Above the toilet, in the powder room at John D. Negroponte's house, a framed political cartoon hangs at eye level. In the cartoon, President Bush is congratulating Negroponte on his job as intelligence czar. Near the president, advisers stand holding memos marked "WMD" and "North Korea." They're blowing bubbles, wearing a dunce cap and a beanie.
Bush: "John, you're now in charge of all my administration's intelligence."
Negroponte: "And where would that be?"
Now, less than two years after becoming the nation's first director of national intelligence, Negroponte is leaving. Tomorrow, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will convene hearings on his nomination as deputy secretary of state. From the outside, it seems like an unusual move, a demotion. Negroponte, 67, is stepping down from a Cabinet-level position as the president's top intelligence adviser and coordinator for all 16 U.S. intelligence services to become the No. 2 at State.
But from the inside of Negroponte's Tuscan, mustard-colored Washington home, the mystery of his career move dissipates with the steam from a pot of Earl Grey tea.
"About my life . . .," Negroponte said in his living room on a recent afternoon. He clicked Greek worry beads and sat near a wedding photo of his British wife. "Basically, I'm a diplomat. There's no escaping that. I've done it for so long, I've kind of internalized it."
Speculation over Negroponte's departure has split national security circles. Some question Negroponte's performance as DNI. Rather than unifying the intelligence community, they say, he created another bureaucratic layer. Others say that his step down is in fact a step up, that he will be in line to be secretary of state, if Condoleezza Rice moves on.
Sitting near his fireplace, though, Negroponte suggested another answer. Halfway through his sentence about studying politics in France in college, he blurted out, "All my life, I wanted to do this kind of work."
Negroponte worked for State from the 1960s, when he was a junior political officer in Vietnam, to 2005, when he served as ambassador to Iraq. He has been the U.S. envoy to Mexico, the Philippines, the United Nations and, most controversially, Honduras.
In past confirmation hearings, he has been grilled over his 1981-1985 stint in Honduras, during the Contra buildup. Although the evidence is equivocal, and he denies the allegations, he has been accused of suppressing information about human rights violations by the CIA-backed Honduran military.
The charges have hardened into Negroponte's public legacy from Honduras. His private legacy is another matter.
"Who's that?" Negroponte asked, calling out to a creak on the stairs. "Helllllo?" He paused. Another creaking sound. "Alejandra?"
A young woman peeked into the living room. "Where's George?" asked Alejandra, 23. George, 17, appeared. Then Sophia, 13, and John, 19.
Four of the five Negroponte children were at home. They drifted in and out of the living room, onto the couch and into the conversation. Asked how he stayed connected to the countries he served in, Negroponte said, "Mexico is a good example --"
Alejandra interrupted, "Well, Honduras -- there's us."
In Honduras, Negroponte and his wife, Diana, a historian, adopted five orphaned or abandoned Honduran children.
Negroponte, the son of a Greek shipping magnate, and Diana, the daughter of the chairman of British Steel, educated the children as they had been educated, taking them skiing at the Negroponte chalet in Switzerland, sending some to Negroponte's boarding school at Exeter and others to Diana's British boarding school, St. Mary's.
"A family tradition," Alejandra said.
"Tea, anyone?" Diana said, carrying a silver teapot. "Come on, you won't die of my tea."
"You might," joked Sophia.
The teacups were a wedding gift. "We haven't thrown them at each other," Diana teased.
"We have another set for that," Negroponte said.
Diana lighted a fire, her posture erect even as she bent over. The children sat around telling stories of their father's nine months in Iraq. Sophia said she was sad. They were not allowed to visit, for security reasons.
"On Thanksgiving we had him on speakerphone in the middle of the table for about an hour," Alejandra recalled. It was a black telephone. They called it Dad.
Negroponte tried to call every day. He left voice-mail messages in song.
"When we were feeling low, we played them," Diana recalled, singing: "Good morning, Sophia, la-la! I love you, la-la-la!" Diana turned to her daughter. "Sophia, can you think of any stories about your dad? How nice he is, when I'm beastly?"
"Um." (Later Sophia noted that Dad likes to inhale helium from balloons and recite his title in the voice of Alvin the Chipmunk: "Hi! I'm John Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to the Philippines!" Negroponte said, "We ought to get a regular supply.")
Afterward, when the children scattered, he said: "The nicest story is the adoption of Marina."
After years of trying to have a child, they decided to adopt. In Honduras, a nun contacted Diana.
"And she said, 'I have your child,' " Negroponte said.
"Johnny, I'm terribly sorry," Diana said, her voice rising. "But for me, the kids is a highly private part --"
"Not this part --"
"Well, you phrase it the way you want."
"In any case, Diana brought Marina home and it happened, we had Congressmen Jim Leach and Steve Solarz visiting us . . ."
Negroponte arrived home to find the 8-month-old girl. The congressmen, a Republican from Iowa and a Democrat from New York, ran out and bought a stuffed elephant and donkey.
"I still carry the picture of her crawling around on the floor of the residence," Negroponte said, taking out his wallet.
Negroponte kept the tiny, creased photo with him in Iraq. He said he looked at it often. Security concerns in Iraq made life "confining." In his Iraq album, there's a photo of a woman at her desk, wearing a helmet and a flak jacket. "That's my secretary," he said. The picture was taken during an incoming-missile alert. Iraq was the one post where Negroponte didn't learn the language.
"I was relieved when I left," he said.
In his new job, Negroponte will return to Baghdad "at an early date," he said. The job change had been "on again, off again, since last May, after several frustrated attempts to find a successor as DNI." On New Year's Eve, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley called with the offer. Negroponte was on the beach in south Naples, Fla. Hadley was in north Naples.
Negroponte, who has lived overseas for some 22 years, said his foreign experience would be valuable: "Look around at the government in highest circles. Who's had the opportunity to live abroad?"
As the No. 2 at State, Negroponte will assume responsibility for Iraq. He will also be the lead person for policy toward China and northeast Asia, including North Korea. His five languages will help.
"Your Mandarin might need a little polishing," Diana said.
"I'd be reluctant to take a quiz in Vietnamese," he acknowledged.
Negroponte pulled some aquamarine worry beads from his pocket. At the United Nations, he traded beads with the Syrians.
Negroponte said, "It throws people -- 'Who's this American using worry beads?' "
"He's an East Mediterranean, don't underestimate him," Diana said, and then retreated.
Negroponte walked by a photograph above the piano. It was of Diana's mother, a Belgian countess, having lunch with a chum.
"Diana's mother is a very good friend of the queen of England," Negroponte said, pointing to the friend. "It doesn't come across --" he chuckled "-- as the average American profile, I'm afraid. But what are you going to do?"
The Negroponte girls recalled meeting Grandma's friend, the queen.
"Mom taught me now to curtsy," Alejandra said.
"People look at us like, 'Wait -- you're Latin American, adopted. How do you know the queen?' " said Marina, 24.
"I was the last to be adopted," Sophia said, pouting.
Negroponte walked in: "Well, I don't think we can adopt any more."
The girls looked up -- Alejandra from the couch, Marina from a chair and Sophia from the floor where she sat listening to her iPod -- at their father. No speculation here. Negroponte's five children knew why he was going to State.
"It's full circle," Alejandra said. "He started there."
And during his hearings, if the human rights accusations come up, "we all know it's there, the Honduras thing," Alejandra said. Critics have hung posters on the lampposts on their street, calling their father a "war criminal."
"We take them down," Alejandra said. "Sophia will scratch them off."
They have a different image of their father: For Christmas, they bought him Russian nesting dolls. The largest doll is President Bush. Inside Bush is President Bill Clinton. Next, there's President George H.W. Bush, and inside him, President Ronald Reagan. Finally, the tiniest wooden doll pops out.
"He works for everybody," Alejandra said.
She held the fat little doll between two fingers. It was labeled "Dad," pasted with Negroponte's smiling face.