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."
The role of message enforcer for the Bush White House strikes some friends as an odd turn of events for the life-loving kid from San Francisco who spent childhood summers with family in Baltimore. One of just five black students in his high school class of 330, Jones went on to study history and political science at Howard University and law at the University of California at Davis, where he graduated in 1996.
The year in Amsterdam, he said, was really more like a month and a half studying European Community law and the rest hanging around, exploring life. "I just needed some time away," he explained.
The foreign service exam led to his first posting in Spain as the U.S. Embassy's deputy press attache, and he still waxes nostalgic for Madrid. After two years there, he returned to Washington for a job in the State Department press office, where he eventually found himself arranging interviews for then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell; two years ago, Jones moved over to the NSC as deputy spokesman.
"He's very good at striking the balance between the competing demands of the job," said Sean McCormack, then the chief spokesman. "He's an advocate for the policy views of the administration, but he's also an advocate at the same time" for greater access for the news media.
When McCormack followed Condoleezza Rice to the State Department early this year, her successor, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, promoted Jones. "I'm high on Frederick Jones," he said in an interview. "He's got very good relations with the press. He's also very steady. He's not a panicker. And I thought as a spokesman he would give a very measured and accurate and credible picture of what the administration is doing."
Measured may describe the on-duty Frederick Jones. But when he is not in front of a microphone or tape recorder, he is known as a lively and decidedly irreverent raconteur in a buttoned-down administration.
"He's got this exuberant personality -- you know, he's Frederick Jones, well-dressed cool guy," said Caitlin Hayden, a friend from the State Department and perhaps the only one in government who dares call him "Freddy."
Ending up in one of Washington's most serious jobs never seemed his destination. "I don't think he expected this to be the path he would end up taking," Hayden said. "I don't think he has an agenda, that by doing this, he'll get to the next point X. He hasn't mapped out the Frederick Jones Plan to Success."