The September 14 First Monday Forum featured two outstanding speakers, Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty and former Los Angeles Times correspondent Paul Richter, author of the book The Ambassadors: America’s Diplomats on the Front Lines. A dynamic husband-wife team, the couple have been regarded as among the best journalists in Washington. With extensive expertise in the topic, both talked about politics, covering U.S. foreign policy in today’s world, the process of restoring trust in the continuity of American policy, and their forthcoming book releases.
PDC President Sherry Mueller commenced this event paying tribute to a giant in the public diplomacy field, legendary USIA officer Tom Tuch, who passed away last week. This Monday Forum was dedicated to his legacy.
Covering Foreign Affairs
Paul Richter opened with remarks about the elections focusing on more domestic issues like COVID-19, the economy, and racial justice. However, foreign policy will have its place in the election, as the campaign focuses on Trump’s performance towards issues such as Russia allegedly paying bounties for US troops in Afghanistan, treatment of the military, and close relationships with foreign authoritarian leaders. Richter argued that the foreign press is intently fascinated by US elections and Trump as a personality. Foreign correspondents in the United States love to write about the eccentric ways of the United States and its leaders.
Karen Tumulty rightly pointed out that foreign policy so far has received relatively little attention. She described Donald Trump’s definition of foreign policy as transactions rather than policies. What she noticed in the campaign is the extent to which former members of the president’s national security and foreign policy teams have emerged as some of his main critics. She wondered if this will seep into the campaign dialogue between now and November and if we can anticipate any “foreign policy-related surprises” in October.
Coverage of the U.S. State Department
Richter argued that covering the US State Department has become less important and probably less fun. In the Bush and Obama years, the State Department’s leadership had a greater role in dictating policy. Today we don’t see that, we see policies guided by what President Trump thinks and tweets.
Richter recalled that pre-Trump you had Secretaries of State who wanted the mainstream press to understand their views and who actively gave the press access to their thinking. Richter mentioned that during the Iraq War, when much of the country opposed what the Bush administration was doing, officials at the State Department still made their case. Now the leadership at State is more concerned with the conservative end of the Republican media spectrum than the mainstream.
Wearing her domestic political reporter hat, Tumulty discussed what she saw as Secretary Pompeo already positioning himself for a 2024 presidential run, noting the elbowing that is going on between Vice President Pence and Secretary Pompeo with potentially Nikki Haley. Whether Trump leaves office this January or January 2025 it’s interesting to observe the big players of the Republican party already putting themselves into position as the party’s leadership in a post-Trump era.
The Couple’s Publications
Richter’s recent book, The Ambassadors: America’s Diplomats on the Front Lines, will be released in a paperback edition in October. It tells the story of a special subcategory of career U.S. ambassadors who were dispatched time and time again to handle conflicts in the greater Middle East during the Bush and Obama administrations. The four were all professionals well known to many PDC and PDAA members: Ryan Crocker (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon), Anne Patterson (Egypt, Pakistan, Colombia, El Salvador), Robert Ford (Syria, Algeria), and Christopher Stevens (Libya).
According to Richter, unlike most Ambassadors, these four individuals were sent to capitals where everything was chaos, and the United States dialogue with these countries was not set. These Ambassadors had the difficult challenge of figuring out what the U.S. role should be. They were a strikingly influential group of experienced Ambassadors who had deep involvement in their host countries by setting up government, brokering deals, and even engaging in military decision-making.
Having chosen this topic after covering the State Department for so long, Richter shared that he noticed that every time a new crisis was engulfing the Middle East region, the management at the State Department would turn to a small cast of characters who they had the most trust in. These Ambassadors moved around from post to post, having a unique understanding by being on the inside. Richter saw them as the perfect individuals to interview and understand what went on and what the truth is about what’s been happening in these places.
Tumulty is currently putting the final touches on a biography titled The Triumph of Nancy Reagan, which will be published next April. Tumulty intrigued us with her opening scene of an evening in February 1983 when George Shultz realized that Nancy Reagan would be an important ally. She goes on to share about the close relationship between Nancy Reagan and George Will, pointing out that at times you could hear her voice in George Will’s column. Tumulty described how Nancy Reagan’s reputation went from that of a shallow dilettante fashionista to an “incipient Edith Wilson” as described by William Safire. In Tumulty’s opinion, neither of these was entirely true but Nancy Reagan surely had issues managing her image. The biography is now in the last editing stages, and Tumulty said she hopes the book will offer new perspectives on both Nancy Reagan and on the Reagan Administration.
PDAA President Joel Fischman mentioned that there was a lot of assuming of a Biden presidency by the audience. Tumulty shared a well-founded final remark: “We did this four years ago too. Remember to assume nothing”. The forum concluded with Joel Fischman thanking the two speakers for such an engaging, timely discussion of issues of interest and concern to many of our audience members.
First Monday Forums are cosponsored by the Public Diplomacy Association of America, the Public Diplomacy Council, and USC’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.
Olivia Chavez is currently the Graduate Fellow for the Public Diplomacy Council. Originally from San Diego, CA Olivia completed her undergraduate studies at San Diego State University. She is a Return Peace Corps Volunteer who served in St.Vincent and the Grenadines from 2017-2019. Olivia is a graduate student at American University pursuing an M.A in Political Communication as a Coverdell Fellow in the School of Public Affairs.