It was a D.C. lawyer’s dream come true, a Hollywood premiere for a movie based on the novel he wrote in his spare time. But when “The Revenant,” the highly anticipated new film adapted from Michael Punke’s book, had its big opening in L.A. — an evening featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu — the author was nowhere to be seen.
He was 10,000 miles away in Nairobi, putting the finishing touches on an international trade agreement enacting a $1.3 trillion trade deal covering GPS devices, semiconductors and touch screens. Punke, 51, may be having the literary moment of a lifetime — more than a decade after his novel was released to high praise but modest sales — but as the deputy U.S. trade representative and ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Switzerland, he’s missing out on a lot of the fun.
In fact, he wasn’t even allowed to talk about “The Revenant” for this article. Federal ethics rules prohibit him from doing any side work — even a little promotional campaign — that might enrich him and potentially abuse his high-ranking office in the process.
“Oh, he wishes he could talk about it,” said Tim Punke, who in addition to working for a Seattle lumber company has become his brother’s de facto spokesman. “Can you imagine having your book turned into a movie, having Leonardo DiCaprio in it?”
Of course, if the book goes on to sell a bajillion copies, Michael Punke is allowed to cash the checks. He just can’t do anything to push it along.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” said Traci Punke, Michael’s wife, who flew to the premiere with their two kids from their home in Geneva. “He’s so grateful that it just happened, that it came to the big screen, that he can’t complain. But he’s obviously disappointed.”
Granted, Michael Punke has nothing to complain about. It’s not as if he’s been mauled by a bear, left for dead by his compatriots and sent traipsing through hostile Indian country like Hugh Glass, the early-19th-century protagonist of “The Revenant.” It’s a gripping story, historical fiction blending the lonely terror of “Castaway,” the driving vengeance of “The Count of Monte Cristo” and the landscape of a classic old Western — the kind of tale that you can imagine being scrawled under flickering candlelight in a remote cabin with the help of stiff bourbon.
Except that Punke typed it up inside a LEED-certified glass box on K Street, the downtown office of the global law firm Mayer Brown.
If it’s not the typical D.C. side gig, well, Punke isn’t exactly your typical creature of D.C. He grew up in small-town Torrington, Wyo., where he fished, mountain-biked and learned to build his own rifles. A debate champ, he graduated from high school early to head to the University of Massachusetts, then transferred to George Washington University to study international affairs. A couple of years out of Cornell Law, he went into government as a staffer for then-Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
“If you asked anybody who has worked with him, they will all like him,” said Mickey Kantor, the former U. S. trade representative who hired Punke away from a later White House policy job in 1995.
Though Punke thrived in Washington, he was always looking for a way home. “He told me about a year into our relationship that whomever he ended up with in life had to live in the West,” Traci said. “If he remained living in D.C., his soul would wither up and die.”
Reading on an airplane one day, he came across a squib of an idea — just a couple of sentences in a history book — about the frontier fur trapper Hugh Glass and his incredible story of survival. He started waking before dawn, heading to the law office early to write in the hours before his co-workers arrived. At home in Bethesda, Md., he did research by building lean-tos and setting up hunting traps with his kids. The book was published in 2002, and Punke managed to sell the movie rights though it was never certain that a film would get made.
But Punke decided that writing was more than just a hobby. He left his law firm and moved the family to Missoula, Mont., where he became an adjunct professor at the University of Montana. He planned to spend his days teaching and writing — until Ron Kirk called to offer what Traci refers to as a “once-in-a-lifetime, can’t-pass-up opportunity.”
When Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas, was appointed as President Obama’s first U.S. trade representative, one name kept coming up for the WTO job: Michael Punke.
“I looked at the résumé and it was great, but I was confused by the fact that he had been in Montana for the past few years,” Kirk said. “I called him up and said, ‘You’re either the perfect person for the job or you’re the Unabomber.’”
How did he like working with Punke?
“I hate it, man,” joked Kirk, who is now in the private sector. “He’s taller than I am, skinnier than I am, smarter than I am, knows more about trade than I do, he’s better-looking, and now his book is being made into a movie. What’s there to like about him?”
From Switzerland, Punke has traveled the world to talk tariffs, stipulate subsidies and think through trade disputes. In Nairobi last week, while his wife and kids partied with movie stars in Hollywood, Punke stayed up late into the night negotiating agricultural subsidies and completing a deal on the biggest tariff cut that the WTO has negotiated in 18 years.
“Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio will do a PSA about the agreement,” said Christopher Wenk, the executive director for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It would only be fair, since Michael can’t talk about the movie.”
For his colleagues, there were always a few clues that this natty dresser with an uncanny gift for impersonations had another life. There was his habit of packing beef jerky in the backpack he carried to meetings. There was the beaver pelt draped over a chair in his Geneva office. And, of course, there was his suspiciously flattering identification photograph.
“We were in Japan at a trade event sitting around a table eating lunch when someone looked at the ID badge Michael was wearing and demanded to know where the photo was from,” said Carol Guthrie, a former colleague in the U.S. trade representative’s office. “Where everyone else had a passport photo, his ID had a very serious black-and-white photo of him in a turtleneck — a classic book-jacket photo. He was completely mortified. We were thrilled.”
Guthrie said that for years Punke tried to remove that photo from the agency’s database, and that for years his prankster co-workers kept putting it back in.
“He’s got a little bit of John Wayne in him,” said John Neuffer, who as president of the Semiconductor Industry Association has worked with Punke for years. “He’s quiet, confident and formidable.”
In fact, Neuffer said, maybe there’s even a little bit of Michael Punke in the fictionalized Hugh Glass. Both are adventure-seekers enchanted by the American West but unable to talk much about it (Punke because of his government muzzle, Glass because a bear slashed his throat). During the Nairobi trade talks, “there have been seriously dark hours trying to negotiate this last agreement,” Neuffer said. “And Michael has always had a way forward, a way to inspire the group even when there seemed to be no way to move ahead.”
Sooo, in other words — when you guys felt like you were lost in the woods, alone and afraid, he was the one fighting to keep going?
“I couldn’t have said it better myself.”