Pickering decries ‘expanded’ political appointments at State

On this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev,” we conclude our conversation with Ambassador Thomas Pickering, former undersecretary of state for political affairs, about U.S. diplomacy in the 21st century, the Foreign Service and the increasing number of political appointees at the State Department, in positions previously help by career diplomats.

‘It’s not how old you are’

Helen Thomas hoped in vain that her 80th birthday on August 4 — a date she shares with the British Queen Mother and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader — would pass unnoticed. “I don’t want anyone to know,” she said. “I don’t see why people have to be stamped by their age — that’s prejudice.”

But nothing made her angrier than the “congratulations” she received on her “retirement”, when she announced in May that she was leaving her front-row seat in the White House press room, where she had reported on eight presidents for United Press International (UPI) over four decades. She was simply changing jobs, and is now a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, the US chain that owns dozens of publications, including the Houston Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner…

Political punch in a package of charm

Condoleezza Rice has rarely heard a question she doesn’t know how to answer, from queries about her tumultuous childhood in segregated Alabama to her success in the male world of superpower politics, nuclear weapons and arms control.

She meets me with the friendly smile and easy hospitality of a west-coaster, defying the image of someone anointed by Washington insiders to become the most powerful woman in the world in a year. The chief foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, Rice is being tipped as a likely secretary of state or national security adviser should Bush win the White House.

As huge a task as this sounds, Rice’s own life story has the word “amazing” written all over it. At 45, she has been the first black woman in just about any job she’s taken on: from special assistant for national security affairs to President George Bush when she was only 34, to provost of California’s prestigious Stanford University (the Harvard of the west coast) where she managed a budget of nearly $2bn…

Trying, crying times

Ted Olson’s eyes fill with tears when he talks about his late wife, Barbara, but he doesn’t mind the emotion, even in public. More than eight months after she died in the September 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon, he still can’t get used to waking up alone in bed and not speaking with her on the telephone several times a day.

“This was a love affair that lasted as long as we knew each other,” he says, staring into the distance. “That relationship was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me, and when I think about her, I can hardly think about anything else.”

Olson has had a lot to think about — he is the US solicitor-general, or the government’s top courtroom lawyer — but trying times such as these are certainly no novelty for him. During the disputed 2000 presidential election, he argued George W. Bush’s case before the Supreme Court. In the early 1980s, he defended President Ronald Reagan in the infamous Iran-Contra scandal…

The new statesman

Vojislav Kostunica is still trying to recover from the “shock” he felt nearly four months ago when he finally realised that he was indeed the president of Yugoslavia. He was “thrilled and humbled”, he says, and had thought much about how he would “behave as president-elect” after his September 24 victory over Slobodan Milosevic, who disputed the results of the vote until he was forced out of power on October 6.

But since then, “things have been changing very quickly” for the soft-spoken and studious 56-year-old lawyer, who readily acknowledges his “lack of experience” in governing, and finds his new duties and unlikely celebrity rather overwhelming.

“This job is very difficult, but also very creative,” he says, “and I wouldn’t be in politics if the creativity were missing”. Although he remains entirely serious, it seems that he is wittily hinting at the total mess which he inherited in his country’s affairs — both domestic and foreign — from his predecessor and which necessarily will require quite a bit of “creativity” to overcome…

Big Daddy Larry King

It took Larry King 66 years, seven marriages and five children to discover the greatest “thrill” in life: parenthood. Sitting in the children’s room of his Mediterranean-style mansion in Beverly Hills, with five-week-old Cannon in his arms and 15-month-old Chance playing on the floor beside him, King says that he pinches himself every day — “I can’t believe everything that’s happened to me”.

Having interviewed nearly 10,000 people, among them six US presidents, being recognised around the world by the millions watching “Larry King Live” on CNN every day, and paid “handsomely for something I’d do for free” — it all pales beside the joy of new fatherhood.

“Before, I was so goal-oriented that the (professional) goals were ahead of everything. I loved my children and tried to be a good father, but work always came first. Ten years ago, if you had asked me whether I’d rather have a little baby or moderate a presidential debate, I’d have chosen the debate. Now the babies and the family come first”…

Turn, turn, turn

Arianna Huffington says that she’s had a “political conversion” — not from right to left, but “beyond right and left”. Disillusioned with the “degradation” of US politics, the outspoken Greek-born author and columnist has broken with her conservative past and, apparently, opened up to the sufferings of the poor and underprivileged. She denies she’s become a liberal, but believes that the political system can be changed “through a movement throughout the country, along the lines of the civil rights movement”.

She is also frustrated with the money flooding into US politics; ironic, some say, since her former husband, then-congressman Michael Huffington of California, spent nearly $30m on his unsuccessful senate run in 1994. But that campaign was an “eye-opener”, says Arianna, who is now a staunch supporter of Arizona Senator John McCain’s campaign finance reform efforts…

It’s show time

Conan O’Brien has no regrets that the longest election in US history is over. True, Campaign 2000 and the 36 agonising days that followed were a gift from heaven for late-night TV hosts. They were courted by both Al Gore and George W. Bush, who made “nice-guy” appearances aimed at winning young voters (keener viewers of late comedy shows than the prime-time evening news). At the same time they had a ball firing jokes at the candidates.

But now, with a new president in office, “it gets even better”, says O’Brien, beaming at the thought of the mocking monologues probably being born in the writing room of his show, “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”, as we speak.

“Presidents get funnier all the time,” he says. “Nixon was a lot of fun for comedians — a good target. But Clinton may be the funniest. The bonus when you are finally president is that you don’t have to come on these dreadful shows any more”…

A warrior tamed

James Carville has officially retired from running political campaigns in the US, but his retreat appears as much emotional and mental as pragmatic. Once an intense, tempered, tough and, at times, ruthless Democratic warrior, he is now an almost subdued family man who makes his living largely off his celebrity status.

Carville, chief architect of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, says it took him time to come to terms with the fact that his “day in the sun” had ended and now it’s “somebody else’s time”. He still misses “running campaigns, being in the headquarters and working with people”, but he didn’t even attempt to offer advice to Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic presidential candidate, or to Hillary Clinton’s senatorial campaign.

“My dirty little secret is that I like politicians,” says Carville, as he tries to explain his success as a political consultant…