Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Diplomatic Life: My First Diplomatic Tour

Bill Clinton
Cover of Bill Clinton

I’m off schedule again, which is supposed to be a bad thing for a blogger. But, I have a good reason to be way early with the penultimate article on my life as a diplomat; this weekend I will, like Jack Kerouac, be ‘on the road.’ I’m heading north to Chautauqua to participate in the 2013 graduation ceremonies of Chautauqua’s Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC), where the Zimbabwean graduates will be honored. I’m looking forward to the week’s activities, and will blog about them when I return.

  But, for now, let’s look at my first diplomatic assignment – my first tour. Like a lot of my subsequent tours, I had to fight for it. One of the assignments opened to my A-100 class was Guangzhou, China, and I’d always wanted to see China, so I put that first on my list. Actually, I let it be known that it was the ONLY assignment I was interested in. The personnel office pushed back because my two youngest kids at the time were in grade school, and they didn’t think it was a good assignment for a first tour officer. I had to point out that I’d just completed 20 years in the army, and my family was accustomed to packing and moving, and the kids had already attended several schools at various places in the U.S. as well as in Korea. It took a little arm twisting, but they finally caved, and after six months of Chinese language and consular training, we were off to China.

Except for ten to twelve hour days interviewing immigrant visa applicants, it wasn’t all that much of a challenge. We had two to three officers doing immigrant visas, and some days we’d interview hundreds of applicants. Along with that, we had to answer Congressional inquiries – an average of five to ten a week. I had a little argument with my supervisor who felt my congressional drafts were to blunt and straight forward – I believed what was needed was a direct answer to the questions, but she liked to wax eloquent in her replies. Neither of us ever changed our minds or ways on that one. Thankfully, the head of the consular section liked the way I wrote, so the conflict abated.

After nearly a year doing immigrant visas, I moved to the citizen services section (ACS) for a while, and finally became the anti-fraud investigator. In ACS, it was mostly death cases and helping Americans who’d lost passports or were having disputes with local merchants. My biggest case was an elderly woman who’d fallen from the top of an aircraft landing ladder and was in hospital in a coma after a portion of her brain had to be removed. I visited her in the hospital every day, just sitting at her bedside talking to her in the hope that she was able to hear. She eventually improved enough to be moved back to the U.S.  I never heard what happened after that. That’s often the way it is – you help the best you can, and they move on, while you’re already busy with the next case. The freakiest case I handled was an American who’d committed suicide by jumping from his hotel window and going head first through a bike rack. The Chinese had let the body lie on the sidewalk for several hours before calling us, but they refused to let it be moved until I identified the body (from his passport, and thankfully there was enough of his face left to allow that) and said it could be moved. Not exactly something you want to do just before lunch, but it happened more often than I care to remember.

When President Ronald Reagan came to China, I was sent to Shanghai to provide TDY administrative support for the visit. Shanghai was and is an interesting city, and my first presidential visit in the Foreign Service was a good learning experience. Not for the reasons, though, that you might think. When the president was to visit with the consulate staff and families near the end of his visit, we support staff were excluded. In fact, the consul general ordered that we stay in the control room out of sight. Talk about a slap in the face, given that we’d been instrumental in the success of the visit. Then Secretary of State George Schulz demonstrated the kind of leadership I admire, though. When he entered the room where the consul general and his crew were assembled, he noticed the door to the control room which was ajar. Coming over, he opened it to find over a dozen support staff hanging around and taking occasional peeks through the crack in the door. He spent time with us, thanking each of us individually. An act I never forgot. When President Clinton visited me in Ho Chi Minh City in 2000, I made sure the TDY support staff was included when he paid a call on the consulate.

My tour was only 18 months, so I don’t think it deserves any longer treatment than this. In the final offering I will describe how I decided to join the Foreign Service, and how I almost didn’t make it.

Your humble servant.

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