The U.N.'s Man of Peace
By Paula Span
It doesn't surprise those who know the U.N. secretary general that he could doze peacefully while facing the greatest challenge in a long diplomatic career, a moment captured by "60 Minutes" cameras accompanying his mission. The man of the hour after negotiating the Iraqi weapons-inspection deal that's averted war, at least for now, he's famed for his tranquillity.
"He has an extraordinary calm, like an Indian yogi," says Shashi Tharoor, Annan's special assistant and part of his advance team in Baghdad. "It's his style of responding to the world."
In fact, longtime friends James and Toni Goodale had been invited to a small luncheon in Annan's private dining room the very day the Iraqi crisis erupted a few months ago. "I watched Kofi," recalls James Goodale, a New York attorney. "He did not have a crease on his face or a furrow on his brow. He was cool and collected, graciously went through the lunch, charmed everyone, said goodbye, and then jumped into one of the biggest crises of his life."
Praise for the United Nations' first black African secretary general has been rampant this week, the talk of the talk shows. Skepticism reigned when Annan left for Iraq last week; pundits wondered whether the soft-spoken career diplomat from Ghana could be forceful enough to wring concessions from Saddam Hussein. With armed conflict looming, embassies had already starting evacuating women and children. But following Annan's triumphal return to New York, signed agreement in hand, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson graded him "a big A, first-rate" -- and other diplomats, politicians and editorial writers joined in the accolades.
There have been some vehement denunciations, too. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) suggested that the accord "leaves Saddam Hussein rejoicing," while the chairman of the House Rules Committee, Gerald Solomon (R-N.Y.), charged that Annan "really sold us down the drain."
Nevertheless, he's riding a tide of attention and approval rarely accorded those who've recently held his job. He is in many ways a different character from his predecessors. Behind the professional caution is a figure of storied warmth and charm, an American-educated cosmopolite as comfortable in the Midwest as in the Middle East. He and his wife, Nane, a Swedish artist, are frequent hosts and sought-after guests in social New York, making the rounds of chic little dinner parties, museum openings and -- whenever they can "sneak away," his wife says -- movie theaters.
"If Kofi weren't secretary general, you'd call him up and go out for a beer and have a great time," James Goodale says.
Yet Annan's greater visibility and intense networking is aimed at burnishing the U.N.'s reputation and increasing the institution's clout, associates say, not his own.
"He's disarmingly modest," says an obviously smitten CBS News correspondent Mike Wallace, who traveled with Annan to Baghdad. On the return flight, Annan "broke out the champagne and thanked his people for the work they'd done," he adds. "I've known a couple of secretaries general; they took themselves very seriously. He's altogether different."
Born in Ghana 59 years ago, Annan learned early on to straddle cultures and continents. He discovered America as an undergraduate at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., a campus so committed to internationalism that it flew the U.N. flag beneath the Stars and Stripes.
"The Kofi Annan you see today is very similar to the Kofi Annan we knew 40 years ago," says communications studies professor Roger Mosvick, who vividly remembers him despite having taught a good 20,000 students since. "He was always so likable and engaging. He never took a strong, confrontational position before he sought out the other person's viewpoint. . . . I don't think anyone has ever heard him raise his voice about anything."
Supported by a Ford Foundation fellowship, Annan plunged into college life, traveling to debate tournaments, going to concerts and dances, playing soccer on a team with players of 11 nationalities. "He quickly learned our culture and how to get along with everyone, without compromising his own identity," says classmate and friend Jack Mason, now a federal magistrate in St. Paul.
Annan's Midwestern sojourn, plus graduate work in Geneva and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, provided valuable early lessons, friends believe. "He can not only understand the problems and grievances of underdeveloped nations, he also understands the position of the West," Mosvick says. "That makes him a very honest broker."
Those who knew him at Macalester expected Annan to rise to prominence in Ghana. Instead, except for two years directing tourism development there, Annan has been a lifer at the U.N., the first secretary general to rise from within the ranks. Fluent in French and a precise, West African-accented English, plus several African languages, he held posts in Geneva, Cairo and Addis Ababa. Moving to New York in 1983, he and his wife settled in the middle-class enclave of Roosevelt Island.
Toiling in unglamorous, largely anonymous management positions, Annan was at times focused on budgets, pensions and personnel. But he also shuttled the globe on sensitive assignments, negotiating the release of Western hostages from Iraq after the Kuwait invasion and beginning discussions on the "oil for food" formula of allowing humanitarian aid to enter Iraq.
His supervision of peacekeeping forces in the former Yugoslavia, after Bosnian accusations of U.N. bungling, won thanks and praise from the Bosnian ambassador. "He's straight and honest, he doesn't spin webs of cleverness and deceit, he looks you in the eye, he listens," Tharoor says.
By the time Annan took office last January, after being backed by the United States for the U.N.'s top job, he seemed acquainted with nearly every one of the 6,000 U.N. employees in New York (now reduced to 5,000, after his reform and reorganization efforts). College classmate Mason and his wife, visiting U.N. headquarters a few years back, remember Annan leading them on an often-interrupted tour. "He knew everybody in the building, high and low, ambassador to doorman," Mason says.
Some of the cheers that greeted Annan as he returned to the U.N. this week reflected that familial feeling. "You are one of us," the head of the staff committee announced proudly as Annan, exhausted, shook his colleagues' hands like a campaigning politician.
It's his style to stop short while dashing to a critical meeting if he sees someone he knows in the hallway; he asks about the person's spouse and children or inquires after an ailing parent. "I think he early on taught himself that the 30 seconds 'wasted' in personal contact are more important than getting to that meeting 30 seconds earlier," Tharoor says.
All this considerable charm is now being focused, laserlike, on generating greater recognition and support for the organization to which Annan has devoted his adult life. Some of his predecessors rarely traveled outside diplomatic circles. The Annans -- his wife is a Swedish lawyer turned painter -- are practically party animals by comparison, forging connections with artists and musicians, Wall Street financiers, publishing executives and, hardly coincidentally, media stars.
Annan showed up at ABC's party for Ted Koppel at the Museum of Television & Radio and Sally Quinn's book party at the Four Seasons. He makes appearances in Liz Smith's gossip column and chats easily on Charlie Rose's television show.
Toni Goodale, a fund-raiser who first encountered Annan in Geneva when she was a college student on her junior year abroad, is throwing a celebratory dinner party for Annan next week, inviting "people he'd like to know better." The eclectic guest list includes CBS newsmen Wallace and Dan Rather and New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. among the media contingent; U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White; Washington wheels Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state, and wife Brooke Shearer; and cultural lights like Lauren Bacall and Ron Silver.
The Annans entertain in the secretary general's stately town house on Sutton Place, with its East River views and art from many cultures -- including several of Nane Annan's paintings -- on the walls. When they met, they were both divorced and working for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. Their family includes three grown children, a daughter from her first marriage, a son and a daughter from his.
When he was a more obscure U.N. official, they could take long walks together, go to concerts and movies and museums. All that's harder now that they're encircled by bodyguards. But they did see "Titanic" and, earlier, the Harrison Ford thriller "Air Force One." Annan jocularly responded to questions about whether the U.N. plane had a similar "escape pod" by noting that there was no pod -- and no plane. But the couple did meet -- the perks of power -- actor Ford.
Though no one rises to such a position without ambition, that's not what old friends remember about Annan.
"You felt the presence of power without its being overt," Toni Goodale says of the student she knew in Geneva decades ago. When Annan joined the U.N., "I used to tease him, 'Oh, Kofi, you'll be secretary general some day.' He'd say, 'Yes, and you're going to be president of the United States.' He'd just joke about it. He'd never say, 'You know, I think you're right.' "
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company