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Roman Holiday

It’s stupid, but perhaps unavoidable, for me to dwell on the last serious job that I had, as the science officer at the American Embassy in Rome.  I am probably thinking about this because my stepson is currently visiting Rome.

First, I had no intention of going to Rome, but was asked to go by the State Department in Washington while I was still assigned to the embassy in Warsaw.  Second, when the day came for me to depart Warsaw for Rome, Newt Gingrich closed down the US Government, and I got a call from Rome telling me not to come.  Third, when I arrived in Rome, I was supposed to have an apartment waiting, either the one that my predecessor had vacated, or another comparable one, but the day before I arrived the embassy gave that apartment to a new DEA officer, leaving me to live in temporary housing for an indefinite period.  Fourth, after my predecessor left and before I arrived, the embassy office suite was redesigned so that anyone coming to see my assistant had to pass through my office, as if I were her receptionist.  Finally, the embassy did not want me; it had tried to have a civil service officer named to replace the departing officer, but the Foreign Service personnel system had tried to keep the job as a Foreign Service position by asking me to fill it.

Before I was assigned to Warsaw, the US had signed a science cooperation agreement with Poland that was to last five years.  Each side would fund the cooperation, which would consist of a number of small projects with at least one American and one Polish scientist working together.  When Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took over Congress about two years into the agreement, they refused to appropriate funding for the remaining years, causing the US to withdraw from the agreement.  Since this was one of my main jobs of the embassy science officer, the Ambassador recommended that I not be replaced when my tour ended.  Around this time, I got the call from Washington asking if I would go to Rome as science officer.  I agreed since the job in Warsaw appeared to be turning into a dead-end.

On the day that I had been scheduled to depart several weeks or months previously, Newt shut the government down.  I got a call from Rome saying not to travel to Rome.  However, all of our clothes, household effects, etc., had already been packed and shipped to Rome.  Our car was in the parking lot packed with suitcases and two dogs, ready to start driving to Rome.  We had nowhere to live.  Although we could have stayed in a hotel, probably at our own expense, I was outraged that the government basically said, “We don’t care what happens to you and your wife.  You can freeze on the streets of Warsaw for all we care.”  I persuaded Rome to let us travel, but I felt that the US had broken faith with me and my family.  When a government sends troops into the field, it should not abandon them, and I felt that America had abandoned us.  I felt that this was a despicable, irresponsible thing to do, particularly in light of my thirty years of government service in the US Army in Vietnam, as an attorney for the Veterans Administration, and as a Foreign Service officer.  The American government acted in a dishonest, low-class, disreputable manner.  I left for Rome as a very unhappy camper.

As result of the combination of this experience and being a Vietnam veteran, I believe that this country does not stand behind those who serve it.  Most elites avoided service in Vietnam.  Some with a family tradition of national service did go to Vietnam: John Kerry, whose father was a Foreign Service officer, Al Gore, whose father was a Senator, John McCain, whose father was an admiral, but most did not: Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush (who stayed in the US in the National Guard), Mitch McConnell (who was discharged in the middle of basic training), etc.  The leaders who avoided service have some selfish, warped idea of what the relationship should be between the country and those who serve and defend it.  In my experience during my last assignment in Rome, I lost a great deal of respect for this country.  I certainly respect and love what it stands for, the Constitution, the service of great men over many generations, but sadly a lot has changed in the last twenty years.  In this election the only person I see defending my ideas and the values I hold dear is Elizabeth Warren.  Perhaps there are some others who are quieter.  I liked and respected Sen. Sam Nunn, and if his daughter will follow in his footsteps as a senator from Georgia, I would be pleased.  I admire President George H.W. Bush, although I think his son, George W., was a terrible president.  I like President Jimmy Carter, who I think was defeated in large part by the Iranian ayatollahs who captured the American embassy and held the staff hostage until Reagan was elected.  But I digress.

Upon arriving in Rome, I found that the apartment that the embassy had said it was holding for my wife and me had been given to a newly arrived DEA officer the day before I arrived.  This was my first indication that in addition to the government shutdown, something else was wrong at the embassy itself.  In most large embassies the State Department is a relatively small component, often less than 50% of the entire staffing.  There are officers from DEA, FBI, the military, Agriculture, Commerce, Treasury, almost every department of the government and many of the independent agencies, such as the FAA.  However, the State Department is in charge of the administration of the embassy – arranging housing, payroll, etc.  Therefore, the embassy could easily have held the apartment for me, simply saying that it had been assigned.  The fact that it did not and that it gave away my predecessor’s apartment indicated that it was not looking out for me as it normally would for a fellow Foreign Service officer.

Over time, I began to get some inkling of what had happened.  My predecessor had not been a Foreign Service officer.  He had been a Schedule C political appointee, who had come into the State Department as a special assistant to the then-Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew.  I had worked with him and Bartholomew when Bartholomew had been Under Secretary of State for Security Assistance in Washington.  Schedule C employees can usually only stay eight years (a double presidential term), unless they can work out some other way to stay.  Usually they try to convert to Foreign Service or Civil Service.  Apparently my predecessor had tried to do this and had been refused by the State Department personnel system, meaning that he had to leave when his eight years were up.  I gather than the embassy had lobbied hard to get him converted to Foreign Service, and thus was mad with the personnel system when it refused to do so.  When it turned out that he would have to go, the embassy apparently decided that it wanted a civil service officer at State whom they somehow knew.  I don’t know how or why they decided on him, or even who “they” were.  He worked in the office that oversaw the assignment of overseas science officers.  It may be that he helped the embassy lobby to keep my predecessor, and they wanted to reward him for his help, or he may have worked with the Ambassador or another senior embassy officer on some project earlier.  In any case, they had tried to get him assigned to Rome, but the Foreign Service personnel system resisted again, because overseas jobs are supposed to go to Foreign Service officers, not civil service officers.  The personnel system was probably mad that the embassy had twice tried to go around the “system,” first by trying to get my predecessor into the Foreign Service, and when that failed , by trying to get a civil service officer assigned to replace him.  I was the personnel system’s rebuke to the embassy, and I gather that the embassy did not like it, and for that reason, perhaps, did now like me.  Perhaps the embassy had other reasons not to want me, but I had only just arrived, and nobody except for the deputy chief of mission, with whom I had served in Brazil, knew me.

Another minor insult was that my predecessor had been given the diplomatic rank of Counselor, which had also been my rank in Warsaw.  When I arrived in Rome, it turned out that I had been downgraded to the diplomatic rank of First Secretary.  The diplomatic rank does not affect pay, but it does affect benefits, such as housing, entertainment budget, and of course your status with the Italian diplomats with whom you work.  In theory this was just part of the government cut-backs to save money, but combined with everything else, it looked like it was intended as an insult.

I suppose I could have fought the situation.  I had been promoted to my then rank, FO-1, more or less like a colonel or GS-15, only a few years earlier; so, I had lots of time in grade left before I would have to leave if I didn’t get promoted.  However, because I had gotten a number of awards that had increased my pay over the years, I was already at the top step of my pay grade.  I could not make any more money unless I got promoted.  The handwriting was on the wall that I was not going to get a good efficiency report or a promotion in that job in Rome.  It could have been an opportunity to enjoy living in Rome and not care what happened on the job.  However, I didn’t feel like I could do that. Furthermore, a diplomat is in many ways a salesman, sometimes selling US policies to the host government, sometimes actually selling goods, working with the Commerce Department, for example.  I was not in a mood to be a salesman for the US government, given what was happening at the embassy.  But I was too loyal to this country, if not the embassy and the Republican Party, to fail to do my best in my job on behalf of the country.  In addition, life seemed destined to be miserable if I was always going to be at odds with the Ambassador and my immediate boss, the Economic Minister, who wanted to please the Ambassador.  Rome might be nice, but not nice enough to be totally miserable on the job.  So, I retired.

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