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Two Ambassadors : The Wisdom of Choosing Political Appointees as Diplomats Has Been Debated Since the Nation Was Founded. Two Former Reagan Appointees Offer Case Studies of the Pros and Cons.

October 26, 1986|NORMAN KEMPSTER | Norman Kempster covers the State Department for The Times. and

John Gavin was not a born diplomat. Appointed ambassador to Mexico in 1981 by his friend and fellow former movie actor, Ronald Reagan, Gavin displayed an instinctive ability to antagonize just about everyone whom diplomats usually try to cultivate.

Even before the Senate confirmed him, Gavin presided at a White House meeting for Mexican newspaper luminaries at which he told the representative of Excelsior, probably Mexico's most powerful journal, that the newspaper was a "Red rag." For good measure, he called Mexico's foreign minister--who luckily was not present--a "Red."

A few weeks later, at a reception to introduce the new ambassador to U.S. correspondents stationed in Mexico City, Gavin parceled out "an insult for just about everybody," one reporter says. For Alan Riding of the New York Times, who had just interviewed Gavin, the ambassador made a point of asking his name and the name of his newspaper, as though he had never heard of either. When a Los Angeles Times correspondent was introduced, Gavin told him he was chummy enough with the newspaper's executives to get uppity reporters fired.

Gavin also got off to a rocky start with the embassy's professional diplomats, though in retrospect that hardly should have come as a surprise at the State Department. Gavin was a fully committed participant in the Reagan Revolution, which swept into Washington on a platform that singled out the bureaucracy as a main source of the nation's ills. To the new President and to Reagan supporters like Gavin, Foggy Bottom was alien territory, the preserve of liberal One World thinking that the new Administration intended to reverse. Professional diplomats are used to the role of political whipping boy; Democratic and Republican presidents alike have scorned them as "cookie pushers in striped pants." But that doesn't mean they like it, and Gavin's hostile approach quickly "caused morale problems, to put it mildly," says a former State Department official.

To make matters worse, Gavin--apparently doubting that more-experienced diplomats would be personally loyal to him--selected a junior Foreign Service officer to be his chief administrative aide. The young aide controlled access to the ambassador's office and handled much of the day-to-day operation of the embassy. The result, say those familiar with the situation, was chaos. (To his credit, however, Gavin ultimately concluded that his system was not working and replaced his aide.)

Still, Gavin's debut on the diplomatic stage outraged Mexican officials and unnerved State Department specialists who feared that his disdain for diplomatic conventions would irreparably damage relations between the United States and its prickly, problem-plagued neighbor to the south. Even before Gavin's appointment was announced, the Mexican press--apparently egged on by government officials--derided him as a lightweight. A columnist in the popular daily La Prensa huffed that "perhaps Mr. Reagan's personal commitments are such that he must force trash upon us, but we think that our country deserves greater respect and better treatment." The nation was awash with jokes about whom Mexico should name as ambassador to the United States. One frequent suggestion was Cantinflas, the popular Mexican comedian.

Yet, five years later, when Gavin announced his resignation to return to private business in Los Angeles, opinion among U.S. diplomats was decidedly different. State Department professionals were lavish in their praise, and Gavin was highly regarded in Congress as well. The ambassador's early gaffes were forgiven and all but forgotten. Staffers who had once grumbled about ineffective leadership described him as a first-class boss. Today he is remembered fondly as the first U.S. ambassador in years who refused to let pass the cheap-shot attacks on the United States that had long been a staple of Mexican politics. Even many Mexicans grudgingly conceded that Gavin's approach to the job had something to be said for it, although the newspapers and some government officials never warmed to him.

"He certainly didn't like the Mexican press, and they hated him," says Joseph John Jova, the last career ambassador to head the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. "Right from the beginning, he presented U.S. views loud and clear even when it was unpopular to do so. Thanks to that, he won the admiration of the American community (in Mexico), and many Mexicans admired him also."

William A. Wilson seemed to be a natural choice when his close personal friend Ronald Reagan picked him as envoy to the Vatican in 1981. He was a convert to Roman Catholicism and a regular churchgoer. And at the time, the Vatican post was a diplomatic backwater headed by an unpaid, part-time representative of the U.S. government--just the sort of post for someone who had made a fortune in ranching, Southern California real estate and the manufacture of oil-drilling equipment.

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