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Columbus jubilee had rough sailing

It figures. Christopher Columbus had a rough time 500 years ago. It seems fitting that the commission created to honor his achievements should be having a rough time of it too. Even so, enough is enough. The agency is the Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission, created by Congress in 1984. It operates from a small suite of offices up two flights of steps on F Street. There a visitor found Executive Director James F. Kuhn last week, talking by long distance to Madrid. He was trying to get favors from Spain. As I say, it figures.

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison has provided a vivid picture of the life of Columbus. The great explorer was born poor in 1451 and died poor in 1506. In his late 30s he became obsessed with the idea of sailing due west to the Orient. His hometown of Genoa was having budget problems; the Portuguese had other fish to fry. Columbus turned to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.

Sorry, said the royal couple, we're busy fighting the Moors. Come back after we've regained Granada. He came back, as persistently as a lobbyist for the sugar trust, and he talked the queen into being an angel. Her treasurer put up $14,000 to build three caravels, and in August 1492 off they went, the admiral, three little ships and 89 men.

On the way to Japan, the crew came close to mutiny. They complained of shipworms in the planks and maggots in the biscuits, but on a moonlit night in October they sighted a landfall. It wasn't Japan, it was San Salvador. They sailed some more. They discovered China, only it wasn't China, it was Cuba. They found little gold, but they discovered Havana cigars.

On Christmas Eve Columbus wrecked his flagship in Haiti, but he came back to the islands for three more cruises. He coped with indignant Indians, mutinous men and jealous officers. Isabella tired of him. He came down with awful arthritis. His hair turned white. He died at 55. So much for Columbus.

The federal commission set sail in 1984, destination 1992. Unlike the caravels of Columbus, the offices of the Jubilee Commission were manned by amateurs. Congress provided relatively less money _ far less money _ than Isabella provided for her adventurous friend long ago.

Nevertheless, the word was "Adelante!" Sail on! In 1989 Chairman John Goudie made a deal with Texaco. He also made a deal with Spain. This was the deal: Texaco would pay the commission $5-million as sole sponsor of a tour. Out of the $5-million, the commission would pay Spain to build full-scale reproductions of the three 16th-century caravels.

Before long the deal fell apart. After paying $2.5-million, Texaco got cold feet and suspended further payments. Spain said, no U.S. pay, no U.S. tour. Private contributions lagged. At the last report, the commission had raised only $326,000, and $193,000 of that came from members of the commission themselves. Congress in 1989 was as cool as the Portuguese of 1489. The agency was insolvent.

Last December Chairman Goudie quit. The General Accounting Office filed a devastating report. The commission was in "disarray." It had kept four sets of conflicting books. As of Dec. 31, 1990, it had only $12,000 and it was two months behind on its rent.

Not having enough to worry about, the Columbus Commission now finds its hero attacked by an assortment of howling critics: Far from being a good thing, it is said, the discoveries were altogether evil. Columbus and his successors ravaged the Indians, stole their gold and left nothing but syphilis. Bad Columbus!

Now things are looking up. Jim Kuhn, an old Reagan hand in the White House, took over as executive director in February. The commission has a new and savvier chairman in Frank J. Donatelli. Private fund raising is aggressively under way. The three caravels have been built, and a tour may yet materialize. Hundreds of local commemorative events are being scheduled.

Kuhn is optimistic. There will be a commemoration! Hoist the mainsail! On to 1992!

Universal Press Syndicate