Monday, June 17, 2013

Diplomatic Life: Back to School

When I left my position as ambassador to Cambodia in 2005, I was being considered for the post of ambassador to East Timor. Unfortunately, the political appointee who had the job had other ideas – some of which might have been related to not caring a whole lot for me being the one to replace him, but that’s another story – and he put pressure on to stay. The State Department, never one not to run from a Washington bureaucratic fight, dropped me like three-day-old fish wrapped in toilet tissue, and offered me the position of diplomat-in-residence. Now, to many people, this might seem like a place to dump people who can’t get other jobs, but the DIRs as they’re called, recruit, talk to average Americans about foreign affairs, and mentor people applying to come into the Foreign Service. They start the indoctrination process, Jack, and that’s important. I’d always wanted to do this, so I jumped at the chance.
I chose University of Houston, because I grew up 190 miles north of Houston and hadn’t lived in Texas since I left in 1962 and joined the army.
The more I learned about my new job, the more I liked it. For instance, my exact duties were a matter for me to negotiate with my host department at the university. Some DIRs do a full teaching load, some part time. In my case, the History Department at UH didn’t have any international relations classes for me to teach, so other than making myself available as a guest speaker for the professors, I pretty much scheduled my own day.
I did a lot of walking around campus, introducing myself to anyone and everyone. Did an interview on campus radio and for the campus newspaper. Had office hours in the afternoon, where students could drop in and chat about careers. I also did job fairs all over south Texas, spoke to local civic groups like the World Affairs Council, interacted with the large foreign consular corps in Houston – some 80 establishments, second to New York, and spoke at secondary schools in the region. I also worked with a state-federal task force on human trafficking, which was interesting and sobering at the same time. Learning, for instance, that thousands of underage girls from areas affected by Hurricane Katrina were on the streets of major Texas cities, forced to engage in prostitution, is a hard pill to swallow.
Some of my greatest times were speaking to young people. Once, the principal of a catholic high school asked me to speak to a group of ninth graders about international relations, but in a way that they could understand and relate to. I was at something of a loss until I noticed the sneakers a couple of the kids were wearing, and I went off on a long speech about how the components of those shoes come from all over the world, are put together by Vietnamese workers in a factory brought to Vietnam from China, under the supervision of Korean managers. On and on, etc. It became my ‘Sneaker Diplomacy’ lecture, which I was asked to deliver to even college students. I even once had to stand in for the Secretary of State, who had been asked to speak to a group in Houston, but couldn’t make it – so I was sent instead.
My wife and I drove through New Orleans on our way to Houston, a few weeks before Katrina, but we were in Houston for Hurricane Rita a few months later. It was her first hurricane. I decided we were better off staying in the city than getting out on the overcrowded roads. So, of course, I was designated the senior federal official in the city for emergency relief coordination. I had no communication, and couldn’t even get around, but orders are orders, so I used our hand phones to do my calling. I was so tired, I slept through Rita’s landfall, some sixty miles east of us. The trees around our apartment didn’t even lose any leaves.

It wasn’t a full year – just an academic year. We went in August and left, going back to DC, in June, but it was fun, fun, fun.