Negroponte at Large

A few weeks ago, I sat down with John Negroponte in Washington, for a long talk. We covered many subjects, as is easy to do with Negroponte: He has had a long and varied career and knows a lot. I had a piece in National Review about this interview (issue of March 23). It included several morsels — the piece was kind of a Whitman’s Sampler. Would you like more chocolate, so to speak — the whole interview, more or less? I think you will find it quite interesting. I propose to do a series right here in Impromptus, starting today.

First, let me refresh you on what Negroponte’s career has been: Under George W. Bush, he held four posts, which I give in reverse chronological order: deputy secretary of state, director of national intelligence, ambassador in Iraq, ambassador to the U.N. Before that, he was ambassador in the Philippines, Mexico, and Honduras. Under Reagan, he was an assistant secretary of state and deputy national security adviser. During the Vietnam War, he was the top aide to Henry Kissinger — top aide for Vietnam, that is.

Very few diplomatic careers have been more far-flung or consequential. And Negroponte has not talked all that much with the press. “I don’t know if you know my reputation,” he said to me, “but I was never a good source.” Oh, I do know his reputation. Occupying those sensitive posts, he was always tight-lipped. But now he is in the private sector, and, therefore, in a better position to talk.

He is a partner in McLarty Associates, an international consulting firm. The McLarty is Mack McLarty, whom you may remember as President Clinton’s first chief of staff. McLarty, like Clinton, is a Man from Hope — a native of Hope, Ark.

Negroponte’s office includes mementoes of his career — not many (fewer than in most such offices), but some. Quite arresting is a photo of Negroponte, then about 30, with Chou En-lai. There are also pictures of his large, vibrant family. He and his wife, Diana, adopted five children in Honduras.

Negroponte is a very tall, large, imposing man, with a striking bald head. It occurs to me that he looks like a figure on a classical coin. And don’t let that Italian name fool you: He is of Greek heritage.

Yes, his father, Dimitri, came from an expatriate Greek family that had its roots in the island of Chios. The island “had a big massacre in 1822, so my father’s ancestors migrated to Russia and were in business — traders. Then there was instability in Russia, so they went to Germany. Then there was instability in Germany, so they went to Switzerland and my father was born in Lausanne,” just after the start of World War I. “There’s actually quite a history of Greek expatriates living in Switzerland.”

Negroponte’s grandmother — Dimitri’s mother — contracted tuberculosis, so she went to Davos “and was in a sanitarium for the final ten, fifteen years of her life.” She put Dimitri in a boarding school in Klosters, where the skiing is quite famous. Dimitri was a member of the 1936 Greek Olympic ski team. “He was a fabulous skier,” says Negroponte, “he really was. He didn’t win any medals or anything,” but still . . .

Negroponte’s mother, Catherine Coumantaros, was born in America: New York City. But her parents were Greek. They were visiting the States when WWI broke out, so they stayed in America for the duration of the war. Then they went back to Greece, when Catherine was about three. “She was raised entirely Greek: culturally, linguistically,” and so on.

By the way, how did the Negropontes acquire that Italian name? Descended from the Venetians . . .

Dimitri and Catherine were married in Paris in 1938 — the day the Munich agreement was announced. Their son John was born the following summer, in London. I ask, “So, are you disqualified from being president?” He answers, “No, not necessarily — maybe not any more than John McCain or Mr. Christian Herter or Romney” (meaning George Romney). (Sounds like he has thought about it.)

Negroponte’s parents had a decision to make: either to go to Greece or to go to the United States. They chose the United States. The family crossed over on the President Harding — and “apparently we came through a hurricane.” The month was September 1939. The Negropontes’ timing could not have been better.

They decided to stay in the United States — even after the war. “My father once quipped, ‘There’s no place in the world where children like school so much as in the United States,’ and that was one thing that influenced him to stay here.”

Negroponte’s parents were “always very European, right up to the end.” His father was in the shipping business. But “he was never a very successful shipowner,” says Negroponte. He was no better off when he died, in 1996, than he was when he started out, 60 years before. “Basically, he treaded water. He was okay. We grew up in perfectly comfortable circumstances.” But he was the kind of person “who might have done as well taking his inheritance and putting it in the stock market.” In fact, “he would have been much better off.”

Negroponte’s father was a polyglot, speaking French, English, Greek, and German “perfectly,” says Negroponte — “idioms and everything.” He had studied at the Sciences Po in Paris, and wanted very much to be a Greek diplomat. But the government told him he had to go through the whole Greek education system — his Western European degrees meant nothing to that government. So Dimitri gave up the idea of being a diplomat.

Still, there was always talk of diplomacy at the family dinner table — at John’s table. They talked of war and peace, international relations, geography, and so on. Dimitri Negroponte was delighted when his eldest son became a diplomat.

Dimitri was “the liberal in the family,” says Negroponte. In fact, “he saw our political process here,” in America, “through the lens of his anti-fascist perspective on Europe, so I think he misread some things — like Nixon, for instance. He exaggerated.”

Dimitri was “a little horrified that I went to Vietnam, and a bit more horrified that I went to Central America — to Honduras. And he was thrilled that I eventually went to Mexico as ambassador. He wrote me a letter at the time saying, ‘You’re finally getting the kind of recognition you really deserve.’ What he meant was, ‘You’ve finally done something I heartily approve of’! He didn’t live to see me become . . . you know . . . I retired [from the Foreign Service] in 1997, and he died in 1996. My mother in 2000. Neither lived to see me come back into government.

“My mother was disappointed I retired from government. She said, ‘All my Greek friends told me you were the best diplomat around!’”

Negroponte had a quite fancy education: the Phillips Exeter Academy, Yale, and Harvard Law School. At Yale, Negroponte majored in political science — and one of his professors was the notorious Willmoore Kendall (an early figure in National Review, among other things). Negroponte says, “He was an eccentric fellow, but very interesting. I took his course in political philosophy. He so valued and cared about the classics — Plato, Aristotle, and so on — that, even though we were supposed to go up to Walter Lippmann or something, we never reached the last several centuries.”

One day, Kendall passed back some assignment and said, “Negroponte, I’ve given only one better grade in this course, in all the years I’ve been teaching it, and that was to William F. Buckley.”

My response to this story? “Not a bad person to be No. 2 to.”

Negroponte also remembers Professor Cecil Driver, who died during his — Negroponte’s — time at Yale (1958). “He taught us about the British political system, and that’s how we started our understanding of political science. I remember a lot of his one-liners.” And “this was a very pragmatic course.” Negroponte encountered little ideology — Left-Right stuff — at Yale.

Another professor he remembers — “not because I thought he was really that lively a personality” — is Carl Deutsch. “He was into quantitative analysis, which I don’t believe in that much. He had a theory of the cult of personality — you could measure whether a society had a cult of personality by the number of times the national leader appeared on the front pages.” Also, “he had a book called Nationalism and Social Communication. I think he would have been very much in his element today,” with the huge growth in mass media. “He was ahead of his time, almost.”

For his junior year, Negroponte went abroad — to the Sciences Po, same as his father. “During that year,” 1958, “De Gaulle came back to power, and they were writing the French constitution. So all of us became world experts on the French constitution. Can’t remember a damn thing about it now.

“The other thing that happened that year was that the Treaty of Rome came into effect. So Europeans were just getting ready to have the common-market experience.”

Negroponte says, “Frankly, I didn’t put my college years to perfect use. I didn’t get as much out of my college education as I could have.” Yeah, well, join the club, Ambassador.