by Bob Baker
Nothing but a bunch of “cookie pushers” is an ancient slur against diplomats who are thus seen as simply sitting at fine tables sipping tea and offering cookies to equally insipid, wealthy and powerful guests abroad.
In fact, diplomatic receptions, lunches, dinners, or simple wine and cheese works are intricate payoffs or seductions and very hard work. The pit face of cookie pushing is when the President visits. Everyone at the Embassy turns out to make sure he and his retinue meet or greet in the right order, time and place everyone of use to American interests. The Ambassador works hardest as any slipups are his responsibility. Even the wealthy, politically appointed Ambassador needs to make the President and his visiting staff happy. The career Ambassador’s next post may be in a steaming jungle if mistakes are made or in an important country if all goes well during the “king’s progress”.
Detailed plans are made, including the social side of the visit (and changed at the last moment if the President so decides) and sent for approval long before Air Force One lifts off the runway near Washington, D.C. Every step of his visit is literally planned and timed with the politics of the visit uppermost but with security always in mind. Guest lists are sent by the Embassy with brief biographic sketches of each person the President will meet, including possible questions or topics that might be raised and suggested Presidential responses. Some issues must be resolved, some side stepped, some delayed and some obscured, none can be safely ignored. God help the officer who forgets one, if it leads to a surprise for the President or his staff.
On the other hand, gifts may fall from White house visits. An obscure officer in Central Africa impressed Bobby Kennedy during an Africa visit. Upon Bobby’s return to the White House, he lifted the officer out of Africa to become the Director of the U.S. Information Agency. That was a career leap across the usual twenty years or more of hard work. Sycophants referred to him as the Cardinal, but I thought of him as the Deacon. Bobby needed a Black face in an important position.
The lowest officer gets the most and stalest cookies to push in all circumstances. Someone must be duty officer around the clock checking incoming cables from all time zones in case someone in the Presidential retinue needs to be alerted immediately. Same goes for other ranking visitors.
The many locals who help practically in visits must be invited to certain big functions and cultivated: the editor whose comments bear weight locally, the police chief who helps the Presidential motorcade zip along from the airport with all green traffic lights, the hostess whose parties entertain American wives among the visitors, etc. etc.
Much easier jobs in the social mine shaft are Ambassadorial parties, less complex, less intense pressure, less potential gains or losses. However, the Ambassador keeps an eye out at his own parties to make sure every officer is cultivating the right guests and that none of them are neglected. Hospitality leads to liquid conversations that offer insights into personalities, policies and information. Nuances that do not appear in official local political party policies as well as local divisions, alliances, jealousies, etc. sometimes surface during party conversations. Diligent officers report next day on their party conversation discoveries and go up the ladder if their work is insightful and useful.
The Ambassador or his lead staffers wrote annual efficiency reports on each officer (and the Ambassador’s wife added comments on how well the officer’s wife did her social work on behalf of the Embassy in a separate file). A small, but significant part of your report included your work at receptions. The dullest and least important guests were my assignments at first. It is harder to cultivate them than more important guests, but still necessary.
At all posts, small entertainment allowances are given to officers. Each claim for reimbursement must be certified with a list of the guests and their titles along with a brief description of the purpose of the party. Receipts for food, liquor, etc. are attached. I never received more than a third of the costs I incurred for official parties, paying out of pocket in most cases. In Berlin as Cultural Attaché and Director of Amerika Haus (our cultural center) I paid (and kept records of) my entertainment costs by renting American films in London and charging German students to see them at our big auditorium. My official allowance was $2,000 a year. A single dinner even at home for a dozen cost several hundred. My July 4th garden party for a hundred cost more than half my annual official allowance.
The network of official contacts makes work possible and easier. When the Director of the Smithsonian wanted to see the head of Nefertiti on a Sunday after the Berlin museum was closed, I was able to ask my frequent guest for the favor. The first violin in the Berlin Philharmonic came to a recital by an unknown American cellist because he trusted my judgment. The recital led to a tryout before Herbert von Karajan, Director of the Berlin Philharmonic, who offered the guy a full time position with the orchestra. Members of the Berlin Senate agreed with me that the Amerika Haus needed to be repainted and paid the costs as they knew the building from receptions there and trusted my staff and me.
In Kampala, the Minister of Education gave his support to add the study of American history to the secondary school system and danced the night away at my parties for visiting American officials. He also helped because his cousin and my friend was the young King of the Toro tribe.
In Sydney, Lady Mary Fairfax (her husband owned the most prestigious newspaper) reciprocated Embassy receptions by opening her beautiful, fully staffed home, to entertain guests I could not accommodate in my small apartment. Helen Hayes, Charles Wick (Director of USIA), former Secretary of Defense Weinberger and many others mingled with local nobs at Lady Mary’s home.
Let’s have a party, meant lots more work and a much longer work day. Pushing cookies was work at the diplomatic coal face.