Three hours after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Tom Schieffer hurried to the Australian embassy in Washington. John Howard, the prime minister of Australia, met him at the door.
“When the prime minister heard I was in the embassy, he rushed out of his office and embraced me,” recalled Mr. Schieffer, the new U.S. ambassador to Australia. “And as we stood there, the pain in his voice, the anguish, told me that this was more than a prime minister greeting an ambassador. It was Australia embracing America.”
If any moment marked the start of the Texan’s ambassadorship to Australia, it was that embrace. From that morning on, Mr. Schieffer’s life has been consumed by wartime diplomacy. And barely anything, he says, has gone according to schedule.
On Sept. 12, Mr. Schieffer was set to watch Mr. Howard speak before a joint session of Congress. Both the prime minister and Mr. Schieffer were in Washington for the 50th anniversary of the Anzus Treaty, signed in 1951 by Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. (The security treaty is similar to NATO’s mutual security agreement.)
Instead, Mr. Schieffer – a Highland Park resident best known for his stint as president of the Texas Rangers franchise – found himself aboard Air Force Two on a flight to Honolulu. En route, he and Mr. Howard began invoking the Anzus treaty for the first time in its 50-year history.
‘Pretty hectic’ month
Five days later, on the day Mr. Schieffer was scheduled to start his job, he addressed 4,000 lawmakers, diplomats, and dignitaries in the Grand Hall of the Australian Parliament.
“The speech just came out; it had to,” Mr. Schieffer said in a phone interview from the ambassador’s residence in Canberra. “There was no choice.”
Since then, Mr. Schieffer has had what he calls a “pretty hectic month.” He has delivered a half-dozen speeches to small audiences of journalists as well as crowds of 13,000 people. And he has frequently appeared on Australian radio and on television, to comment on U.S. military action and on more general matters.
One Australian newspaper columnist, describing Mr. Schieffer’s first radio address, wrote, “The Texan offered a folksy saying, apparently from back home: ‘We talk about somebody being a fine feller to ride the river with. I have reported back to Washington that Australians are fine people to ride the river with.’”
Voice, face of the U.S.
In short, Mr. Schieffer has served as the “voice and face” of America to the Australian government, and to the 19.2 million people it serves. And the Aussies, Mr. Schieffer says, have given him a warm welcome.
“The outpouring of grief and sympathy has just been phenomenal,” he said. “The Australians have just been incredibly supportive of what we’ve been trying to do.”
Since arriving in September, Mr. Schieffer, his wife, Susanne, and his 17-year-old son, Paul, have been living in the three-story Georgian-style ambassador’s residence on the embassy’s 10-acre grounds. Paul, a senior at the Winston School in Dallas, is finishing his classes over the Internet.
Mr. Schieffer’s commute to work each day is a short walk up a hill to the U.S. Embassy. Inside, he manages 400 people from dozens of federal agencies.
Mr. Schieffer, a longtime friend and former business associate of President Bush, was a state legislator for four years in the 1970s. He was first elected at age 25.
Then Mr. Schieffer, who was born and raised in Fort Worth, worked as a lawyer, consultant, and businessman. His most notable position in the last 10 years was serving as a Texas Rangers executive and president of the baseball franchise.
Mr. Schieffer’s Rangers experience, he said, prepared him for dealing with the Australian news media. (His brother, Bob Schieffer, CBS correspondent, has also offered pointers.) But he’s still adapting to his new role.
“It is a much more difficult situation than you would face in the private sector,” he said. “Virtually any company, be it a manufacturing company or a sports team, has six or eight functions, which can each be headed by a person who reports to you. In an embassy, you have something like 28 different federal agencies. It’s a daunting task to get everyone moving in the same way at the same time.”
But despite the challenges, he finds the job fulfilling. “At the end of the day,” he said, “you don’t worry whether you’ve had a chance to make a difference, because you have a chance to do it nearly any day.”
Many of those opportunities come during his public appearances, during which he rallies support for the American cause.
“Americans are not a vengeful people, but we are a people who love justice,” he said during a recent speech. “We will find those responsible for this dastardly deed and we will bring them to justice.”