Players: Frederick L. Jones II
From Amsterdam To the White House
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
For Frederick L. Jones II, it may not be that much of a stretch to say the path to the White House began in the bars of Amsterdam.
A year in the Dutch capital in the mid-1990s studying European law by day, enjoying a social life by night left the young man eager for the chance to spend more time overseas. He found a book on jobs abroad. The first chapter mentioned the foreign service.
"I went to the embassy and took the test," he recalled. "I heard it was free. Seriously. I had no money." So joining the State Department diplomatic corps was not exactly a lifelong ambition? "It never crossed my mind. I had never heard of the foreign service until I was 25 years old."
A decade later, the American law student in Amsterdam serves as one of the principal voices of U.S. foreign policy. As the chief spokesman for the White House National Security Council, Jones, 35, now spends both days and nights articulating President Bush's views on all manner of international issues, including such highly charged topics as the war in Iraq, the Middle East peace process, and disputes over nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.
It is, at times, a thankless job, although the diplomat in Jones would not put it that way himself.
After years of tension with European partners over the course of his foreign policy, Bush has moved in his second term to repair relations and forge fresh alliances on key issues, but according to diplomats still faces a deep reservoir of distrust. It often then falls to aides including Jones to try to bridge that gap with carefully chosen words -- or at least to avoid widening it with an imprudent turn of phrase.
"What's said from the White House carries such weight that it's a formidable, foreboding task," said Jones, who was formally named to the job in June. "It has such a real impact." Invariably, perhaps, that leaves the witty, bantering Jones far more reticent when it comes to speaking for the record. "I am cautious because of the impact of things that come from the White House. The ramifications are great."
To other foreign policy veterans, Jones has a massive hurdle before him. "They have a tremendous credibility problem," said P.J. Crowley, a retired Air Force colonel who held Jones's job in the Clinton White House. "It's hurting them politically. It's hurting them internationally. And they're going to spend the rest of the administration trying to repair it."
Moreover, as Crowley and others note, Jones serves a White House notably stingy with information. As a matter of policy, the Bush White House values secrecy. Reporters who deal with the NSC almost uniformly like Jones and credit him with improving responsiveness since taking over, but still bristle at the restrictions he operates under.
"I get complaints that I don't say enough, that I don't reveal enough," he said. "I'm there to help and assist with their stories and provide as much information as I can, but it's also my job to serve as a vigorous advocate for the president's policies."
In past administrations, reporters were able to talk regularly with various experts at the National Security Council to get a better understanding of the nation's foreign policies from the people who helped formulate them. Under Bush, none of the directors or senior directors at the NSC is supposed to talk without clearing it with Jones's office -- and even then Jones listens in on any such interview, a practice that keeps officials from straying too far from the talking points.
"I need to be part of that conversation to make sure that individual director is delivering the message we want delivered," Jones said. "It's part of my message-coordinating function that keeps people on message. If I'm there, it's easier for them to stay on message." He added, "The White House has a way they like to deal with the press, and I follow leads."