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Los Angeles Times Interview : Pamela Harriman : On Having an Affinity for Power; On Being the Ideal U.S. Ambassador

November 20, 1994|Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft is Paris bureau chief for The Times. He interviewed Pamela Harriman in her office in Paris

PARIS — When President Bill Clinton gave a political fund raiser and Washington hostess the plum job of ambassador to France, few doubted Pamela Harriman deserved the reward. The surprise is that she has turned out to be uniquely qualified for the job.

Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, a force in the Democratic Party and early supporter of Clinton, has been the U.S. government's envoy in Paris for 18 months, presiding over the large embassy staff and handling weighty economic and military matters. But perhaps more important, her skills as a political insider, her close links to Clinton, her fluency in French, her sense of style and her ease in international drawing rooms have made this British-born aristocrat a favorite of French business and political leaders.

Indeed, at age 74, Harriman's extraordinary life, which has intersected with many of the world's most famous and powerful men, seems to have been one long preparatory school for this job. Married to Winston Churchill's son, Randolph, she lived at No. 10 Downing Street during World War II, often serving as the prime minister's hostess. (Her stories of Gen. Charles de Gaulle's visits to the Churchill home never fail to impress her French hosts.)

She was later married to Broadway producer Leland Hayward and, after his death, to W. Averell Harriman, presidential adviser and Democratic political heavyweight who died in 1986. She was also romantically linked over the years with other important men, including CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, Italian car magnate Gianni Agnelli and French aristocrat, Baron Elie de Rothschild.

From the early 1980s until Clinton's election, she was an important figure in the Democratic Party, founding a political-action committee and hosting regular "issues evenings" that helped shape party strategy and policy.

An unauthorized biography of Harriman, "The Life of the Party," published earlier this year, portrays her as a calculating courtesan who targeted rich and powerful men, "parlaying her ambition and talents into a vast fortune and major political clout." The ambassador refuses to talk about the book. And, through her attorney, she denies claims made in a recent lawsuit filed by 19 Harriman heirs, who accuse the ambassador and other trustees of Averell Harriman's estate of mismanaging $25 million in trust funds.

Neither the lawsuit nor her past romances bother the French, though. In fact, her life story only seems to gild her reputation as a political insider. An invitation to lunch is coveted by the high and mighty in French politics and culture. Visitors to the ambassador's residence are treated to orchid-filled rooms and part of her impressive personal art collection, which includes works by Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne, as well as the formidable "White Roses," by Van Gogh. Talking in her large office on a recent rainy Paris afternoon, she discussed everything from French-U.S. relations to the attributes of powerful men in a strong voice, lightly accented by her British heritage.

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Question: What is it the French have trouble understanding about America?

Answer: One of my principal efforts ever since I got here has been to make them understand the power of our Congress, because under their system, there is no such power. It does not exist . . . .

When French ministers visit Washington, I've tried to convince them to meet with people on the Hill . . . . But it has been interesting how difficult it is to make others understand the political division between the Administration and Congress.

Q: Are there any other areas?

A: Of non-understanding? Yes, especially in the cultural area. Films for us are commercial and for them, they're culture. And there is a disagreement and a misunderstanding, quite understandably, about that.

Of course, our films are so enormously popular in France . . . . But our film magnates are really trying to do more to involve French producers, directors and actors. The world today is global and we've got to start looking at it through that vision. There is a problem, but this can be addressed, and I think we are probably taking the lead in doing that.

Q: On the other side of the coin, do you find yourself having to clear up misunderstandings in Washington about French politics?

A: That's why embassies exist, to report back to Washington what we see as the feeling that is prevailing in our respective countries. We must realize where they (the French) are coming from; it's often not evil intentions but natural traditions. The Atlantic is a very large space of water.

One of the things about France today is that it's really emerging as a high-tech country. It is no longer the country of wine and perfume. It's the country of Airbus, satellites, the TGV (high-speed trains). And I think that is putting France in kind of a different category in the global thick of things.

Q: Are the French beginning to take Clinton more seriously?

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