Profile: Yankee, don't go home: Raymond Seitz, America's man in London

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The Independent Online
What is it about Raymond G H Seitz that has so moved the leader and letter writers of London? Tradition, after all, suggests that when a new president is inaugurated in Washington, the ambassador in London starts packing his bags. A new incumbent in the White House arrives with political debts to pay and the London embassy is recognised as hard currency in such transactions. That is the way it has always been, and however kindly disposed the British felt towards the outgoing ambassador, it was pointless to weep or protest.

But the case of Raymond Seitz is different. Ever since Bill Clinton was elected, there has been a campaign of whispering and murmuring, of letters sent and leaders written, all with one apparent purpose in mind: to persuade Clinton to break with tradition and leave the ambassador in his post. The first shot was fired before the election, in the Sunday Telegraph. 'I hope President Bush is re-elected on Tuesday,' said an item in the gossip column. 'He would almost certainly retain the able and amiable Raymond Seitz. . . .' When US voters let the paper down, the voices in favour of Seitz became a small chorus.

From the unlikely quarter of Democrats Abroad UK, a letter was written to Warren Christopher, now Secretary of State but then in charge of the transition team. Susan Whiddington, chairman of the organisation at the time, said: 'Even though he was appointed by a Republican president, we consider him an excellent ambassador - sensible, articulate and knowledgeable about the issues.' Later she admitted: 'It was obviously a long shot because London is a plum position, but we wanted to make a stand.'

Last month it was the turn of the Economist. 'The present ambassador, Raymond Seitz,' it said, 'is in our view, and many other people's, one of the best the United States has sent to this country in the past half-century. . . . Mr Seitz is better at his job than almost any non-professional could be. . . . If Mr Clinton wants to show that his new broom reaches into diplomacy, too, he will halve the usual number of political ambassadors; confine those who remain to countries where they will unmistakably be better than a professional; and leave America's man in London alone.' The Times solemnly advised President Clinton that there was virtue in continuity. If one knew no better, one might suspect a campaign. Who is Raymond Seitz, and why has he inspired such un-British outpourings?

Raymond Seitz was born in 1940 in Hawaii, where his father, an army officer, was stationed. His father rose to be a major general in the US army and, by the time Raymond arrived at Yale University, his contemporaries remarked that he seemed already to be equipped to be a general. It was intended as a compliment to his leadership and diplomatic skills.

'At Yale,' said a contemporary, 'you either sing or swim.' Seitz sang. He was also president of Delta Kappa Epsilon, Yale's rowdiest fraternity, home to jocks and athletes and known on campus as the 'animal house'. 'I thought it an early sign of diplomatic skill,' said Karl Ziegler, a fellow student at Yale, 'that Ray managed to keep the lid on all the potential scandals in the animal house and remain urbane and cravatted.'

Seitz was a schoolteacher in Dallas for two years after graduation, then joined the Foreign Service in 1966. He was posted first to Canada, then to Kenya, and in 1975 came the first of three London postings. He lived near Windsor with his first wife, Sudy, and their two children, Barr and Hillary, commuting to London.

His job as political officer at the embassy was the beginning of a long association with the British that allowed him to build an impressive network of contacts in the Foreign Service and in politics. He returned to London in 1984, as minister and head of mission, the embassy's No 2 job. He married his second wife, Caroline Cutler, during that tour. In 1989, President Bush nominated him Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs and, in 1991, ambassador to London.

The move astonished the foreign policy establishment in Washington. It was the first time in 200 years that a career diplomat had been appointed. From John Adams in 1785 to Henry Catto in 1989, the London embassy had been a reward for political favours or a thank you for the large sums of money paid into the campaign funds. The three ambassadors who immediately preceded Seitz had been presidential campaign fund-raisers.

The results of this practice have been mixed. The low point in effective emissary work was perhaps the time of Joe Kennedy, in the late Thirties, but with a few exceptions, US ambassadors are not much remembered for their contribution to the great game. As Charles Lubar, an expatriate American lawyer and chairman of the Yale Club of London remarked: 'In the last 21 years I have known many US ambassadors. Some are known for the quality of their art collections, some for their erudition, some for the beauty of their daughters. Raymond Seitz is known for his skill in the job.'

And a former US diplomat observed: 'Ray Seitz is a fine speaker, a man of intelligence, friendly, humorous, sensitive and without pomposity. In this,' he added, acidly, 'he is in stark contrast to all the other ambassadors I have known.'

There is no single explanation of how Seitz circumvented 200 years of custom. James Baker was clearly impressed by him, however, and when President Bush needed Henry Catto back in Washington halfway through his term, perhaps the queue of contributors owed favours was not as long as on the morning after an election. Seitz himself, says Sir Nicholas Henderson, heard of his appointment in a bar in Brussels, where he was recovering from an all-day meeting at Nato headquarters, when first Baker, then Bush, rang to offer him the job. When the news leaked out in London, the British seemed most concerned about whether a man who was not there because of his money could keep the trough as full as those who were accustomed to the embassy's largesse would like.

By the time he came back to London as ambassador, Ray Seitz was a polished, stellar professional. Witty, self-deprecating and a sound-alike for Alistair Cooke, he charmed the natives with his deadpan humour. He already had good relations with such senior Conservatives as Chris Patten and John Major; he is warmly spoken of in Labour circles, too.

If the British liked his style, the Foreign Office liked his substance: as diplomatic certainties wobbled after 1989, the British felt reassured by Seitz's commitment to Nato. He foresaw changes in the transatlantic relationship, no longer cemented, as it had been, by the dangers posed by the Soviet Union, but, as Sir Nicholas put it, 'believed the framework within which business is discussed, having become a habit, would endure'.

That President Bush should go down to Bill Clinton was no doubt unwelcome news in Downing Street. The Conservative Party had, after all, given the Republicans the benefit of their advice during the election campaign. And, to the embarrassment of the British government, the Clinton camp had discovered that British officials had obliged the Bush campaign by checking out an unfounded rumour that Clinton had considered taking British citizenship to avoid the draft. Clinton, in foreign policy terms, was felt to be an unknown quantity who had no particular reason to love the British.

There were memories from his campaign that were not reassuring. There was the occasion in New York last spring when, in the wake of his defeat in the New Hampshire primary, Clinton had been in pursuit of the Irish vote and had promised to take the British to task for human rights abuses in Northern Ireland. His idea of a special peace envoy to Ireland did not chime happily in London, and his threats to withdraw most-favoured-nation status from China set British hearts racing over the consequences for Hong Kong. It added up to what the New York Times last Sunday called 'a bad case of the jitters over the transition from the Bush to the Clinton administration'.

In official circles, of course, rumours of a campaign on Seitz's behalf are sternly denied, not least because Seitz is popular and British officials are well aware that any hint of a British desire to keep him on might prove counterproductive. Perhaps Seitz is simply so popular that his many friends feel moved spontaneously to appeal on his behalf. Besides, the British will say, if pressed, what really counts in the Anglo-American relationship is how it pans out on the issues and how Clinton and Major get on, not the ambassador's opinions or quality.

What counts in Bill Clinton's choice is as much what he owes to whom as how brilliant the ambassador in London has been. His officials have stressed there will be no inappropriate political appointments, no cronies put into places they are unqualified for. But that still leaves the question of well-qualified and well-respected men who have helped Bill Clinton into the White House - men such as Walter Mondale or Tom Foley, the Irish-American Speaker of the House of Representatives. 'If Tom Foley had helped Clinton handle some sensitive issue in the House, such as the question of lifting the ban on gays in the armed forces, would he not have a strong claim on the job?' asked a former US official.

In London and Washington, Seitz's friends watch for straws in the wind - the appointment of the professional diplomat Thomas Pickering to Moscow; the elements of continuity represented by several high-level officials asked to stay on; the long list, on the other hand, of favours owed by the Clinton campaign. To keep Seitz on would be a departure from precedent but not, insist his friends, as big a departure as his appointment was.

Whatever happens, Ray Seitz is likely to take the news with diplomatic courtesy; meanwhile, he is saying nothing. Last week, guests at Winfield House, Seitz's home in Regent's Park, were greeted by a teddy bear holding a card bearing the words: 'Don't Ask.'