As you probably know from my tweets, I have just gotten back from Washington after Prime Minister John Key’s visit. I didn’t try to blog daily while there because I knew that the media here in New Zealand would already be filled with stories, commentary, and photos. I also knew from past experience just how busy time in DC can be, squeezing out any real chance to sit quietly at a computer to draft. Now that the dust has settled, though, a recap makes sense. So, here goes …
I arrived in Washington a couple days before the Prime Minister so that I could attend to final preparations and details. I also wanted a little time for internal consultations, i.e., making the rounds of the State Department and other agencies and departments in town to collect information, discuss issues relevant to my job, and trawl for resources that we need at the Embassy.
The Prime Minister arrived late Wednesday night and proceeded directly to Blair House, across the street from the White House. As I discussed in my prior post, staying at Blair House is a special honor. Blair House is also a very comfortable and convenient base of operations. Given the intense heat and humidity in Washington that week, I know that the Prime Minister greatly appreciated being centrally located and having most of the Cabinet Secretaries and other interlocutors come to him for the scheduled meetings.
The first official event of the visit was a speech by the Prime Minister to the US Chamber of Commerce, at the Chamber’s large headquarters just around the corner from Blair House. I greeted the Kiwi press scrum as they hustled into the building a bit sweaty and frazzled just before the Prime Minister. The PM himself was relaxed, rested, and enthusiastic when I met him at the door of the Chamber as his motorcade arrived.
He circulated through the room of approximately 100 business leaders and then delivered remarks that included a report on Christchurch, the current state of the New Zealand economy, and his thoughts on the mutual benefits expected from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). After the speech he responded to questions from the audience and then adjourned to a separate room to take questions from the press, which by that time had cooled and dried off.
While the Prime Minister was engaged with the press, I walked back to Blair House. By that point the temperature was already approaching 100 degrees, but I didn’t want to wait for a lift in the motorcade in case there was any final prep work necessary in the meeting rooms. Also, I always like approaching the White House on foot through Lafayette Park … a thrill enhanced by seeing the New Zealand flag flying above Blair House across the street.
Blair House is a superbly run facility, and there was no last-minute prep work waiting. I passed through a security detail surprised to see me arriving on foot, and paused briefly on the front steps to remember police officer Leslie William Coffelt, a true hero who helped foil an attempt to assassinate President Harry Truman in 1950. Though mortally wounded by three close-range shots to the chest as the assassins began their assault on Blair House, Les Coffelt managed to stagger to his feet and shoot the lead assailant as he lunged up the steps, thus preventing him from reaching the President.
I was greeted on the steps by the House manager and had a quiet cup of tea in the Lincoln Room, sitting at the fireplace where President Lincoln himself often sat. The Prime Minister arrived about 15 minutes later, followed shortly by Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner and his senior team for 45 minutes or so of discussions. Following Secretary Geithner was Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and her senior team, including Assistant Secretary Mariko Silver, who was in Christchurch in February when the quake struck.
In both meetings the Prime Minister talked about Christchurch recovery issues, solicited the Secretaries’ views of various current events, discussed ongoing collaborations between the US and New Zealand, and probed re potential new joint projects. The meetings were warm and collegial, as one would expect among friends, rather than formal or stilted. After seeing Secretary Napolitano out, Prime Minister Key left Blair House for the drive down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill.
The Prime Minister was greeted at the Capitol steps by Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar. They walked to the floor of the Senate where Senator Kerry introduced the PM as “a great friend of the United States,” noting that New Zealand is “in enormous partnership” with America, indeed ”one of the strongest and best partnerships with us on a global basis.” The Senate then suspended its deliberations on the debt ceiling and went into recess so that the Prime Minister could speak with several of the Senators, including Senator John McCain.
I did not accompany the Prime Minister to the Hill because of the Constitutional framework of separation of powers within our governance system. I reside within the Executive Branch of Government, and the Capitol is the seat of our Legislative Branch. The feedback that I got from my good friends at that end of Pennsylvania Avenue, however, was that the Prime Minister was received with extraordinary warmth, candor, and goodwill … that there were productive exchanges on substantive issues … and that he seemed to thoroughly enjoy his visit.
Thus, I was surprised by some of the media reports about the PM’s Hill visit being “derailed” because Senators Reid and McConnell were unable to meet privately with him. If being escorted into the Well of the Senate during critical deliberations, having the Senate cease urgent business in order to greet you, and having one-on-one conversations with former Presidential nominees and other leading Senators on the Floor add up to being “derailed,” then perhaps those reporting didn’t actually watch or understand what was occurring. Our Senate is a grand and historic institution, and it received the Prime Minister in a most special manner.
After the Senate visit, I rejoined the Prime Minister’s delegation at the Pentagon. I arrived early to spend time with several of my contacts discussing pending projects. I was particularly pleased to see Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joints of Staff, who is America’s highest-ranking military officer and the President’s principal military advisor. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and a full honor guard met the Prime Minister on the steps as his motorcade arrived, and we all adjourned to the Secretary’s private dining room for lunch.
Later in the afternoon we drove to Arlington Cemetery so that the Prime Minister could lay a wreath at our Tomb of the Unknowns. Over 2.5 square kilometers in size, Arlington contains more than 300,000 graves of those who have served our country in time of war … including two US Presidents, four Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, many dozens of other famous Americans, and 3,800 freed slaves … as well as several special monuments, including to those who perished in the Space Shuttle Columbia and Challenger disasters, the terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, the Iran hostage rescue mission, and the sinking of the USS Maine.
Whenever I visit Washington I make it a point to go to Arlington. I visit particular graves. I spend time at the Tomb of the Unknowns. And I climb the hill to Arlington House for its panoramic view of DC. Built by President George Washington’s adopted grandson, Arlington House was for more than two decades the home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his family. Arlington is a moving, peaceful, yet complex place which offers meaningful insights into American history and character. It is also a working cemetery, with approximately 30 burials each day of the year.
Our motorcade’s route was lined with hundreds of servicemen and women in full dress uniform. A 19-cannon salute, military band, and large honor guarded greeted the Prime Minister at the Tomb. We walked up the steps lined with many dozens of additional servicemen. The two national anthems were played, the Prime Minister laid a wreath at the Tomb, and we toured the museum. The Prime Minister presented the museum with a book about Kiwi Victoria Cross recipients, and the curator placed the book directly into a display cabinet containing Victoria Crosses awarded to fallen servicemen interred at Arlington. It was an unexpected, moving moment underscoring shared values and sacrifice.
After Arlington, we returned to Blair House through the triple-digit heat and heavy humidity. There we met for about 50 minutes with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, followed by my Yale Law School classmate Gene Sperling, who is now Director of the National Economic Council and President Obama’s top economic advisor. I hadn’t seen Gene since 1984, and he gave me one of those exuberant Sperling bear hugs that I remembered from New Haven. The meetings were cordial and substantive, and centered around current events and questions posed by the Prime Minister.
When the meeting with Director Sperling ended, I hitched a ride with Kiwi Ambassador Mike Moore up to the New Zealand Embassy for a black tie dinner in honor of American hedge fund manager and philanthropist Julian Robertson. I mingled with the assembled guests, chatted with Julian, introduced Dr McWaine to a few people, and had the great pleasure of meeting one of my predecessors, former Ambassador Charles Swindells. When the PM arrived he presided over the formal investiture of Julian as an honorary Knight Companion of the realm, and we settled down to a fine dinner.
The next day, Friday, started early with an hour at Blair House with my colleague Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns. Acting Secretary of State prior to Secretary Clinton’s confirmation by the Senate and now the second highest ranking official in the Department, Ambassador Burns was a superb interlocutor for the Prime Minister in Secretary Clinton’s absence (due to a previously scheduled Asia trip). The Deputy Secretary briefed the Prime Minister, and the two discussed a wide variety of global issues.
After the meeting with Ambassador Burns, I had the pleasure of greeting General Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. We chatted for a few minutes in the Lincoln Room and then walked down the hall for a rountable conversation with the Prime Minister and more than a dozen Washington think tank leaders. There was vigorous discussion of Afghanistan, trade, East Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific, and other topics, after which several of the think thank experts stayed for a Q&A with the visiting Kiwi media.
The PM, his entourage, and I then returned to the Lee Drawing Room to meet with Ambassador Ron Kirk, the United States Trade Representative, and his senior team. There was discussion about the TPP, the Doha Development Round, and other trade issues. As with the other bilateral meetings, the exchange was warm, collegial, and substantive, and the press scrum was invited in for a couple minutes to take photos of the proceedings.
I returned to the State Department briefly and then made my way to the White House. Rather than drive in, I walked through the 17th Street gates, past the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and up to the door of the West Wing. I spent a half hour talking with friends who work in the building and then mustered with Deputy Secretary Burns, Director Sperling, and a couple White House staffers to brief the President in the Oval Office.
When Prime Minister Key arrived, he and and President greeted each other warmly, joked a bit about the weather, and settled into a warm conversation about the US-NZ bilateral relationship. The Prime Minister updated the President on the Christchurch recovery process, and the President thanked the Prime Minister for New Zealand’s highly productive engagement in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world. The two leaders ranged across a variety of other topics, and then the White House press corps and the visiting Kiwi media stampeded (literally, believe me) in for film, photos, and statements.
I was a bit surprised later to see Kiwi press reports saying that the meeting was rushed or “cut short.” I didn’t think to bring my stop watch, but it seemed to me that the conversation proceeded naturally, filled the allotted time, and indeed continued for awhile after the press scrum was escorted out of the Oval Office. Anyway, although minutes are certainly easier to analyze than progress or substance, the meeting seemed to me to meet expectations on all counts, particularly given what else was occurring in the world that Friday.
After the Prime Minister’s party departed, I spent a few more minutes with the President, who remarked how much he enjoyed the PM’s visit. As I left the Oval Office myself, I saw a rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln, and Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With, one of my favorite works of American art. I was also happy to see the Prime Minister’s gift to the President — a stunning raukawakawa pounamu (flower jade) wahaika (fish-mouth club) carved by Hokitika craftsman Aden Hoglund and presented by the Ngai Tahu.
I walked the few steps from the West Wing to the Eisenhower Building for follow-up meetings and then returned to the State Department for an informal celebration with my ANP (Australia, New Zealand, Pacific) Office colleagues. After that, I drove up to the official Residence of the New Zealand Ambassador for the Prime Minister’s final event in Washington, a small dinner with business folks and trade experts to discuss the TPP. It was a convivial evening with no surprises.
I stayed in Washington for one more day of Government consultations focused on youth outreach, sports diplomacy, educational exchanges, and renewable energy projects, which are among the parts of my portfolio that excite me the most. I enjoyed spending time with my friends at the Sports United office who helped arrange our recent Hawaiian rugby exchange program, and with my friend Andrew Cedar who is the Secretary’s senior advisor for youth programs. I concluded my formal schedule with a trip to Capitol Hill to brief the staff of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations re developments since I last visited, in January.
That evening I had the great pleasure of dining informally with my colleagues Bob, Chad, and Marie who were in Washington for training. Bob is my outgoing Deputy Chief of Mission to whom I am deeply indebted for his guidance and distinguished service during my first 18 months as Ambassador. Marie is my new Deputy Chief of Mission for New Zealand, and Chad is my new Deputy Chief of Mission for Samoa. We had an enjoyable and productive evening, although it was a bit odd listening to Bob coach Marie and Chad on how to try to manage me.
I only spent one week in Washington this time, but crammed into that week was enough work for a month. I can confidently say that it was the most productive, successful, and enjoyable business trip that I’ve ever had. I’m happy, though, to be back in Wellington with a free Saturday tomorrow to recharge my batteries. Dr McWaine is on his annual camping trip in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains with his old high school mates, so I’ll have the run of the Residence.