough, seems to be Ortiz, the Argentinian. Argentina is the Soviet Union’s largest trading partner and the Russians would like to show their friendship. The United States wants no less to gratify Argentina; and the superstates might well unite to crown the representative of a quite repellent government, which could leave poor Waldheim the victim of a unique display of the Soviet-American friendship he has longed for.

This Issue

September 24, 1981