Monday, February 11, 2013

Mark Palmer 1941-2013

Mark Palmer was my second boss in the Foreign Service.  He was about as different from my first boss, Don Tice, as one could possibly be and I benefited from the experience.  Looking even younger than his 34 years, Mark was a high-flyer, an officer who was obviously on the fast track to an Ambassadorship.  Normally dressed in a bow tie and sport jacket and adopting a casual air, Mark was brilliant, unorthodox and politically very savvy.  He had a charismatic gaze, a mischievous smile and a distinctive sort of "Ummh" sounding laugh that was his trademark. 

Robie Marcus Hooker Palmer was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1941.  His father was a submariner in World War II and Mark says that he considered the Navy as a career, but could not pass the physical due to colorblindness.  Mark graduated from Yale in 1963.  While there, he spent a great deal of time in Soviet studies and went to Kiev on a three-month University exchange program.  He was also very active in the civil rights movement as a member of SNCC and CORE.

Mark joined the Foreign Service right out of college and spent his first tour in New Delhi from 1964 to 1966.  There he met his wife Pushee (actual first name Sushma), the daughter of an aristocratic Indian family.  Pushee, who was Mark's age and quite beautiful, spoke very precise Indian-accented English.  She followed Mark throughout his career, but also made her own way as a PhD in nutrition, eventually winding up at the National Academy of Sciences next to the State Department.  Pushee was extremely bright and well-educated and sometimes people thought she had a condescending manner, but, speaking personally, we always got on well together.

Returning to the Department in 1966, Mark served a short stint in EUR/RPM and then was assigned to Moscow via language training in Garmisch.  Moscow was Mark's dream post: he spent his first year there as a Consular Officer and his final year as the Human Rights Officer in Political.  Mark really got into the spirit of the job, making a number of friends in the Soviet dissident community and involving himself in Moscow life as much as possible, even to the extent of purchasing a perfectly horrible Moskvich, a true product of the Soviet auto industry that broke down more than it ran.  Eventually, Mark came to the unwelcome attention of the KGB.  Once, in January 1971, he and Pushee were accosted by KGB thugs outside the Taganka Theater and physically threatened.  The incident made the New York Times and enhanced Mark's reputation as an uncompromising exponent of human rights.  In telling the story in later years, Mark noted with his trademark chuckle that at one point in the confrontation he actually found himself biting the ankle of one of his KGB minders.  Of such stuff, legends are made.

In 1972, Mark hit the big time: he returned to the Department to work as a speechwriter first for Secretary Rogers and then for Secretary Kissinger.  Mark was a brilliant writer and his career, which had once threatened to stall out in New Delhi, went into overdrive, with promotions and awards coming thick and fast.

In 1975, Mark was assigned to Belgrade as Political Counselor, succeeding Don Tice.  His appointment had originally been opposed by Ambassador Toon, who thought he was too young.  Toon also objected to the fact that Mark was stretching into the assignment as an O-4.  I remember once Toon showed me Mark's letter of introduction, an essential part of the protocol of new assignments in those days.  I was struck by the grace and style with which the letter was written and told Toon so.  Toon just harrumphed and moved on to the next issue. 

I am sure Toon would have gotten on well with Mark, but as it turned out, the Ambassador unexpectedly departed before Mark arrived and a new Ambassador, Laurence Silberman, had already presented his credentials.  The day Mark flew in, he had the entire Political Section out to a local restaurant for dinner.  He told us that he had heard that there were difficulties at the Embassy, but that this had to stop.  We all had to support the Ambassador.  Some, like me, took Mark's advice to heart.  Others did not.  In the end, Mark won the new Ambassador's respect and saved us all a lot of grief. 

Mark's arrival marked a new style of work for Political and a new substantive approach as well.  Mark wanted us all to get out of the office and travel around the country more, and this is what I did.  Some of my best reporting resulted from these trips.  Mark was a careful editor of my stuff, improving my own writing enormously.  Mark redecorated Don's old office, putting on a coat of yellow pastel paint (Spaso House Yellow) and replacing Don's desk with a rather spare and elegant table.  I can see him now in my mind's eye, sitting at his desk and perched over one of my cables, grunting in agreement or disagreement and making liberal use of his editing pen.

Mark would also take me on meetings he had with various diplomats around town, and he introduced me to our counterparts at the Soviet Embassy.  I can remember to this day the first meeting we had in the “foreigners” reception room at the Soviet Embassy.  We munched on the same petrified Sushki and drank the same vile coffee that I would encounter during my Moscow tours at the Soviet MFA.  The Soviets, knowing Mark spoke good Russian, would try to engage him in their native language, but Mark would fight back, saying, "You'll make me forget my Serbian if you keep this up," and then the Soviets would smile and continue on in Russian. 

As they did in Moscow, Mark and Pushee went to as many plays and other cultural events as they could and Pushee actually got a local academic degree while in Belgrade.  Mark and Pushee also were heavily into the social scene and frequently were seen at Belgrade's limited selection of restaurants.  This latter habit was almost Mark's undoing, as he came down with hepatitis after eating some bad fish at the Dva Ribara.  For several weeks, Mark was confined to his bed and Political's officers, including myself, would have to go out twice a day to bring him the cable take and fill him in on what was new at the Embassy.  Fortunately, Mark had a strong constitution and recovered relatively quickly.

I left Belgrade in 1976 for the Operations Center, but Mark continued on with Silberman and then Ambassador Larry Eagleburger, until 1978, when he was assigned as Office Director of PM/DCA (Disarmament and Arms Control).  He recruited me to come to work for him there and I was with him in PM/DCA for about 18 months.  Unfortunately for Mark, when the Reagan Administration came in, the new PM Assistant Secretary was Rick Burt, a New York Times reporter who was friendly with Zbigniew Brzezinski and on the opposite end of the arms control divide from Mark.  Burt summarily fired Mark and renamed PM/DCA as one his first official acts (it became RSA, or Regional Security Affairs).  Curiously, after spending a year in exile in P, Mark followed Burt down to the European Bureau to work as one of his Deputy Assistant Secretaries in 1982.  This was a piece of good luck for me, since I had since moved to the Soviet Desk, and Mark in effect became my front office supervisor.  It has always been a bit of a mystery how Mark rehabilitated himself with Burt, but, there is no denying that Mark was politically very adept, and he probably had Eagleburger’s support for the position as well. 

As far as I was concerned, Mark was a breath of fresh air for the Desk.  While he was interested in Eastern Europe, he was more focused on the Soviet Union, an appropriate attitude considering the depths to which our relations were plunging.  Mark had also remade himself a little bit and acquired a bit more of a conservative coloration.  He supported the Stoessel Missions, for instance, and he also promoted the activities of the Soviet Nationalities Committee, which I chaired.  While the results of both projects might be debatable, these and other activities cemented Mark’s status among Reagan conservatives, and helped him survive the intensely political atmosphere in the Reagan Administration.

On one occasion, Mark and I took a field trip to the Hoover Institute to attend a gathering of Soviet émigrés, dissidents, and academics involved in nationalities issues.  I recall little of the multi-day meeting, except for the fact that the lectures given by the various academics were incredibly boring, a price we had to pay for the outstanding lunches and dinners provided by Continental Catering.  It did, however, expose me to the thinking in émigré and academic circles about prospects for the breakup of the Soviet Union, and in particular for Ukrainian independence.  It seemed to me that most of the conference participants were wild-eyed dreamers and that prospects for Ukrainian independence, in particular, were bleak.  A few years later, however, these predictions came true, much to everyone’s surprise.  Whatever Mark may have thought about their opinions, he kept his own counsel.  It was fashionable at the time to humor anti-Soviet nationalists, and that is what we did, although some of the people we received at the State Department were of questionable character at best, in some cases having associated themselves a bit too closely with the Nazis during World War II.  I was somewhat relieved, therefore, when the NSC decided to deep-six the Nationalities Committee and take over the issue itself.

Mark and I also had a good deal of fun together during his tenure as DAS.  One day, we invited the dour Soviet DCM, Oleg Sokolov, in for a meeting in Mark’s office.  Sokolov, who was used to getting his head scrubbed by Mark, was amazed to find that we had prepared a surprise birthday party for him.  I’m not sure Sokolov was able to take it all in, but his more liberal deputies were certainly encouraged by the gesture.  On another occasion, Mark invited me over to his Georgetown townhouse for a black tie New Year’s Eve dinner with a glittering assemblage of Washington’s elite, including Foreign Policy editor Charles William Maynes.  We danced until dawn, and ended up in some Georgetown restaurant just as the sun came up.

In 1986, Mark was appointed as Ambassador to Hungary, a post he held until January 1990.  He was a remarkable Chief of Mission, in his element, promoting democracy, lending support to local human rights activists and helping introduce American businessmen to the "gold rush" in Eastern Europe, as he called it.  Most people praised Mark's work in Budapest and he seemed poised for even greater things in the Service, certainly at least one more Ambassadorship.  Mark was working hard and his chief ambition was to return to Moscow as Ambassador after his tour in Budapest.  Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Mark was one of those special types of career officers who seemed to have friends in every political camp.  Some people viewed him as a neocon, others as a liberal.  His political coloration seemed to adapt itself to each succeeding boss, but in a way that allowed him to retain his independence of thought and his unorthodox manner.  I knew few in the Service who were as politically sure-footed as Mark, but even he acquired enemies over a long career.  In particular, the new Secretary of State, James Baker, had had a few run-ins with Mark years before and there was bad blood between them.  In addition, Senator Jesse Helms had it in for Mark because he thought that his protégé, David Funderburk, had been undermined by Mark when Funderburk served as Ambassador to Romania 1981-85.  Mark had stayed under the radar during his confirmation hearings for Hungary, but Helms was still out there lying in the weeds, waiting for the right opportunity to do him some mischief.  With neither the Secretary nor the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in his corner, Mark's chances of going to Moscow as Ambassador were nonexistent and he was told as much in 1989.

In late 1989, Mark was approached by Ron Lauder and five other billionaires ("gorillas," as Mark called them) and offered the position of CEO in a brand-new startup company, the Central Europe Development Corporation.  The position promised to be a real moneymaker and Mark, who knew that his Foreign Service career was facing significant roadblocks, agreed to sign on.  He consulted with the Department, but got bad advice from Legal and was given the impression that he could stay on as Ambassador until the March elections in Hungary, with no conflict of interest, provided he recused himself from economic and trade matters.  Unfortunately, a story in the Washington Post made it appear that there might be impropriety and Secretary Baker blew his top.  Acting on the uninformed advice of Press Spokesman Margaret Tutwiler, he forced Mark to resign immediately, under a cloud, in January 1990.  A subsequent investigation found that Mark had done nothing wrong, but neither the Department nor Baker ever apologized.

Mark was devastated, but picked himself up and began work for Lauder's outfit.  On reflection, the whole affair was not just a catastrophe for Mark, but for the Service in general.  If Mark had been given Moscow, he would have gone out in August 1991, succeeding Jack Matlock.  Indeed, what better person could have been there when the attempted coup against Gorbachev took place?  It makes one wonder how our policy toward Russia might have differed, had Mark been there in the early 1990s.  It might also have changed the trajectory of my own career.  Just before I was about to leave Moscow in July, 1991, Jim Collins, who was then the DCM, came to me and asked if I might consider staying on for a year or two as Political Counselor.  Had I known that Mark was going to be the Ambassador, I would have never turned down such an offer. 

As it was, Mark went to work for Lauder and I went to the War College.  The next time we met was in Kiev in 1996, when I was DCM and Mark was scouting for media acquisition opportunities for Central European Media (CME), one of the satellite companies of Lauder's operation.  CME eventually bought a few media properties in Ukraine, but got into legal trouble with rival American investors, who sued CME unsuccessfully in New York.  CME’s operations in Ukraine were also tainted by the fact that their chief media partner was Vadim Rabinovich, who had been denied a visa to the United States on the grounds that he had serious organized crime connections.  Eventually the difficulties of operating in Central Europe forced Lauder and Mark to pull up stakes and move the headquarters of their operation to Berlin, where Mark oversaw the building of the Checkpoint Charlie Office Complex.

Returning to Washington, Mark remained active and an activist.  He was President of the Capital Development Company in Washington, DC and a member of the board of Freedom House, among other things.  In 2003, he wrote a book entitled "Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025."  The book cemented his credentials among neocons, but generally got lost in the uproar over Iraq and probably didn't have the impact that he had hoped.  We reestablished e-mail contact in 2007 and Mark seems as chipper and young, as ever. 

I was terribly shocked to hear of Mark’s untimely death from cancer on January 28, 2013.  Mark was one of those people who always looked younger than his years.  I will always remember him as the precocious boy diplomat, whose energy and drive eventually won over many of his harshest critics.  He will be missed.

Mark’s reminiscences are contained in a voluminous interview given to the Oral History Project.

Note: excerpts are from chapters 11.3 Belgrade (1974-1976) and 11.7 Soviet Desk (1981-1985).

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