Friday, February 27, 2009

The Hard Work of Freedom

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just returned from Asia and it was with genuine interest that I scanned photographs of her entourage for a glimpse of that Indispensable Man. Every U.S. envoy has one. I know. Because I once was one.

Yes, in a foreign policy galaxy a long time ago – I was personal assistant to the Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development. His official cabinet rank was as one of four Deputy Secretaries of State. AID was and remains the chief dispenser of foreign assistance and these trips were to show the flag and check on U.S- funded projects.

As the Administrator’s aide-de-camp, I didn’t have the non-stop grimace while whispering in his ear about “strategic modalities” and “contiguous dialogues.” Nope, I was in charge of the really heavy lifting – reserving hotel rooms and procuring tickets, arranging country schedules and carrying briefing papers. I got the guy where he had to go, through the tedious meetings of foreign ministers asking for yet even more dough, and doing everything I could to build good will among -- you got it – the peoples of the world.

An indispensable part of my work was dispensing trinkets. Because folks, let’s understand one thing: An important American emissary can’t go visit a country, meet with its leaders, tour its cities and countryside, and not leave a little something behind. Sure, we were spending billions of dollars on building democratic and economic institutions, but what’s it all mean if the guys and gals at the top are left empty-handed? Hence, before I left on some marathon globetrotting session, I packed my special suitcase with items featuring the State Department seal, in ascending order of value: ball caps, t-shirts, enamel coasters, coffee cups, leather notebooks, silver pens, and the top of the line: crystal cubes with etchings of the White House and the Capitol. For the hoi polloi, I threw in the universal coin of the realm: cigarettes and shaving razors.

I dragged this bag of tricks to more than 40 nations and my routine at every stop rarely changed, beginning with an early morning meeting with my boss: “Ok Sir, here’s the schedule for today – ceremonial harvest festival and potato dance, a stop at a veal farm, grand opening of a rattan factory, and reception with the Minister of Lug Wrenches.” I’d glance up from my open suitcase and say matter-of-factly, “I figure we’re looking at eight shirts, four pens, a dozen mugs, a carton of Marlboros for the drivers and a Capitol cube for Mr. Wrench. We roll in thirty minutes.”

In addition to the trinkets, I also was responsible for the smoothing out the rougher edges of conducting high-stakes American foreign policy.

Like at a meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, where the Education Minister kept admiring my necktie. Of course, nothing would do but that I participate in a gracious hands-across-the-water exchange – my dark blue Brooks Brothers tie embossed with American flags for a his ill-cut wedge of salami-colored burlap.

In Jogjakarta, which is east of the Jakarta, one late afternoon I was suddenly given the job of organizing a poker game for senior Indonesian and U.S. officials – necessitating a madcap dash around town on the back of a motorbike, procuring two-dozen sealed packages of playing cards, a roulette wheel, a case of expensive cigars, bottles of some crazy rare single-malt Scotch, and a private room.

In Budapest, Hungary, a general, noting my Army lapel ribbon, struck up a conversation about the military and said, improbably, that he hoped someday the Hungarian armed forces would be outfitted with M-16s and “that Bradley machine.” He got a mug and a leather notebook

It was at a stop in Geneva on this same trip that an earnest and sincere Embassy staffer, taking me for a serious person, cornered me in a hotel lobby and started telling about “bilateral” this and “multilateral” that. I was sitting on a couch, distractedly rooting through my suitcase and all I could do was snort and reply, “It’s all about unilateral baksheesh, Hampden. Now, do you want a couple of pens or a pack of Camels?”

In Rabat, Morocco, the King sent “signals” via a high-level emissary to me, the bagman, that he would meet with the Administrator only if the U.S. could fork over $22 million that day for a health clinic. A proud man, the Administrator told me, “I’m sympathetic, but I won’t be extorted.” “Gotcha,” I said, and two hours later I’d moved heaven and earth to rebook all our flights, meetings, and hotel reservations for an early departure to Greece via Rome. The King got two T-shirts and four coasters.

In Romania, I was wired money via the Embassy by a senior U.S. official back at State and instructed to buy some Red Army militaria. Because I was paying in cold hard U.S. cash and because of my bargaining savvy (I’d been doing this kind of thing all over the world), I spent every dime, purchasing and sending back enough uniforms and medals for a small museum.

On one of my last trips, I was in Albania and the Administrator and I and several State department folks out of Tirana are on a farm tour. Amidst a luncheon in a vast commodities barn built with U.S. funds, there’s a great clamor for some way to symbolize this grand agricultural achievement.

The next thing you know, a proud farmer is behind a 19th century ox and plough and has cut a 50-yard furrow in a nearby field. He insists one of the Americans lay down a matching lane. You know where this is going. The State department guys fade into the barn shadows and so 10 minutes later, there’s Nellie in his suit and dress shoes, gamely trudging behind the ox and plough, slicing an uneven cut into the soil -- yeah, part of the new U.S.-Albanian “modality.”

“Man, you wanna talk about the hard work of freedom,” I say once back in the barn. The Americans laugh uneasily but hey, there’s no time for jokes – it’s back in the car and on to the next stop and farmer Ahkmed gets a White House cube and some razors.

Ah yes, back in the day this was statecraft -- hard work of freedom, indeed. And yet even in a world gone haywire, there’ll always be a need for trinkets, and there’ll always be the need for the Indispensable Man.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Five Keys for Obama's Communicators

Commiserating darkly with an acquaintance from an administration now long gone by, the fellow asked me about the lessons I’d learned during the past several years as a spokesman for a government agency. By nature cheerful but by temperament dim, I stared blankly into the phone. Because the thing is, the guy asking me is an authentic Thinker, a bonafide intellectual. He was a senior White House advisor to two presidents, appears on political talk shows, writes a syndicated column. Insightful, with big ideas that have been put into small legislative print and become law. “You should collect your thoughts on this,” he said.

You see the dilemma immediately. While I have seen a lot during my time in Washington (see “The Fixer," May 21, 2008), I tend to look at the experience and lessons in a rather mechanistic fashion. Why, some might call it primitive. So I thought about my pal’s suggestion and realized that although I couldn’t hit the high notes he contemplated, I could outline several elaborately unadorned ideas that the new press and media people in the new Administration might do well to follow. Hence, Nellie's Five Keys for Obama's Communicators:

1. Always carry three pens. No matter where you are in Washington, someone -- customarily a senior official who should know better -- has forgotten their pen when they need it most. Hand them one – everlasting goodwill results. Bonus: Let them have it for keeps.

2. Have a fallback comment for every situation. A press person is often in a number of meetings, or walking down hallways with nervous, chattering staffers and everyone is going on and on with all this policy and regulatory jargon, which is always confusing and dull. I find I often lapse into a stupor and then wham, suddenly someone turns to me and says, “What do you think?” I snap out of my reverie and reply like a robot, “There’s a lot in what’s been said here, folks.” If that line is taken, my backup: “Well, I imagine we’ll need to examine all of this further down the road.”

3. Don’t join an office Coffee Club. Yeah, it all sounds good, the promise of the Bottomless Cup, club members who are energetic and well-meaning, a decaf d├ętente, but the despair and disappointments are huge. The fact is, when you really need some joe on a dragging afternoon, it comes down to the rash symbolism of an empty pot on a lonely counter in a far-away break-room.

4. Handle charts with grace. Big, stiff cardboard charts covered with colored grids and symbols are the defining totem of my generation, whether they diagram 2008 Oil Imports From South Asian Non-Aligned States or are graphs showing Rich People Making Too Damn Much. As the Capital’s reigning chart boy (see “Chart Boy”, April 27, 2007), I have hauled these monstrosities all over town for presentations and speeches, trailing resignedly in the wake of my various data-driven bosses. Not even my service in the Army prepared me for the stoicism and courage required to enter a hotel ballroom, place a chart on an easel, and stand next to it in front of 300 people.

5. Memorize a lot of scores. No matter what the season, knowing the scores to ballgames gives you a distinct edge over your peers. Washington is full of lulls in Important Business and invariably sports comes up. An Assistant Secretary will say, “See that Cowboys game?” You reply: “Wow, a real cliffhanger – 17 -13.” Or, it can be the obscure: “How about Toledo?!” Your answer: “35-7 over Akron. Jeez, who saw that coming?” Sure, it’s transparent. But hey, here’s where you can take credit for actual research.

Now, as you can see, I’ve dispensed with the inconsequential stuff – you know, ‘tell the truth’, ‘respect others,’ ‘remember you’re serving the President and the American people.’ Everybody knows about those sorts of things. Instead, believe me: it’s the five biggies above that will get you through. After all, look how valuable they proved for me.