WASHINGTON — Returning from Latin America aboard Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's plane at night recently, a department press aide wrestled with questions from reporters about U.S. legislation on Caribbean tariffs.
The aide admitted that he knew little about it.
"Well, get Davidow," an exasperated reporter said.
"He's probably sleeping," the aide said.
"Then wake him."
In moments, the aide returned with Jeffrey Davidow, assistant secretary of State for Latin American affairs.
The 6-foot-6 diplomat towered over the seated correspondents and listened to their questions patiently. He replied with clarity, incisiveness and good humor.
The incident reinforced his image both within and without the State Department. Davidow, 54, who was nominated by President Clinton this week to fill the long-empty post of ambassador to Mexico, is known as an affable diplomat who keeps a grand store of information in his head and speaks his mind without cant or bureaucratic haze.
Clinton's selection of Davidow is popular in the State Department and should satisfy congressional critics like Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), who have called on the administration to nominate a distinguished career officer for the post.
The big question is whether it will satisfy Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The powerful Helms single-handedly derailed Clinton's nomination of former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld for the job last year, refusing to let the committee even vote on the nominee. Helms castigated Weld, a fellow Republican, for advocating medicinal use of marijuana and the distribution of clean needles to drug addicts as an AIDS-prevention measure.
No such controversy hangs over Davidow. And, unlike Weld, Davidow has taken the precaution of saying nothing in public until he appears before the Helms committee.
Although Davidow is making no public statements now, he is not a diplomat shy about taking a stand.
When he arrived in Venezuela as ambassador in 1993, its democracy had been shaken by a series of coup attempts. There was a fear that Venezuelan democracy would prove too fragile to withstand any more blows.
Davidow soon made it clear that he intended to bolster democracy. When the fearful government suspended political rights and harassed several critics, he invited them to an embassy party and, in front of some prominent members of the government and Caracas society, hugged one critic, political analyst Anibal Romero, in a Latin-style abrazo.
The incident is still remembered in Venezuela. Gladys Ronca, Romero's wife, said by phone Friday: "It was extremely important that the U.S. representative would consider it important to show support to someone who had been harassed."
Davidow, who grew up in Brookline in the Boston area, has spent his working career with the State Department, serving in Latin America and Africa, experiencing and analyzing some of the most dramatic moments of both continents.
Armed with a bachelor's degree in American history from the University of Massachusetts and a master's in American studies from the University of Minnesota, Davidow won a grant to study at Osmania University in Hyderabad, India, for the 1968-69 academic year. But he found the school on strike most of the time. So he spent most of the year traveling; he took the U.S. foreign service exam while in Calcutta.
The State Department rushed Davidow off to Guatemala, assigning him to the consular section, where he expected, like most new diplomats, to spend his time stamping visas in passports.
But soon after he arrived, rebels kidnapped the U.S. labor attache in the embassy political section. After his release, the attache left the country, and Davidow took over as a temporary substitute. He did so well that he was soon assigned to Chile as a junior political officer.
In Chile, he observed the military overthrow of President Salvador Allende in 1973 and the first year of the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
That same decade, Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, fearing the State Department was becoming arthritic with overspecialization, decreed that all experts must move into a new region.
Davidow was assigned to Africa and served in South Africa and Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. He was in Rhodesia when the whites and blacks, under British mediation, negotiated the turnover of power to the black majority.
Davidow continued to alternate between the two continents. His first ambassadorship came in Africa in 1988, when President Reagan named him the emissary to Zambia.
President Clinton named him ambassador to Venezuela in 1993, then assistant secretary of State for inter-American affairs in 1996.
Davidow is married to Joan Labuzoski. They have two daughters.
Times staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Mexico City contributed to this report.