Those in the know talk about life as an ambassador
March 20, 2009 4:00 AM
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
By Mackenzie Carpenter Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
He's not trained as a diplomat -- but neither were former ambassadors Pamela Harriman or Walter K. Annenberg, or, for that matter, Ethel Merman, who played an ambassador in "Call Me Madam."
Dan Rooney's nomination as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland is part of a long and colorful tradition of appointing political supporters to plum embassy posts.
So what will life be like for Mr. Rooney, when he moves from Pittsburgh's North Side to the exquisite 18th-century ambassador's residence in Dublin's Phoenix Park?
"Oh, you need a lot of energy. It's a very busy life," said Elizabeth Shannon, widow of William Shannon, who served as ambassador to Ireland in the 1970s under President Jimmy Carter.
Ms. Shannon, who now runs the International Visitors' program at Boston University, remembered her five years in Ireland with great affection.
"The Irish are fun, charming, witty, great talkers, and the social life in Dublin is a lot more fun than it is, for instance, in Boston," she added with a laugh.
But the hours can be demanding.
"My husband, Bill, used to say that he was the highest paid staffer on the night shift, because he'd work all day, spend an hour in the evenings with our children, and then we'd be out, every night."
"If the Rooneys are outgoing and have the stamina, they'll make it."
In Pittsburgh, Mr. Rooney, 76, and his wife, Patricia, are known as amiable, sociable people who nonetheless don't dominate the party circuit.
"There are 50 different ways to be a good ambassador, not just one model," said Avis Bohlen, a former ambassador to Bulgaria and a career foreign service officer who served as Mrs. Harriman's deputy in Paris when she served as U.S. Ambassador to France during the Clinton Administration.
To be sure, "he will be deluged with invitations, not all of them equally important," she said. "He'll need to sort out which ones to focus on, because he'll really want to be careful not to find himself three months into the job running from one event to the other."
Travel will be important, too, "going to other parts of the country. When I was an ambassador (to Bulgaria) it was all about showing up. If you do go to a place, it matters a lot to people, particularly in a country like Ireland."
Mr. Rooney must have a good Deputy Chief of Mission -- known in diplomatic shorthand as the DCM, Ms. Shannon said. He or she is the embassy's No. 2 official, the one who attends to the details, and, more importantly, makes his or her boss look good.
The DCM under Mr. Rooney's predecessor, Thomas Foley, was Robert J. Faucher, a career foreign service officer who came to the embassy in 2007, according to the U.S. Embassy's Web site. It's not clear if he will remain in that post under Mr. Rooney or be reassigned.
"The first thing I would say is have a good DCM and trust that person to give good advice, who he should see, spend time with and what kind of things he should focus on," Ms. Bohlen said. "It's absolutely crucial that there be a good working relationship with the No. 2 person."
Mr. Rooney, as one of the founders of the American Ireland Fund, is well-acquainted with the political and economic strife of Northern Ireland and has been a frequent visitor to the Republic. Plus, he's had plenty of opportunity to hone his diplomatic skills during run-ins with the temperamental owners in the NFL.
Still, he may need some tutoring. Fledging ambassadors do go through a crash course in issues and protocol at the State Department, according to Ms. Shannon.
Mrs. Harriman had a strong political background, as wife to legendary diplomat Averell Harriman and as a key Democratic fundraiser in the 1980s, "but she hadn't done diplomacy before and relied on me and other career people in the embassy," said Ms. Bohlen. "It was very important that she trusted us and that we had her best interests at heart."
The DCM usually knows which politicians the ambassador should see and which ones to avoid, "given particular sensitivities over different issues," Ms. Bohlen said, and will follow up on additional calls, organize small lunches to discuss issues of the day "and bring people together," she said.
"This is something we used to set up with Pamela Harriman -- small lunches not only with politicians, but with the press, to hear what's on their mind as well as to say what was on our mind."
But maybe not too much.
"I used to get frustrated at the bad press, but you learn to zip up about that," said Ms. Shannon, who wrote a well-received book about her experiences titled "Up in the Park: The Diary of the Wife of the American Ambassador to Ireland 1977-1981."
Mrs. Harriman was famous for her annual Fourth of July parties on the residence's sumptuous grounds in the heart of Paris, and used to organize Sunday night gatherings to show the latest films -- cadged from her Hollywood producer friends -- that hadn't yet hit Paris movie theaters.
Indeed, some ambassadors like to spread their wealth around. Mr. Annenberg, ambassador to the Court of St. James in London under President Richard Nixon, redecorated the London Embassy, and Richard Egan, a former ambassador to Ireland, once threw a St. Patrick's Day party that was said to cost millions, said Ray O'Hanlon, editor of the Irish Echo, an Irish-American newspaper based in New York City.
"There's a certain kind of political ambassador who's appointed because they're rich," said James Goldsborough, who worked as a journalist in Newsweek's Paris bureau and for the New York Herald Tribune in the 1970s and 1980s. "But I don't think Dan Rooney is expected to do anything but be a good Irish-American."
Of course, the best ambassadors are the ones with good access to the president, and while Mr. Rooney and Mr. Obama have a warm relationship, he's not known to be a close political adviser.
Other advice for the Rooneys? Leave the weekends for yourself and also be prepared for a little bit of loneliness. "Being an ambassador puts a certain distance between you and some people. It's hard to have good friends, sometimes," said Ms. Bohlen, who noted that Mrs. Harriman used to call her up some weekend evenings and ask if she was available for a quiet dinner.
"If Mr. Rooney finds people who like American football, he should invite them over to watch the game and serve chili," said Ms. Bohlen.
Easier said than done, said Ms. Shannon, noting that while Ireland is sports-mad, American football remains in the shadow of other sports, including rugby, Gaelic football and soccer, which over there is known as football.