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Players: John C. Danforth

Walk Softly and Carry a Rubber Stick

Envoy Learns That Diplomatic Circumlocution Makes Friends at U.N.

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2004; Page A37

UNITED NATIONS -- John C. Danforth, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, describes himself as a straight-talking "Midwest guy" who has been thrust into a world of diplomatic doublespeak where nonsensical rules are the norm.

The Republican former Missouri senator experienced his first encounter with the arcane ways of the world body when he led a U.S. effort in September to threaten sanctions against Sudan for failing to crack down on government-backed militia engaging in mass killings in Darfur. The 15-nation Security Council agreed to issue the warning, but only if the word "sanctions" was eliminated. A separate effort to impose a tough resolution demanding that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon was achieved after Danforth agreed not to refer directly to Syria in it.

Quirky rules on use of the limousine irritate U.N. Ambassador John C. Danforth: "There is an ethical way for my wife to go to a reception here at the mission and an unethical way." (Karel Prinsloo -- AP)

In Profile

John C. Danforth

Title: U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Education: Bachelor's degree, Princeton University; bachelor of divinity, Yale Divinity School; law degree, Yale Law School.

Age: 68.

Family: Married; five children, 13 grandchildren.

Career highlights: Partner, law firm of Bryan Cave; special envoy for peace to Sudan (appointed by President Bush in 2001); Republican senator; attorney general of Missouri (elected 1968 and 1972); ordained Episcopal priest.

Pastimes: Fly-fishing, St. Louis Cardinals baseball.

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"Everything has to go through these screens," Danforth said in a recent interview at the U.S. mission to the United Nations. "We can pass a resolution on Syria so long as we don't mention the word 'Syria.' "

The thing that Danforth finds really strange here is a State Department rule that prohibits the U.S. ambassador from using a government limousine to ferry his wife, Sally Danforth, from the official residence at the Waldorf Towers to diplomatic functions. Danforth attributes this "weird rule" to a bureaucratic overreaction to "some excess" by former diplomats at the mission.

"It's just ridiculous," Danforth said. "There is an ethical way for my wife to go to a reception here at the mission and an unethical way. The ethical way is for me to get in the car here, go to the Waldorf, pick her up and bring her back. The unethical way is for me to stay in the office and continue to work, send the guard to the Waldorf to pick her up and bring her here. Now, does that make any sense?"

Elected in 1976 as a senator from Missouri, Danforth quit elective politics 10 years ago and returned to St. Louis, because "I didn't want government to define me."

But he has remained in the public eye, heading the 1999-2001 inquiry into the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Tex. An Episcopal priest, he officiated at President Ronald Reagan's funeral at the Washington National Cathedral in June. Danforth was briefly mentioned as a possible candidate for secretary of state in President Bush's second term, a job that went to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

A key consolation is that Danforth cannot be blamed for "this ridiculous state of affairs" that led to the State Department's limousine rule.

Danforth acknowledges that he is something of a diplomatic novice. His first foray into foreign policy began Sept, 6, 2001, five days before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Bush appointed Danforth his special envoy to Sudan, where he has struggled ever since to end Africa's longest civil war. Danforth said he did not know Bush well before he was chosen.

"I've known his family more than I've known him," Danforth said. "I don't know why I was asked to do Sudan."

Still, the two men have formed a close working relationship. And Bush tapped Danforth in June to serve as ambassador to the United Nations, succeeding John D. Negroponte, who went to Baghdad to head up the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.

"I am a political appointment, so the reason that I'm here is not because of any diplomatic skill," Danforth said.

He said that despite the petty absurdities of the job he is "honored to be doing what I'm doing," but he confesses that it is very difficult to prod the United Nations into tough action.

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