State Department’s ambassador ‘charm school’ is in


At State Department headquarters, “charm school” is in session. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

A handful of would-be diplomats and their spouses are getting schooled in the finer points of their new jobs. The “curriculum” typically includes training in the responsibilities and authorities of an ambassador, how to run an embassy, the structure of the State Department, how to handle the media and the like — and, we hear, security is increasingly being emphasized.

It’s unclear how large the current class is, but we understand it’s made up of both nominated candidates and those whose announcement is imminent.

One former ambassador says “charm school” is a misnomer for a rigorously educational and informational session. “Trust me, it’s not about china and teacups,” the graduate said. “It’s about the belly of the beast. It’s ‘here’s how it all works.’ ”

Much of the training at these group sessions focuses on legalese, including what authority an ambassador has, how to interact with U.S. military in-country, and how to handle a budget. One of the biggest challenges for private sector-types, we hear, is learning how to decode the alphabet soup of the State Department.

“I don’t care how good you think you are,” one ambassador told us, it’s indispensable. “First, they tell you how to eat,” he said, meaning “you better have at least half your dinner guests be local leaders or you’ll be paying out of your own pocket.”

Similarly, “you have to have two liquor cabinets,” one for you and friends and one for dignitaries — “and you have to put back the leftover” booze in the proper cabinet and keep it separate.

“Don’t ever, ever, let your wife use the car,” he said, “she can only be in it when you’re in it.”

Finally, “they teach you what to do if you’re taken hostage,” he said. “If they’re masked, they may not kill you, because you can’t identify them,” he said. “If they’re not masked, figure out some way to get out of there.”

Once it’s over, it’s not yet time for “Pomp and Circumstance.” Training is ongoing, including country-specific briefings on customs, politics and economics.

And while there may be no workshops on elocution or silverware usage, some of the advice at the government’s most exclusive finishing school is about how to present oneself. In “Vera and the Ambassador,” Donald Blinken’s memoir of his stint as the ambassador to Hungary, Blinken (father of deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken) describes a media-training session in which a speech coach subjected him to on-screen mock interviews. She “praised my performance but told me to bring a lot of glue to Hungary — ‘to glue your hands together.’ ”

Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.

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