China's V.P. Strengthens Ties In Muscatine, Iowa

Read Kyle Munson's Des Moines Register piece "Seeds for Xi's Visit to Iowa Planted in 1979."

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, the heir apparent to the presidency, visited Muscatine, Iowa Wednesday. He spent a week with a family there in 1985 to learn about American agriculture. Des Moines Register reporter Kyle Munson discusses the relationships foreign leaders form with U.S. towns.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

The itinerary of visiting Chinese vice president and heir apparent Xi Jinping is - includes Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., no surprises there. But Xi also planned a stopover in the small town of Muscatine, Iowa, to be welcomed back as a kind of honorary Hawkeye. The vice president stayed with a family in Muscatine 27 years ago.

So, what foreign leader does your town have an historic claim on? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Kyle Munson is Iowa columnist for the Des Moines Register. He joins us from the studios of Iowa Public Radio there in Des Moines. Kyle, nice to have you on the program today.

KYLE MUNSON: Thanks, Neal. Great to be here.

CONAN: And, Muscatine, what was Xi doing there 27 years ago?

MUNSON: Well, he - there's a - yeah, the timeline for his ties to Iowa goes back, you know, at least to 1979. He was here in 1985 specifically to learn about our agriculture. I mean, visit factories and learn about, you know, hog production and all aspects of crop and hog production. So he, literally, was with a little delegation when he was a relatively minor provincial official at that time.

He's in a van being driven around the state to farms and to Muscatine, and that's where, you know, he stayed, literally, in people's homes and bedrooms. And security was much simpler at that time. It was a more innocent world, and he was not the world leader he has become. And so, he looks back on that fondly by all accounts.

CONAN: Are there people in Muscatine who remember him?

MUNSON: Yeah. So he's visiting - so today, he is visiting specifically with this group of about 17 old friends from that first visit. And so, the province - the Hebei province he was part of at that time is a sister state to Iowa. And so, he was here originally in 1985 kind of at the start of forging those ties with that state and Iowa.

And so it's a nice echo for him now that he's becoming the, you know, the leader of China, it kind of humanizes him in this, you know, really earthy setting for both, you know, introducing him to America and to his people back home in a way, too.

CONAN: And is he going to be spending any serious time there in Iowa or just on his way to Los Angeles?

MUNSON: Yeah. No, it's - I mean, it's very much an echo of that first trip in many respects. So, I mean, he's back in Muscatine to, you know, to revisit that story. Then there's a lavish state dinner here in Des Moines tonight, at the State Capitol with more than 600 guests. And, you know, the governor of Iowa and Xi will toast each other. He stays overnight.

And then tomorrow, he visits a farm, again, you know, revisiting what he did himself, but also, you know, that harkens back through the timeline of Khrushchev visiting an Iowa farm in 1959. So, it brings that whole timeline forward. And then there's also an agricultural symposium, a U.S.-China symposium at our World Food Prize Foundation that he'll be a part of.

CONAN: I haven't seen the menu, but I'm betting pork.

MUNSON: Yes. Well, yeah. But, you know, pork and beef, so they're trying to hit as many Iowa foods as possible, Iowa wine, but also some green tea.

CONAN: OK. So - did he visit any other towns besides Muscatine?

MUNSON: Yeah. Oh, yeah. So, when he was here, he was also in Des Moines. He was in Sheffield. He visited farms in kind of the north-central part of the state and manufacturing there. So, yeah, it wasn't just Muscatine. He spent, you know, he spent some quality time here in 1985 as well. And this visit will be, you know, technically shorter. But, again, he's able to hit quite a few spots.

CONAN: And he's being welcomed, I guess, with some pride back to Muscatine. Is there any concern that, you know, a few years down the road, he may be remembered as the butcher of Tiananmen or something like that?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MUNSON: Well, I mean, yeah, I was up at the Capitol just a little bit ago. And there were Tibetan, you know, protests - you know, people protesting on behalf of Tibet, already marching around the Capitol. So there is that kind of a backdrop that's going to be here. But, I mean, this is a kind of a softer tone than, you know, negotiations at the White House or in Washington. This is primarily about agricultural trade, and so, I think - and we've always played this role - I think Iowa has - where it's like, you know, bring the world leader to the farm even if it's in the middle of a Cold War and we'll talk through our issues.

CONAN: You mentioned Nikita Khrushchev and his famous visit to Iowa. I was also covering a visit by a world leader back in - I think it was 1979, Pope Paul II.

MUNSON: That's right. Yeah, yeah. He - the religious pilgrimage to Living History Farms here in the Des Moines metro. So that - I mean, that's what people have been mentioning in the same breath with today's visit, the historical timeline of, you know, 1959, the Pope's visit in '79 and then today. I mean, although, you know, it must be said that, you know, he's expected to become leader and, you know, that's - everybody expects that to happen, but he's not the leader yet. And so that's one more reason that people tend to think he's not going to address serious or, you know, issues, touchy topics, while he's in Iowa.

CONAN: We're talking with Kyle Munson, the Iowa columnist for the Des Moines Register. We're talking about the visit of the heir-apparent to the presidency of China who's in Iowa today and tomorrow. We'd like to hear what foreign leader your town has a claim to. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Tom is on the line with us from Denver.

TOM: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good.

TOM: Thanks for letting me on.

CONAN: Sure.

TOM: Glad the commentator let me know, because I told your interviewer I thought it was '58. But my grandparents had a farm in Ardmore, Oklahoma, which was very productive. It wasn't that big a farm, but Khrushchev did make that visit. I thought it was maybe '58 and I wasn't sure whether it was just - Ag Minister at that time, but I do remember it, had some clippings back there. I was thinking about it when I saw this trip.

CONAN: So that was your farm he visited in Oklahoma?

TOM: Not my farm, grandparents.

CONAN: Your grandparents' farm.

TOM: Right.

CONAN: So you weren't on that farm at that time?

TOM: I was not there. We lived in Tulsa at that time, and Ardmore is down in the southern part of the state.

CONAN: But I'm sure you talked to your grandparents about it. Do you remember what they said?

TOM: You know what? I used to just like to go down there because the food was good. I don't...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TOM: ...(unintelligible) that too much. (Unintelligible).

CONAN: Probably the reason Khrushchev was there.

TOM: Highly, probably, politically motivated like I am now.

CONAN: Well, Tom, thanks very much for the call, and we're glad we could help you sort that out, as to which year Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of Soviet Union, visited Oklahoma. Thanks very much.

TOM: You bet.

CONAN: Appreciate it. So this whirlwind visit by the Vice President Xi - and he's going to be off to Los Angeles tomorrow, Kyle Munson?

MUNSON: Yeah, although - I mean, it's kind of the week in China in Iowa. I mean, the - there was a - there's been a delegation in town all week, and various meetings and luncheons and, you know, ag industry and visits to Pioneer and, you know, other companies around here. So this whole ag exchange and inking deals for purchasing soybeans and all this. I mean, this has all been going on. It has consumed, you know, Des Moines and Iowa throughout the week. And the symposium is going to continue even after Xi departs tomorrow.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.

MUNSON: Yeah. Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Kyle Munson, the Iowa columnist for the Des Moines Register with us from the Des Moines studios at Iowa Public Radio. Email us if you - your town has a claim to a foreign leader, current or possibly in the future or in the past. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email: talk@npr.org.

This from Chris(ph) in Charlottesville: When I was in college at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, we were hosts to Jiang Zemin as he made a visit to the United States. I recall sitting in the dining hall when a large group of Chinese army officers came through. The next day in the paper, there was a large photo of President Jiang wearing a tri-cornered hat. There's probably a witty comment I could make about the leader of a repressive state in the cradle of liberty, but I can't think of one. We also hosted Margaret Thatcher in her role as chancellor of the college. I remember sitting at her speech in the spring of 1997 as she told us that Islamic fundamentalism would be the next great challenge faced by the Western world. Chris, thanks very much for that.

Let's see if we go next to Paul. Paul is on the line with us from St. Louis.

PAUL: Hi. I'm in St. Louis, but my family grew up around Fulton, Missouri, where Westminster College is. And I grew up during the Cold War hearing about how Winston Churchill gave his Iron Curtain speech there in Fulton, Missouri. It's a noteworthy speech because I believe that's the first time that that phrase was used by a public figure.

CONAN: I believe you're correct. It was Winston Churchill who coined the phrase, I think, from - where was it - from the Oder to Trieste or something along those lines, but, yes, falling across the Soviet-dominated parts of Eastern Europe. And were you - you weren't there in Fulton?

PAUL: No. I'm a little too young for that, but, you know, you can't drive along I-70 and go through that region without seeing a sign that says, you know, Fulton, Missouri, Westminster College, you know, Winston Churchill, Iron Curtain. You know, it just kind of outlines it and points in a southerly direction.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for the call, Paul.

PAUL: Anytime.

CONAN: Here's an email from Jim in Fort Mill, South Carolina: In the late '80s, one day, I noticed that a neighbor of mine in Brookline, Massachusetts, looked familiar. I realized he was President Thieu of South Vietnam. Over the course of the next few days, I began speaking to him. And after initial nervousness, he was glad someone actually recognized him. Over the years, the president of South Vietnam and his family became good friends of myself and my family. He was very humble, well-educated and a well-spoken person on current events, always so grateful to the people of the United States. He passed away just a short time ago, and I traveled back to the Boston area to pay my respects to his family.

Let's go next to Tim, and Tim is on the line with us from Fort Lauderdale.

TIM: Yeah. I was - previously lived in Minnesota, and just down the block from the house - from our house, when Mikhail Gorbachev visited, and this was, I think, his first visit to the United States. Raisa - I believe that's her name, his wife - had scheduled to go just visit a regular family and so - which she did. And on the way there - just around the corner - she stopped unexpectedly, this big security entourage and all that, and just walked in unannounced into this sandwich shop and ordered a sandwich, and it was quite a to-do at that time.

CONAN: I bet you don't remember what she ordered, though.

TIM: No, I don't.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Raisa, I think, it's pronounced.

TIM: Yes. So that was exciting.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Tim.

TIM: Thank you, man.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tim - excuse me, Troy, and Troy is with us from Glendale in California.

TROY: Hey, Neal. Yeah. This is Troy Leach(ph), but I remember I grew in Los Angeles, Glendale, and I remember in the late '70s, the shah of Iran, I guess he relocated to that - to my general area. And I just remember I was driving from my house to Hollywood, and I remember there being this big motorcade and this big protest going on. And I thought to myself, what the heck is going on?

CONAN: Yes. The shah of Iran came to the United States for a medical treatment after he was, I guess, in the course of being deposed by the Iranian revolution and, of course, being taken in by the United States. The cause for the hostages to be seized, the embassy in Tehran ransacked, and the course of history was changed.

TROY: That's right. So...

CONAN: Troy?

TROY: ...thanks again.

CONAN: Thanks very much. We're talking about which foreign leader your town has a claim to. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an email from Scott in Kentwood, Michigan: Greater Grand Rapids can claim ties to a few foreign leaders. Tommy Remengesau attended - I'm sure I mispronounced that - attended Grand Valley State University in Allendale before serving eight years as president of Palau. Cardinal Edmund Szoka, who was in charge of financial affairs at the Vatican, was born in Grand Rapids. And, of course, Gerald and Betty Ford lived in East Grand Rapids for most of their lives. I'm not sure we can accept the Fords as foreign leaders, but we'll accept the former president of Palau.

Let's go next to Cathy(ph). Cathy with us from Sunderland in Massachusetts.

CATHY: Hello.

CONAN: You're on the air, Cathy. Go ahead.

CATHY: Hi. The king of Jordan went to Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts. He attended school there.

CONAN: The new king, Abdullah?

CATHY: The...

CONAN: The one who's king now.

CATHY: Yes. He's been king for about 10 years, I think.

CONAN: Yes, yes, yes.

CATHY: Yes. And I believe he has at least one child there now.

CONAN: And one child also at Deerfield?

CATHY: Yes. Mm-hmm.

CONAN: So...

CATHY: At Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Mass.

CONAN: Likes New England prep schools.

CATHY: Apparently, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Cathy, thanks very much.

CATHY: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Email from Jacques(ph) who says: Honolulu, Sun Yat-sen a long time ago. Sun Yat-sen, of course, the founder of the Chinese Republic back in the 1920s.

This, an email from Patrick: When I was a young boy in the '60s growing up in St. Louis, the late Pope John Paul II, who was then Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, visited for the better part of a week. My dad was a doctor and his patient was then the pastor of the Polish church in St. Louis, and he was very excited that Cardinal Wojtyla was coming to visit the large Polish population in our town.

Let's see. We go next to - this is Karen, Karen on the line with us from Cheltenham in Pennsylvania.

KAREN: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Go ahead, please. I'm well.

KAREN: Good. Well, we had both Benjamin Netanyahu and his brother Yonatan Netanyahu, who died in Entebbe, attend our high school for I think two years. I'm not sure they graduated, but they're both on the Cheltenham High School wall of fame.

CONAN: On the wall of fame.

KAREN: Yeah.

CONAN: And, of course, that's where he gets his wonderful English.

KAREN: That's right. That's right. I believe his parents - one of them was a professor at one of the local universities. So both of them, actually, attended for a period of time the local high school.

CONAN: And I'm surprised we've not gotten any calls from Wisconsin claiming Golda Meir, who grew up and taught school there.

KAREN: That's right. That's right.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Karen.

KAREN: OK. You're welcome. Bye.

CONAN: And this, an email from Michael: I don't think I heard you mention that the Dalai Lama was Cedar Falls, Iowa, this past autumn.

This email from Stan: Two foreign heads of state who visited our area of the Virginia Peninsula were the Marquis de Lafayette and Jefferson Davis. The marquis was treated much more nicely than President Davis, who was placed in a cell. Excuse me, that was from Stan Glasofer in Newport News in Virginia. And I guess we do have to accept Jefferson Davis as a foreign leader.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Ray(ph), and Ray is with us from Baton Rouge.

RAY: Yes, hi. We had a nice visit from Mr. Vincent Siew. It's S-I-E-W. And he came to Baton Rouge several times when he was with the government of Taiwan and got - he's currently the president of Taiwan and was the premier, for several years, of Taiwan, and got to be a very good friends with our commissioner of agriculture at that time, Bob Odom, stayed at his house. And, in fact, we'd had several - we had several visits from him during about a 10-year period.

CONAN: That's interesting, I think. What was he doing there in Baton Rouge?

RAY: Well, he leaded - he led a economic trade - again, it was agricultural...

CONAN: I see.

RAY: ...commodities, purchasing mission for agriculture commodities. Yes.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much.

RAY: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And this is an email from Marian(ph): I was born and raised in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. I remember Queen Elizabeth coming to town when I was young, probably to attend the Stratford Shakespearean theater. I remember there being a parade. Of course, the queen was the head of state of Canada, so I'm not sure that accounts as a foreign leader, too, but we'll take it for the purposes of this discussion.

Our thanks to everybody who emailed and called us. We're sorry we couldn't get to all of your contributions on the foreign leaders your town has a link to. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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