The State Department: More Than Just Diplomacy by George Gedda, Author House, 2014, ISBN 13: 978-1-4918-5761-8, 161 pp., $16.04 (Amazon paperback), $26.59 (hardcover)
Millions of Americans are hearing and reading about Hillary Clinton’s experience as Secretary of State. But if you’re seeking a picture of how the State Department really works, you could do better with this easy read by an Associated Press correspondent who covered the Department for nearly forty years.
George Gedda was already a senior among the accredited press corps when I landed in the Press Relations Office as interim director in April 1999. During the daily press briefings the grey-haired, suited and bespectacled Associated Press reporter was quieter than his AP colleague Barry Schweid. But he was highly respected, distinguished for his in-depth knowledge of Latin American affairs. Gedda retired in 2007, and while his book draws on up-to-date information, it does not touch on the Clinton period.
There’s a contrast between the book’s dark grey cover and its premise: “the personalities, turf battles, danger zones for diplomats, exotic datelines, miscast appointees, the laughs — and sadly, the occasional homicide.” Inside, you get the same dissonance. The anecdotes are amusing; the prose, deadpan.
Don’t expect titillation, but settle in for amusement. The media reporters get a unique view of the State Department from their warren of offices on the second floor near the press briefing room. They’re showered with information but physically confined to semi-public areas of the building. And they have the daily task of figuring out what in the way of foreign relations may have news value for the average consumer of news.
Ironically, the book may appeal especially to those who have worked in Foggy Bottom, not to John Q. Public. More to the point, if I still had to write speeches about the State Department and foreign relations I would keep the volume close at hand and steal material on a regular basis.
Gedda’s book begins with a sketch of every Secretary of State during his tenure, beginning with Henry Kissinger and ending with Condoleezza Rice. This chronological account of the secretaries, taking about 50 pages, covers the circumstances of each one’s arrival and departure and describes the major developments that marked their tenures. Call it “The Twelve Caesars” in miniature.
Each profile captures that secretary’s standing with the President, the National Security Advisor and other major players in Washington politics, and the circumstances of their arrival and departure.
Gedda omits Edmund Muskie and Lawrence Eagleburger, who served for less than one year.
The rest of the book looks at world issues and personalities associated with the State Department, mostly through a wealth of brief stories and anecdotes. The personalities range from Queen Elizabeth right down to Dave the Barber (State has a small hair salon in its basement), all described through the cool eye of a veteran reporter.
Every Department alumnus is likely to find someone he or she knew. At the risk of spoiling your fun, here are two typical items.
- Henry Kissinger asked his “top aide” Winston Lord for a memo. When Lord turned in his work, Kissinger “returned it to Lord saying it needed more work. Lord then returned a revised version. It, too, was rejected. When the third version appeared, Kissinger said, ‘This one I’ll read.’”
- When Fidel Castro was introduced to the Cuba desk officer, Vicki Huddleston, he asked her if she was the spouse of a member of the visiting U.S. delegation. Huddleston replied no, “I’m head of Cuban affairs.” “Oh,” said Castro. “I thought I was.”
Some of the saltier tidbits include three murder cases, the FBI arrest of a media reporter in the press pen and embarrassing incidents (including his own) that aim to strip the varnish off the headquarters of American diplomacy.
This approach reminds me of what has changed in diplomacy and what hasn’t.
Gedda’s chosen beat was rarely a headline maker. “The State Department’s daily press briefings were normally uneventful during most of my years there,” Gedda writes. The daily briefing went further downhill over the years, news-wise. Gedda blames the advent of broadcast coverage, starting in March 1977, for changing Hodding Carter’s daily briefing from “free-wheeling” to “a bureaucracy-approved script.” Before cameras, he reports, he came away with more insights and sometimes a bit of fun. He recalls that if a reporter’s question went on too long press secretary Carter would begin practicing an imaginary golf swing.
Other glances back:
- reporters had the run of the entire building until the early 1980s;
- Warren Christopher disallowed smoking in the building in August, 1993;
- and in 1968 “white males dominated the building.” (Some might question how much that last point has changed, even after three female secretaries.)
Gedda also recalls the lean 1990s when the Congress starved the Department of budget and personnel, trying to wring savings for the federal budget out of the end of the Cold War. That chapter, “Decline and Renewal,” covers the “SOS for DOS” movement led by Foreign Service Officers, and then the infusion of resources and management reform with the arrival of Colin Powell (deemed “most charismatic” in Gedda’s list of Superlatives among the figures in his book.)
Gedda skips the consolidation of the U.S. Information Agency in 1999, but he dwells on the mutual admiration between Secretary Albright and Senator Jesse Helms — an alliance that propelled that major step in U.S. statecraft.
His accounts of foreign trips with the secretary (and a few presidents) will ring true to embassy staffers who have managed media access during VIP visits at embassies. But Gedda tells the story from the “accompanying press” point of view, which he gleaned in the process of following nine secretaries to more than 80 countries.
Those of us who have tried to calm shrieking TV network correspondents can learn from this wire service reporter who arrives late to a lunch or dinner because of an excess of work and rarely gets to learn anything about the host country. Gedda also complains about times when the VIP struck a cultural visit from the agenda. That, I find endearing.
Tales from Sudan, Iran, Haiti and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) remind us that many foreign conflicts just don’t change. Warren Christopher made 24 visits to Syria trying to persuade the Assad regime to support his Middle East initiative without success. “That should have been obvious after Christopher’s first few visits,” Gedda notes, adding that on one occasion Hafez al-Assad snubbed Christopher in Damascus. In other words, John Kerry is not the first U.S. leader to want peace more than the parties in conflict.
However, Christopher does get Gedda’s listing as the “Best dressed” secretary, along with Alexander Haig, in his list of Superlatives.
A chapter about political versus career appointments starts with statistics showing a trend toward ever more ambassadorships for political contributors, and then describes a couple of the most egregiously bad political-appointee ambassadors. President Nixon (“the president most hostile to career diplomats”) named New York businessman Vincent de Roulet to Jamaica. He arrived in his 100-foot yacht in 1969 and departed under expulsion by Prime Minister Michael Manley in 1973. President Carter’s envoy to Singapore, politician Richard Kneip, asked this question at a meeting of U.S. ambassadors: “What’s Islam?”
Gedda touches on several other issues of special interest to foreign affairs professionals: for example, immigration policy from the perspective of visa operations; and diplomatic security via several humorous anecdotes.
In the course of his story-telling, Gedda offers succinct analyses of the cost of the war in Iraq, the Iran revolution and embassy hostages, the conflicts in Central America during the 1980s, and U.S. relations with Cuba. These draw from other books and sources in addition to his experience. Each analysis is objective and balanced — sometimes leaving me to wonder what Gedda really thinks about it.
Finally, I had one quibble about this book. Every writer, even one with the experience of George Gedda, needs an editor, and there seems to be no second pair of eyes on the editorial content. Every ten pages or so I would find a typo, a missing word or an awkward sentence. This was not a serious distraction for me, but I noticed. George Gedda deserves better.