NEW YORK – Madame Ambassador: Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties, and Democracy in Budapest, Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis’ book that was just published by The New Press, is not just a book about the first Greek-American woman to serve as an Ambassador of the United States that members of the community will enjoy and take pride in.
It is document that should be party of every American’s civic education.
The articulate and effervescent Kounalakis – she is also one of the youngest women to have served as Ambassador – is currently on a nationwide book tour coordinated by the firm of Manatos and Manatos which has included a number of events in the New York Metropolitan Area.
The tour began on May 16 with a presentation hosted by the Johnides Family Foundation at the Kimisis Tis Theotokos Church of the Hamptons. The ambassador also had a lively discussion about the trials and achievements of a woman who successfully made the challenging transition from business leader to diplomat at the new Philoptochos House of Philanthropy in Midtown Manhattan on May 18, and she spoke again at a reception hosted by Dennis and Karen Mehiel in their Fifth Avenue home.
The trip to Budapest was ten-year journey for the ambassador and her husband, journalist and author Markos Kounalakis, and it included a tough vetting process that checks for improper influences and personal vulnerabilities.
Her wish was to serve in Greece, but there were too many potential conflicts given her family’s social and personal contacts.
She said that after exploring running for elected office, she was told “you can be a U.S. ambassador,” and she responded “You’ve got to be kidding me. Why would anyone make me an ambassador?”
She was national chairman for Greek-Americans for Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008, just as her father played the same role for Bill Clinton, a path that led to both possibilities.
She was called by Hilary Clinton late April of 2009 and was sworn in June, 2010.
“When you have that opportunity is truly the honor and the privilege of your life,” she said.
The guests at the events received the books as gifts, so the Ambassador didn’t have to go into detail, but she did during the intimate discussion with her well-informed Philoptochos sisters.
The memoire has been hailed as an informative tome that will play an important role in helping Americans have a better understanding of the vital work of their nation’s ambassadors abroad but she seemed to enjoy talking about the board hunt the most
Hungary looked fairly tepid in 2010 so she reasoned “If I want some excitement during this post I will have to go looking for it.”
When the chance to go hunting came up, she seized it. Her dad taught her to hunt, a favorite pastime among Greek-Americans in California. She was used to birds hunting however. In Hungary she went after wild boar!
She did sketch her tenure in Budapest that included the fascinating but often tumultuous period that followed the rise of Viktor Orban’s party. His Center-Right party achieved a supermajority in parliament that enabled him to virtually rewrite the country’s laws.
Kounalakis navigated what constituted a revolution in post-Soviet Hungary – the book jacket refers to “a crisis in its post-communist transition to Democracy – that challenged basic freedoms and raised the specter of anti-semitism.
The guests heard about a job and processes that are mysteries to the average American. They were intrigued to learn that an Ambassador’s boss is not the Secretary of State, but the President, whom she serves as his personal representative.
Guests appreciated the explanation of the unique American practice having ambassadors who are not career diplomats.
Somewhat less than 20 percent bring their unique and valuable experience and perspective from the worlds of business or academia and about half are former elected officials or experts in their fields.
There is a strong chain of command is embassies – which technically include many facilities across a country. In Hungary she oversaw several hundred employees and the building most people call “The Embassy” is actually the Chancery.
Her management experience in the real estate industry formed the backbone of the relationships she developed with the staff, a responsibility she took very seriously. Being a role model and mentor was a critical function.
Madame Ambassador had a double dedication: “to my family,” and “to all the families of the U.S. Foreign Service. We were honored and privileged to serve with you,” she wrote on the frontispiece.
Some of work took her far from Hungary. She went to Afghanistan twice – Hungary has troops there serving alongside American forces. Her trip contributed to her growing appreciation of the dedication and excellence of U.S. military personnel, whom she learned were admired by officials of other countries.
“As a liberal Californian, I did not grow up with military people, and I developed a strong respect and admiration for them…they deserve it,” she said.
The gathering at the Mehiel house brought together friends and family. Her sisters Chrysa and Alexa were there with their husbands George Demos and Alessandro Hillman, respectively.
The Ambassador’s father, Angelo, who was present with the Ambassador’s stepmother, Sophia, arrived in America as a poor immigrant and supported himself working on farms. He was glowing with pride when he told TNH “I was thrilled but not surprised, because from the time she was in fourth grade was thinking above and beyond other children her age.”
She liked studying the classics and about philosophy, he said, adding, “She would challenge everything,” he said.
Her sister Chrysa told TNH “We were so proud and excited for her. It’s an amazing adventure.” Filled with pride, she added “our nation was blessed to have such wonderful representation there.”
“I don’t know if she has made any decision,” about running for elected office,” Chrysa said, but the Ambassador was just appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the state’s commission on international trade.
She and her husband will her continue in their philanthropic activities, which were spotlighted by Mike Manatos, who also suggested the Madame Ambassador title should be supplemented in the future.