Our Foreign Legion

Texas has been producing ambassadors since before it was a republic, but no president since LBJ has appointed as many Texans as Bill Clinton.

November 1998By Comments

WITH ITS LONG HISTORY OF settling disputes with fistfights and frontier justice, Texas isn’t exactly known for white-glove diplomacy. It does, however, have a tradition of producing diplomats, one that predates the Republic of Texas: In 1835 the provisional government of the Mexican province of Texas sent commissioners like Stephen F. Austin to procure aid from foreign countries like the United States. Two years later President Sam Houston tapped surveyor and soldier Jacob “Old Jake” Snively as the Republic of Texas’ ambassador to the Shawnee Indians. And in 1857 former president of the Republic of Texas Mirabeau B. Lamar was named the U.S. minister to Nicaragua and Costa Rica by President James Buchanan. Since those early days, a long list of ambassadors from Texas has represented the nation’s interests abroad, exporting Texas culture all over the globe in the process. Bill Clinton has done his part to perpetuate the tradition: Not since native son Lyndon Johnson was in the White House have so many Texans been dispatched to foreign countries.

Six ambassadors appointed by President Clinton hail from Texas: Dallas lawyer and businesswoman Kathryn Hall, who last year took over as ambassador to Austria after the resignation of Dallas oil heiress Swanee Hunt, another Clinton appointee; former congressman and senator Robert Krueger of New Braunfels, who was named ambassador to Burundi and later to Botswana; San Antonio oil executive Stan McLelland, whose post is Jamaica; Waco insurance company CEO Lyndon Olson, who left for Sweden in January; and Houston lawyer Arthur Schechter, who was sworn in as ambassador to the Bahamas in September.

The list is notable because the majority of ambassadorships aren’t political appointments—and Clinton didn’t even carry Texas in 1996. According to Krueger, a three-time ambassador, about 70 percent of U.S. ambassadors are foreign service professionals, which means that appointed ambassadorships are highly prized positions that are doled out to a select few. Because ambassadors represent the president, he usually handpicks the nominees. Often, they’re from his home state or are party stalwarts from neighboring states. It’s not surprising, then, that Arkansas-bred Clinton would turn to Texas for foreign envoys who happen to be successful in business, well connected in Democratic circles, and major donors to and/or fundraisers for the Democratic party.

For instance, Hall was a member of President Jimmy Carter’s traveling campaign staff, was active in Al Gore’s 1988 bid for the presidency, was a state co-chair for Michael Dukakis in 1988, ran unsuccessfully for Dallas mayor in 1991 (as Kathryn Cain, before she remarried), and was the campaign treasurer for Dallas’ current mayor, Ron Kirk. She’s married to Dallas developer Craig Hall, and they own a vineyard in California’s Napa Valley. Hunt, who resigned her post in 1997 to teach at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, is the youngest daughter of Texas billionaire H. L. Hunt and a major Democratic fundraiser and contributor. Krueger taught English literature and was the vice provost and dean of arts and sciences at Duke University before entering politics. He is a prominent Texas Democrat who won two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in the seventies and was a U.S. senator for six months after Governor Ann Richards appointed him to fill the seat vacated by Lloyd Bentsen when he moved to the Treasury Department in January 1993 (Krueger later ran for the seat, but lost to Kay Bailey Hutchison). McLelland, a former executive vice president and general counsel of Valero Energy Corporation, was a close associate of Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan. He raised money for Ann Richards’ reelection campaign in 1994 and for the president in 1996. Olson, who has long-standing family ties to the Texas Democratic party, is a former state representative and chairman of the State Board of Insurance and a close friend of one of the most powerful Democrats in the state, Waco insurance magnate and former chairman of the UT Board of Regents Bernard Rapoport. And Schechter is active in Jewish organizations, was the Texas finance chairman of the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection campaign, and was appointed by Clinton to the advisory council of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Not counting the $1 million that Hunt raised and the $250,000 that she personally contributed to the party, the other Texan ambassadors have collectively given Clinton and the Democratic party more than $600,000 as of last year and raised hundreds of thousands more. The money connection has raised more than a few eyebrows and led to charges that the White House sells ambassadorships. As it happens, Hall, Olson, McLelland, and Schechter were among those feted by Clinton at his White House coffees, which critics lambasted as opportunities for “peddling access” to the president and which the White House said were merely part of its overall fundraising strategy.

Although awarding ambassadorships to political and financial supporters is nothing new, the current ambassadors from Texas downplay any link between the size of their contributions and their new jobs. “I would hope the president chose the person based on qualifications and experience,” Olson says. “I’m not unmindful of the fact that I’ve contributed a lot, but I doubt that had anything to do with it.” Skeptics may roll their eyes at such a statement, but McLelland also insists that money didn’t buy his job: “To this day Bill Clinton doesn’t have any idea how much money I contributed,” he says. “I don’t think that affects his decisions.” And Hall says her legal and business background, her interest in art and culture, and her ability to speak German made the big difference in her appointment.

While Texas has produced a bumper crop of ambassadors recently, its diplomatic output has been steady over the years. Franklin Roosevelt gave Henry Hulme Sevier, the founder of the Austin American newspaper (a predecessor of the American-Statesman), the lofty title “ambassador extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary” to Chile and appointed Edwin Jackson Kyle, from the founding family of Kyle, ambassador to Guatemala. President Harry Truman made Chester W. Nimitz, a Fredericksburg native who was the admiral of the Pacific Fleet in World War II, a roving ambassador for the United Nations after his tour of duty. President John F. Kennedy appointed Raymond Telles, a former mayor of El Paso, ambassador to Costa Rica. LBJ’s appointments included Austin lawyer and banker Edward A. Clark and San Marcos educator William H. Crook (both to Australia), Austin insurance lawyer William Womack Heath (Sweden), Dallas attorney Eugene Locke (Pakistan), and Hector P. Garcia, a Corpus Christi physician who founded the American GI Forum, a Hispanic civil rights organization (delegate to the United Nations with the rank of ambassador). Richard Nixon appointed Kenneth Franzheim II, an investor and the son of the noted Houston architect, ambassador to New Zealand, Western Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga. Gerald Ford named South Texas rancher and corporate board member Anne Armstrong ambassador to Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Republican party leader and Houston shipbuilder Albert Bel Fay ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago. George Bush appointed Dallas lawyer and Democrat Robert Strauss ambassador to the Soviet Union, San Antonio insurance executive Henry Catto ambassador to Great Britain, and Houston oilman Roy Huffington ambassador to Austria—and, of course, his Secretary of State and then chief of staff was his old friend and fellow Texan James Baker. And the list goes on. Several Texan diplomats have been ambassadors more than once. Krueger was an ambassador-at-large and coordinator for Mexican affairs during the Carter administration. Dallas native Catto (whose memoir, Ambassadors at Sea, will be published this month) was also ambassador to El Salvador under President Nixon and ambassador to the United Nations under President Ford. In recent years envoys from Texas have become almost a tradition in some countries. Austria has had three in a row—Huffington, Hunt, and Hall.

Once they take up their foreign post, the ambassadors find that they can’t leave Texas completely behind. Indeed, they often encounter certain preconceptions about the state. With its depiction of ruthless people who would stab their own kin in the back for money and power, the television show Dallas, seen by millions around the world, didn’t paint a particularly diplomatic picture of Texas. The myth of the Texas cowboy has galloped around the globe a few times too. “There’s a bit of our Texas mythology here and a bit of our reality here,” says Lyndon Olson from his embassy office in Stockholm. “There’s still that frontier spirit, that rugged individualism that attracts other people.” He has been able to debunk some other, less-attractive myths. For instance, the director of the Stockholm symphony was surprised to learn that Olson is an opera lover. “He said, ‘You Texans like opera?’” Olson recalls. The maestro seemed both surprised and pleased when Olson informed him that lots of people from Texas love opera. “I don’t know if I’ve demythologized this Texas stereotype or not,” Olson says, “but it’s kind of fun to be from Texas and be a lot of ways they don’t expect you to be.” Unlike most of the current Texan ambassadors, who had little or no previous connection with the countries where they now live, Olson has returned to his ancestral home. His great-grandparents and grandfather emigrated from Sweden in the 1880’s, part of the great migration through New York’s Ellis Island. He’s getting to know cousins in Sweden and visiting his family’s roots. “I miss my family and my cows and my ranch and my friends in Texas,” he says, “but it has been wonderful to see where my great-grandparents were born.”

Most of the Texan ambassadors admit to missing some quintessential Texas traditions—the bluebonnets in the spring, for example, and chowing down on a plate of barbecue or Tex-Mex. But they’re in a special position—they can import Texas culture to wherever they happen to be. The first official party McLelland gave after he took over his Kingston post early this year was a barbecue to celebrate Texas Independence Day. He had sausage flown in from San Antonio and tried to teach his Jamaican chef how to cook some Texas dishes. But the chef quickly discovered that chili powder and curry powder are not interchangeable. “We made some chili, and that was an interesting experiment,” McLelland says with a laugh. “They like spicy food here, but it’s not the same.” For the Fourth of July he had enchiladas and tamales flown in from Los Barrios in San Antonio and barbecue from Austin’s Iron Works. McLelland had planned to hire a band from Austin to play country and western music, but his old friend and fellow Texan John Dalton, who’s the Secretary of the Navy, brought in a Navy steel-drum band instead. For a Fourth of July celebration in Stockholm for the U.S. diplomatic corps and invited guests, Olson ordered 1,700 pounds of beef brisket, ribs, and sausage from his friends Dan and Clara Henderson, the owners of Uncle Dan’s Rib House BBQ in Waco. The Swedes “went absolutely bonkers over the ribs,” says Dan Henderson, who had never catered an overseas barbecue before. “And it was quite interesting to see them bite into a jalapeño pepper. That was worth the trip.”

When these ambassadors set up housekeeping abroad, they often take pieces of Texas culture with them. Works by Texas artists now hang in embassies and ambassadorial residences all over the world. Kathryn Hall took part of her art collection to Vienna, including works by contemporary Texas artist David Bates. Bob Krueger, who admits to missing the Hill Country landscape, favors paintings by the state’s most famous living bluebonnet painter, W. A. Slaughter, and renowned Texas landscape painter Frank Reaugh.

Each post is different, but a typical day for most of the ambassadors begins early and often ends late at night. Schedules are tight and jam-packed with meetings with U.S. and foreign government officials and Americans who are in town on business as well as with speeches, receptions, and social events. Because Sweden is a monarchy, an ambassador’s social duties are especially formal there, with lots of toasts, pomp, and ceremony. “By and large, people don’t know what ambassadors do,” Olson says. “People think you go around, drink a lot of wine, talk big at parties, and smile a lot, and you do all those things—except drink a lot of wine, because you have to talk big.” He laughs. “That’s actually just part of it. Ambassadors have two jobs—they have numerous duties during the day, and at night they have to attend formal dinners, cultural events, receptions.”

But being an ambassador isn’t all state dinners and glamorous parties. Sometimes it’s dangerous, as Krueger discovered in Burundi, an African country torn apart like its neighbor Rwanda by a bloody ethnic war between Hutus and Tutsis. Alarmed by reports of massacres in the villages, supposedly at the hands of the corrupt army, Krueger began investigating and attempting to gather evidence before the soldiers could bury the bodies. “You encounter the unthinkable,” he says, remembering the horribly mutilated body of a five-year-old child. In June 1995 he was in a convoy deep in the countryside that was ambushed by armed extremists. Two people in the car in front of him were killed. Krueger’s car was pierced by a bullet, but he wasn’t hurt. He was convinced that the army was behind the attack and said so publicly. There were threats on his life, and the State Department thought it best to remove him from the post the following September. Now he’s in Botswana, one of the most democratic nations in Africa and a different world from Burundi—rich in comparison (Botswana’s economy thrives on the diamond trade), stable, and peaceful. Despite the horror and danger, Krueger says he relished his days in Burundi. “It was like being a surgeon in an emergency room,” he said during a recent visit to his family home in New Braunfels. “It was life versus death, justice versus rank injustice. I never had a clearer sense of purpose in my life.”

Living abroad has sometimes made the Texan ambassadors see their home state in new ways. Hall had its sheer size driven home to her when her two teenagers started playing basketball at their schools in Vienna. Their opponents, instead of being in the same metropolitan area or the same state, are in other countries—Switzerland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Germany, and so forth. “At this point, they have seen more of Europe than Craig and I have,” she says.

Being from a big, diverse state like Texas can make distances—and differences—shrink, the ambassadors agree. And it just could be that traversing the globe and spreading diplomacy, Texas-style, comes naturally to folks whose state was a country once itself.

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