Diplomatic reorientation

Thomas R. Pickering was a fresh college graduate in 1953 when he braved the notoriously lengthy entrance process at the State Department, prolonged even further by an ongoing investigation of suspected communists in the agency’s ranks.

Although he was offered a job earlier than he expected, Mr. Pickering by then had enrolled in the graduate program of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. He later left for Australia on a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Melbourne, which was followed by three years in the Navy.

So it was 1959 when the 28-year-old finally became a Foreign Service officer — or, to use the better-known term, a diplomat…

‘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…

Seeing John Malkovich

John Malkovich fails all attempts to describe him, even though he is not necessarily an enigma. The moment you utter a word supposed to illustrate a certain part of his character, you realise that another one, with quite a different meaning, would suit him much better. The most common adjective people use to express their opinions of him — both complimentary and dismissive — is “weird”, but, with a little imagination, most of what he says and does makes sense.

In fact, imagination and creativity are key to understanding an actor who has starred in nearly 40 films over only 18 years, including “Empire of the Sun”, “The Glass Menagerie”, “Of Mice and Men” and “Being John Malkovich”, and just directed his first, “The Dancer Upstairs”, yet still claims to have “no knowledge of what a real movie is”…

So busy at diplomacy, he ‘ignored’ the US election

Richard Holbrooke is about to make yet another exit from the US foreign policy stage — the fourth in his 38-year career. Many of the people who know him well, though, are already predicting a stormy comeback.

This is the second time he has come within a whisker of the job that many in Washington say he’s been pursuing for years: secretary of state. In 1996, a year after he brokered the Dayton agreements that ended the war in Bosnia, he lost out to Madeleine Albright — the first woman to hold the top diplomatic post.

This time it was the slimmest of election wins by Republican George W. Bush that decided Holbrooke’s fate. Although the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, was careful during the campaign not to reveal his potential cabinet choices, foreign policy insiders were betting that Holbrooke, at present US ambassador to the United Nations, would most likely have been his choice to succeed Albright…

Washington flair ensemble

Denzel Washington can easily make you believe that you know him. He skilfully uses the familiarity audiences feel with a screen star they have watched for years, and adds to it the casual manner of your neighbour or basketball team-mate.

Truth be told, once he could indeed have lived next-door — back in his youth when alcohol seemed the best medicine for confusion and despair. But now he is one of the most respected and bankable actors of his generation, who has proved that being black in Hollywood is not a casting risk and whose skin colour has become completely irrelevant in his work.

The 47-year-old actor says he will always cherish the roles of black men he has played, such as a runaway slave in the civil war epic “Glory” (1989), a South African activist in “Cry Freedom” (1987) and a controversial Muslim leader in “Malcolm X” (1992)…

Albright’s final bow

Madeleine Albright is almost shouting. She can’t hear me any more, she says. The noise on her aircraft has, indeed, become more deafening; but she also seems to be deliberately avoiding my question, and with good reason. This very moment is probably her happiest as secretary of state because of “the most important thing that has happened” during her nearly four-year tenure.

She has just received news about the Belgrade revolution and the ousting of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, and here I am, asking how she feels about having to leave office in three months. We’ve just spent a 30-hour day, having saved six hours by flying east-west from Egypt to Washington, and she says that’s exactly what she intends to continue doing for the rest of her term — “working every minute and extending the days”…