In the last decade of the twentieth Century there was an influential Italian-American caucus in Congress. It included the congresswomen Geraldine Ferraro and Nancy Pelosi as well as men from both parties—Frank Guarino, Silvio Conte, Peter Rodino, Alphonse D’Amato and many others. The state and local level had well-known influential figures like Governor Mario Cuomo and the business community included those like Lee Iacocca. Organizations from the Sons of Italy to the National Italian American Foundation were political forces. Then there was Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. I could go on and on.
As has been pointed out often and most recently in the piece by AFSA’s Susan Johnson and Ambassador Pickering, our diplomatic posts are often distributed as domestic political rewards. The post of Ambassador to Italy is almost always a reward and a pay-back for campaign success. The Italian American community had great interest in who got the job-- an Italian American when possible. Former Massachusetts Governor, John Volpe, Michigan business leader, Pete Secchia, and former Philadelphia congressman, Tom Foglietta are examples of Republican and Democratic non-career Ambassadors to Italy from the Italian American community. (I footnote the irony that in wildly political Italy, Ambassadors by law must come from the diplomatic service).
In 1993, President Clinton took office. I had been assigned to be DCM in Rome but would go as Charge’ d’ Affaires, trading off with the departing DCM, Dan Serwer. The new Ambassador was expected to be Dante Fascell, who had been long-time Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Fascell was both a Democrat and Italian American. It was a good political choice, but Fascell decided to decline for important family reasons. That threw the position open to intense political maneuvering among the various Italian American individuals and groups. Time marched on.
And then one day the President called over Secretary of State Warren Christopher to discuss the always deteriorating Bosnia situation. Christopher took along his Bosnia Coordinator, Reg Bartholomew, to provide any details. At that point, prior to 1995, the Bosnia job offered little opportunity for success in any way. During conversation with Christopher, the President, in off-the–topic musing, expressed frustration with the inability to get some consensus or agreement among the key players for an Italian American nominee for Ambassador to Italy. Clinton may have said something like, “Warren, are there no Foreign Service Officers who are Italian”? Whereupon, from the background came the clear voice, “Mr. President, I’m Italian”. Surprised, the President remarked with something like, “Really, you Reg?” No doubt, Christopher in his own non-demonstrative way, expressed surprise as well at learning of Reginald Bartholomew’s Italian heritage (It was of course so. The name is di Bartolomeo from the Abruzzi).
The Department was accordingly told to prepare the papers for nomination, the Italian-American Democratic hopefuls stood down, and we got a professional Ambassador to Italy. In 1994 President Clinton came to Rome for the 50th anniversary of the Liberation of Rome. During his stop at the Embassy he went up to the Ambassador’s office. It is the former ballroom of the Queen Margherita and is simply elegant. “It suits you, Reg,” said the President.
In that way, or so I remember and perhaps with Reg telling me, our guy stepped forward and the career service got Italy. I was Charge’, then Reg’s DCM for three years. We did not live happily ever after just because we were Foreign Service, but we were all professionals in the 35 USG agencies in Rome from numero uno on down. That was very important. Having worked for four US Ambassadors to Italy during my career, I can tell you that the professional, two-time Ambassador Reg made a big difference. He had no learning curve, and he brought invaluable experience and strategic vision to the wide range of those critical non bilateral issues of great importance for the US in the world. We truly need that in our embassies now.