Being There

By Al Kamen
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

In September 2005, when President Bush swore in pal Karen P. Hughes to be public diplomacy czar, he instructed her "to marshal all the resources of the federal government to this critical mission."

Hughes frequently urged America's ambassadors "to be not only a presence, but the face and voice of America on media in countries across our world."

But based on a sampling of ambassadorial attendance records, even being a presence would be a start.

We'd been getting sporadic complaints about absentee ambassadors, so we asked the State Department back in April for attendance records on a small sample of our top envoys in Europe in 2006. (Whenever an ambassador wants to leave town -- for any reason -- he must get formal approval from State so the No. 2 can officially take over.) Foggy Bottom responded with typical alacrity and last week finally sent over a summary of the records for the ambassadors: Eduardo Aguirre Jr., former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security, who's in Spain; investment banker Susan McCaw in Austria; roller-bearing maker William R. "Timmy" Timken in Germany; venture capitalist Benson K. Whitney in Norway; subprime-mortgage billionaire Roland Arnall in the Netherlands; Republican National Committee member Catherine Todd Bailey in Latvia; Florida developer Alfred Hoffman in Portugal; and former Missouri GOP chief and RNC co-chair Ann Wagner in Luxembourg.

Our diligent diplomats averaged just over eight weeks of vacation that year, led by Hoffman in Portugal, who was absent for "personal" reasons 58 days (not counting weekends and 10 days off for federal holidays), or nearly 12 workweeks. Add the holidays, and you're close to 14 weeks off.

Hoffman edged out Timken and Arnall, who each recorded 54 days -- or about 11 workweeks -- away, and Wagner, who came in fourth with 53 days. (Although a family illness may have contributed to his absences, Arnall arrived in March 2006, so if he had been there a full year, he would have recorded more than 12 weeks off.)

Aguirre was lowest in terms of days away, recording 18 personal days off. (However, he registered the most days away on "official" business, with 29, in contrast to Wagner's 12. (It appears those official days away from post could include the customary trips to Washington once or twice a year for consultations.) Arnall led the octet in terms of percentage of total days out of town. He was absent from post about 37 percent of the time, or 114 days in 10 months. Wagner, Timken and Hoffman were each out of pocket nearly a third of the year.

Arnall, who reportedly gave or raised for Bush and the GOP more than $12 million in recent years and paid a $325 million fine for alleged predatory loan practices, looks like a good bet to retain his prime absentee-landlord status in 2007. He's been spotted in New York on occasion this year. His company sold its mortgage assets to Citigroup.

The administration declines to criticize what seems a bit of extra downtime. "The secretary and the president believe these ambassadors have done and are doing an excellent job in representing the United States," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday.

And remember, they're "the Honorable" for the rest of their lives.

The New Face of America

Speaking of Karen Hughes, don't forget to stop by her going-away party at the State Department later today, just before the annual Christmas party. If you're lucky, you might see her designated successor, Broadcasting Board of Governors chief James Glassman, who's been named acting undersecretary.

Affirmative action has finally hit the State Department: Glassman is the first male named public diplomacy czar since the post was created in 1999, when President Bill Clinton named Evelyn Lieberman to the job.

President Bush then tapped Charlotte Beers, Margaret Tutwiler and Hughes to the impossible job. At least Glassman is an inveterate optimist: He once predicted, back when the Dow was around 10,000, that it would hit 36,000.

Someday, we're sure, he'll be right.

We Want to Talk. Really.

For months, the White House has been ducking any comment on l'affaire Plame, telling reporters that President Bush fervently wanted to chat but simply could not discuss it because the matter was "under investigation," then it was in trial, then it was on appeal.

But after top aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby dropped his appeal Monday, some silly reporters thought that ended the rationale for not saying why Bush didn't fire former counselor Karl Rove after pledging to can anyone who outed former spook Valerie Plame.

Reporters tried again Monday, and White House press secretary Dana Perino said she would check. At the press "gaggle" yesterday, Perino was asked if she had "had a chance to talk with the president about the Scooter Libby case."

"I have not," she said, "but I did talk to our counsel's office because I forgot that there is a civil case that is pending on this issue. I did forget. The Wilsons have filed a case in civil court, it was dismissed, and they are on appeal."

Could be years.

Have a Little Dreidel

Sometimes folks in the White House might feel they're spinning their wheels. On Monday, members of the senior staff could at least start spinning their dreidels. At the morning meeting, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten handed out Hanukkah gifts -- little wooden dreidels, or tops, along with chocolate "coins" that the winner collects depending on the way the dreidel falls.

Just Send a Card

In keeping with the holiday spirit, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has filed House Resolution 847: "Recognizing the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith."

And then there's H.R. 708: "Honoring the life and accomplishments of Luciano Pavarotti and recognizing the significant and positive impact of his astounding musical talent, his achievement in raising the profile of opera with audiences around the world, and his commitment to charitable causes," filed by Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.).

Malfunction Luncheon

A lot of heavyweights in the development world attended a Nov. 30 luncheon roundtable at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to discuss the relationship between climate change and development.

The list at the event, sponsored by the U.N. Development Program, featured World Bank chief Robert Zoellick; Kemal Dervish, the head of the UNDP; and former senator Tim Wirth, now president of the U.N. Foundation and moderator Gregg Easterbrook.

A few days later, attendees got this e-mail from David Yang, who coordinated the event. "I have learned to my dismay that some people became ill with stomach problems over the weekend after lunching" at the event. He advised that local health officials are investigating. (None of the featured speakers took ill, but a large percentage of the 170 folks attending did, we understand.) "As part of their investigation, the public-health authorities would like to survey as many of those who became ill as possible," he wrote, adding that anyone wishing to be surveyed should let him know.

Preliminary culprit appears to be the pasta salad, we're told, but nothing is for sure.

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