When even Henry Kissinger stalls, you know it is a dilemma. The former U.S. Secretary of State, scholar, statesman and policy supremo was acting as chief greeter last month at a New York black-tie charity dinner.
Enter the Princess of Wales, clad in a black dress that showed off to good effect her gymnasium-honed bosom.
What should a Nobel Prize winner do? How should any man, particularly one the height of Henry Kissinger, respond? When introduced to a woman who is demonstrating a terrific cleavage, should we compliment her on her figure? Or should we fix a fishy eye on, say, her left nostril and seek her considered verdict on the Bosnian peace accord?
Henry, as I say, stalled. His reaction was that of the pointer on a December shoot indicating the location of a fallen game bird. It called to mind the look of a Scott or an Amundsen, pausing mid-trek at the edge of an Antarctic crevasse to wipe his brow and stare in wonderment at the deep, icy cavern below. It was Kissinger's bad luck, but our good fortune, that a photographer caught the moment as the learned doctor peered, astonished, at the area below the princess' shoulders and above her waist.
In these cold, pioneering days of post-feminism, men have yet to work out a protocol. We have yet to come to terms with the new deal: that it is all right for the two sexes to rejoice in their differences. The Kissinger poser is being repeated at countless dinner parties and gala dinners as men realize that they have no clue how to react, in late 1995, to the sight of an advancing bust.
American women, like their British sisters, have embraced "glam" as the mid-'90s look and are flashing off everything at their disposal: jewels, teeth, breasts. The new fashion word in New York this autumn is swank.
Indoor fountains, wall-length mirrors, the feuding royal family and blond second wives, after years of ribaldry, are deemed acceptable. Fur sales are up by 20% and you are once more permitted to expect small children and Italian waiters to be seen and not heard.
Into this same bracket falls what a recent American president might term "the bosom thing." The late '80s were a time of mental conformity and monochrome social comment. Slim-hipped androgyny was seized on as the least culpable state of existence and women strapped down their fronts with the moral equivalent of masking tape.
We returned to the '20s, when gamin flat chests were the obvious look for a generation that had lost so many of its young men to the Great War.
A few doughty creatures resisted. Madonna's conical bra by Jean Paul Gaultier wriggled against received wisdom. Eva Herzegovina buoyed our spirits, and this autumn's fashion shows confirmed the return of that indispensable item, the petticoat. At last--hooray!--the drabness has passed.
A woman, if she engages the engineering assistance of lingerie designers, is now no longer letting down the side for women. She is using her God-given components and only gravity is defied. The majority of men secretly think this is great, but in New York they remain uncertain if it is all right to say so.
In Southern states such as Kentucky and Tennessee there is less angst. If a girl looks good, the good ol' boy will say so, probably with a complimentary emission of chewing tobacco toward the spittoon. In Latin America, post-feminism has not been a problem as they never had feminism in the first place, and have yet to encounter the horror that is Andrea Dworkin.
But along the East and West Coasts of the United States, post-feminist man remains unsteady on his pins.
He is racked with anguish about body politics--so out of step now with the body politic--and sees before him the specter of sexual harassment. It is not that he fears an old-fashioned slap in the face. The late '80s sanction was far more terrifying: peer disapproval and accusations of being a moral dinosaur.
All this flashes in an instant through the mind of the modern man placed in the situation that confronted Henry Kissinger that fateful night.
What should he have done?
Poor Henry. The fact that he had to incline his head toward the princess in a formal bow did not help, as it brought the fevered Kissinger brow ever closer to the Spencer bodice.
Nor, frankly, do the words "Your Royal Highness" flow automatically into something along the lines of "Wow--great zeppelins." To have turned to the attendant press cameras and have given a meaty thumbs up might have been considered coarse, and there was also Mrs. Kissinger to consider. She was nearby, and reportedly not best pleased.
We should forgive the man, therefore. The dilemma he faced was, literally, global.