Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Strobe Talbott: From Foreign Affairs Journalist to Number Two at the Department of State


What is it like to transition from the senior ranks of American journalism to a top job in an agency you once covered?  Strobe Talbott found out when his old Oxford roommate, newly-elected President Bill Clinton, asked him to join the State Department.  Talbott went on to serve for seven years as Deputy Secretary of State.

For 21 years, through the 1970s and 1980s, Talbott worked as a journalist for Time magazine, focusing primarily on Soviet-American relations.  He also gained notoriety — and a few years of persona non grata status in the former Soviet Union — for translating Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs.  His work with Time led him to Washington D.C., where he continued to do foreign policy reporting and analysis, expanding his interests and expertise from Russia and Eastern Europe to include India, Latin America, China, and more.

It was not until 1993 that Talbott became directly involved in government — when his fellow Rhodes Scholar President Bill Clinton invited him to become ambassador to Moscow.  Although he turned this offer down, Talbott soon accepted another one. Weeks later Clinton’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, asked Talbott to help manage the European Bureau and our relations with the new states created by the breakup of the Soviet Union.  After just a year, Talbott replaced Clifton Wharton as Deputy Secretary of State, a position he held from 1994 to 2001. In his ADST oral history, Talbott reflects on the transition from journalism to government — and the bureaucratic benefits and challenges of having a personal channel to the president.  

Drafted by Sabrina Rostkowski.

Strobe Talbott’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on July 26, 2016.  

Read Strobe Talbott’s oral history HERE.

Excerpts:
“When the Coke bottle stopped spinning, it was pointing at me and that’s why I was Deputy Secretary of State for seven years.”

A Call from President Clinton: I was expanding my portfolio of expertise . . . and I stayed at Time right up until [I got a call from] a guy that I had shared a house with in Oxford and who used to literally cook breakfast for me — and it was usually scrambled eggs — while I was working on the Khrushchev memoirs.  [President Bill Clinton] called after he was elected president and said “I’m coming to Washington and I’d like to talk to you.” And I said great and I went over to his hotel and he said, “How’d you like to be my ambassador to Moscow?” I said I’d love it but I can’t because my wife has got a job and my kids are in school and he said, “Well, okay, too bad. Thanks, all right. Have a nice day.” And about two weeks later, through a number of kind of serendipitous things, [Secretary of State] Warren Christopher called and said, “Would you please come over to the State Department and be my person who will reorganize the European Bureau to deal with the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union?”  And that’s what I did for a year essentially, from 1993-94, and then Clifton Wharton stepped down as Deputy Secretary of State. There was a scramble to get somebody else, and when the Coke bottle stopped spinning, it was pointing at me and that’s why I was Deputy Secretary of State for seven years.

“I didn’t waste a lot of time disabusing people that I had a connection with the president.”

Related to policy management, what I would identify as vitally important was not so much reorganizing but working effectively with colleagues in the Department, and in other parts of the government. That would not have possible without two things. One, my known relationship, going way back, with the president. That’s not a handicap, let’s put it that way. And I don’t mind saying that a lot of people who were careful to defer to me — or not give me too hard a time — [did so] because they thought I was talking to the president every day.  I wasn’t. That’s not how it works, but I mean I did stay in touch with him. It was intermittent, but it was there and it helped.

I didn’t waste a lot of time disabusing people that I had a connection with the president. That said, I was scrupulous . . . to make sure that both Secretary Christopher and Secretary Albright always knew when the president called me.  I can’t remember a time when I put in a call directly to him, although it’s possible I did at some point. So if he called me, I took the call and the first thing I would do the next morning, because it was usually late at night, [I] would say, the president called. Here’s what he said; here’s what I said; here’s what he said; so they were always in the loop.

“When I was Deputy Secretary, I would see people in the room who used to leak to me when I was a reporter. And they would look a little worried.”

Government Growing Pains: Regarding the transition from outside to inside government, I should say that the fact that I had spent two decades essentially peeking through the keyhole of government operations, helped me learn a lot. Although I spent a lot of time at the Defense Department, the CIA, and the NSC, as well as at embassies around the world, my coverage of the State Department itself was my longest assignment, so I felt I had some acquaintance with its operations before I came on board. Nevertheless, when I first got the job, I said “Oh man, this is really terrifying,” and I felt like I was in a Bill Murray out-of-body comedy.

That lasted about two days because it’s not as though there is a secret, magic recipe book that says now you’re in the government, now we’re going to reveal to you how it’s done. The way it’s done is the way everything is done. I mean there’s a lot of stuff that’s secret but it’s common sense and I knew a lot of the people. In fact, early on, like when I was confirmed in April of 1993, and when I started going into these meetings, and particularly later when I was Deputy Secretary, I would see people in the room who used to leak to me when I was a reporter. And they would look a little worried. And I would usually go over afterwards or see them in the hallway and say, “Don’t worry. You played it straight with me. That’s part of the way the government works.”

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education

     BA in Russian Studies, Yale University                                                   1964-1968

     MA in Philosophy, Oxford University                                                     1968-1971

 

Joined the Foreign Service                                                                      1993

     Washington, DC—Ambassador-at-Large and                                        1993-1994

           Special Adviser to the Secretary of State

     Washington, DC—Deputy Secretary of State                                          1994-2001

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