When I heard President Donald Trump say that he would know right away if he and North Korean dictator Kim Jong- un would hit it off, I thought of my friend Bob Mandell who also traveled oversees to promote the United States’ values and ideals.
Mandell, who I met in the early 1970s when I roomed with his younger sister at the University of Florida and he was a UF law student, was appointed Ambassador of the United States to Luxembourg in October 2011. But unlike Trump, Mandell spent months preparing for his time abroad, learning to speak French, familiarizing himself with the culture, politics, and economy of Luxembourg, and memorizing all of the protocols of the job.
We often crossed paths in Washington DC when he was going through the rugged training program because my daughter was attending Georgetown University. “Charm School,” is how he jokingly described his time with Foreign Service personnel at the State Department, but I knew it was much more. Luxembourg is small, but is one of the capitals of the European Union and has a large NATO base. Luxembourg troops also fought with our troops in Afghanistan, so he had to keep up with all of the war efforts. And in our post 9-11 era, Mandell had to be prepared to defend the embassy should insurgents attack.
“I am a Jew from Orlando, I’ve never even held a gun before,” he said at the time. It was fitting that President Barack Obama would appoint a Jew to the post. The mansion that housed the embassy’s residence was occupied by Hitler during World War II. Luxembourg donated the estate to the United States as a thank you for liberating their country from the Nazis.
My husband and I were fortunate to stay in the mansion. After several months on the job, Mandell invited us to spend the weekend there and attend an embassy party. We joined his family and several friends from Florida in the spacious living area where we met politicians, business leaders (including the owners of a large car franchise), the Catholic Archbishop, and a myriad of other Luxembourg residents.
California wine and champagne flowed, and rounds of hors d’oeuvres were served (including hamburger sliders topped with a tiny American flag). The crowd was lively and convivial. A guest played the piano and another sang a few songs. The party was supposed to end at 9 p.m… It didn’t wrap up until midnight.
But I learned that weekend that serving as an ambassador means more than schmoozing and partying with the upper crust. Mandell often visited wounded troops at a nearby U.S. hospital in Germany. He flew to Afghanistan to meet the Luxembourg soldiers who joined our forces to fight the Taliban. On Saturday afternoons, youngsters from orphanages joined Mandell at the embassy for lunch. He went to every high school in the country to talk to students about our values and the history between the two countries.
Mandell also arranged to have the U.S. Supreme Court travel to Luxembourg and meet with the European Court of Justice so the two bodies could talk about policies and other common issues. He said the members of the Supreme Court, who often disagree on court rulings, were a congenial group and enjoyed their time at the Embassy.
Mandell decided to leave the post in February 2015. The stint was exciting, he said, but also took a toll on his personal life. Ambassadors can spend only a limited amount of time back in the United States each year. We attended the ceremony at the State Department where Mandell officially gave up the post. Unlike his jovial swearing in ceremony almost five years earlier, this gathering was more solemn. There were fewer friends and family there, but more government officials who came to acknowledge Mandell’s work and thank him for his public service. It was a bi-partisan crowd that included then U.S. Senator Al Franken and conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito.
Mandell returned to Orlando but occasionally travels to Washington where he serves on a Smithsonian museum board and is a member of the Council of American Ambassadors. A few months ago, the State Department asked him to return to help train new ambassadors. The department had lost a lot of career personnel after the election and still had many ambassador posts that needed to be filled. Mandell decided to take the job. “It’s not much money and I go on an as needed basis,” he told me. “Actually there are some good people there that I would like to help.”
I saw his sister a few weeks ago and asked how her brother was making out in the new job. “You haven’t heard?,” she said. “Trump didn’t want anyone working there who was appointed by Obama. He was fired.”