Madame Ambassador

The Book

KramerbookI'm thrilled to tell you that my book has been published and is now available at Amazon.com.

If you'd like a copy, just click here.

In the meantime, this is how it opens...

I’ve never needed a vacation like I did in mid-2003.  I was President of the Iowa State Senate, and the 2003 legislative session was one of the most contentious I’d witnessed in over a decade of public service. 

Budget shortfalls in Medicaid and other human services programs had everyone’s nerves on a high boil.  Democrats were accusing Republicans of lacking compassion for the poor, Republicans were accusing Democrats of not caring about how much money was spent, and our discourse had descended to the level of name-calling and mudslinging. 

Even when we managed to speak graciously to each other in public, Politician A would then race to the media to be sure his or her spin would be seen and heard before Politician B’s.  We were behaving like petty, mean-spirited adolescents, and worse, all the squabbling and acrimony prevented us from accomplishing much of anything.  It was the third year of my fourth four-year term as a state senator, and I knew I wasn’t going to run again.

But another full year stood between me and retirement, so in the meantime, it was high time for a vacation. 

My husband Kay and I flew off to Hilton Head Island for a much needed week of lounging on the beach, reading, and golf.  We landed in Savannah, Georgia, claimed the luggage, and loaded our rental car.  I couldn’t wait to plant myself on the beach and leave that legislative battlefield far behind, and indeed I was already unwinding. 

Then I turned on my cell phone.  Message alerts began beeping and flashing—three voice mails, each increasingly frantic, urged me to call Becky.  Becky was my administrative assistant in the Senate President’s office and I loved her dearly, but I really did not want to speak to her.

So I did what any dedicated public servant would do.  I procrastinated.


I acted as navigator while Kay drove us to our condominium.  I admired the scenery.  I wondered aloud what the kids and grandkids were doing.  I looked through the contents of my purse.  I read through the fine print on our rental car agreement.  I did anything to avoid making that call.  

When we arrived at our destination, I was barely in the lobby door when the young woman at the desk accosted me.  “Senator Kramer, we have an urgent message for you!  Call Becky immediately!”   Duty fulfilled, she slumped behind the desk in obvious relief.  Meanwhile I fought a wave of panic. Becky wouldn’t go to such lengths to find me unless something was really wrong.  Someone was sick, or had died, or perhaps there had been an accident.

I went straight up to our room and made the call from the porch.  “Mary, I’ve been trying to reach you for hours!” Becky said. “You need to call the White House.” 

What?  All the drama for this?  Calls from the White House were not that rare and usually meant we could expect a visit from someone in the administration.  And by that time it was after six p.m. on the East Coast, and a Friday night no less.  No one would be there.  

“Sure thing, Becky,” I said.  “I’ll call them first thing Monday.”

Becky said “No Mary!  They’re waiting for your call.  You need to call them right now”. I sighed and said with an apologetic look at Kay, “Okay Becky, I hear you, I’m calling.”

“White House Personnel” answered.  Whoa—this was new!  I identified myself and the woman on the line got right to it.  “Senator Kramer, we’ve been waiting for your call,” she said. “The President would like to know if you would consider serving as the United States ambassador to Barbados.”

I sat down, hard, in the nearest chair.

“You must not speak to anyone about this except your immediate family,” she said.  “No one but your husband and children.  The President would like you to call back at three p.m. on Monday with your answer.  Are you willing to consider it?” 

The chair I’d fallen onto was a lovely shade of green, emblazoned with flowers and butterflies.  It was a beautiful, warm evening in May.  I could hear the surf and the birds; I could see vacationers strolling up and down the beach, swimmers getting in a last dip before dinner.  These details rose to the forefront of my mind, crowding out everything, even the ability to think, move, or speak.  
 
“Senator Kramer?” the woman said.  “Are you still there?”

I can’t quite remember what I said when I finally dragged myself out that state of paralysis.  I think I said, “I’m really honored, and I’ll consider it.”   “Wonderful,” she said. “The President will expect to hear from you on Monday.”

I hung up and just sat there, holding onto the chair for dear life.  Kay joined me on the porch.  He took one look at me and said, “What’s wrong with you?  Are you sick?”

I had regained my power of speech, but I still couldn’t move.  I focused on the tumbling Atlantic, totally indifferent to my plight.  “No, not sick.”

“Well for chrissakes, Mary, what is it?  Did something terrible happen?”

“President Bush wants me to consider being an ambassador.”  Suddenly Kay was speechless, too.  We just stared at each other.

I don’t know how much time passed before we regained our faculties.  But when we did, questions arrived in a torrent.  What would be involved in the process?  Were we willing to move out of the country, away from friends and family?  Was I willing to put off retirement?  And a pertinent question: what exactly did an ambassador do?
 
Finally Kay, ever practical, came up with a suggestion that cut through all the fog.  “Let’s go to Barnes and Noble, get a book, and at least figure out where the hell Barbados is.”

At a cramped table in the bookstore café, we sipped lattés and huddled over The Adventurer’s Guide to Barbados.  After a few minutes of reading about white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, amazing food, and the relaxed island culture, Kay said, “How tough can this be? It has definite possibilities.”  We bought the book and headed immediately back to our condo to call our son and daughter, Kent and Krista.

“Kent,” I said, “what do you think of your mother as a U.S. ambassador to Barbados, perhaps living out of the country for several years?”  

Kent, always the thoughtful son, replied, “Gosh, Mom, what an honor.  You’d make a great ambassador.  You should definitely say yes.  And hey, do you think you’ll be there in time for Christmas?”

Obviously he knew where Barbados was.

Krista, always ready for action, was even more enthusiastic.  “Wow, Mom, this really kicks ass!” she said.  “Go for it.”   
 
And then, the most important opinion.  “Kay,” I said, “what do you think?”
 
“I think we should go to dinner.”  There’s a reason I’ve been married to this man for over fifty years.

By the time appetizers were served Kay had collected his thoughts.  “Here’s what I’m thinking,” he said.  “We don’t know what your duties would be, whether we get paid, how long we might be away, where we would live, or what hoops we have to jump through to even get this job.  How can we decide right now?  We need more information.”

He was right, of course.  These were critical questions and we had no answers, and that fearsome list didn’t even speak to the questions running through my mind.  Did I have the skills for the job?  Did I want to uproot everything, delay retirement, and be away from family and friends for years?  Did I really want to stay in the political limelight?  Most important, would I be able to actually make a difference?  To make a radical life change like this, I needed to know I wasn’t going to be just a ribbon-cutter or a glorified hostess.

By the time we finished dinner, Kay and I had a long list of questions, and as there was no one to ask until Monday, we agreed that we would just not think about it.  And that’s exactly what we did.  We enjoyed a long, relaxing weekend, experiencing the life we hoped to live in retirement: reading, playing golf, walking the beach, relishing not being scheduled.   

Inevitably, however, three p.m. on Monday rolled around.  I still wasn’t sure what I’d do.  On the phone with the White House personnel person I tried to be, dare I say it, diplomatic?

“I’m so honored to be asked to do this,” I said, “but you know, I have no idea what’s expected of ambassadors.  I need to do something meaningful—at least have the opportunity to make a difference.  I really don’t want to go there just to attend parties and cut ribbons.”

“Could you hold a minute?” the woman on the phone replied.

There was a pause and then a click.  “I understand you have some questions, Mary?”

The voice was unmistakable.  It was the President of the United States.

I babbled something about wanting to make a real difference and wanting to be more than a ribbon cutter, and President Bush broke in.  “Mary,” he said, “I’m not sending you there for a walk on the beach.  We need some of that Iowa common sense down there, right now.”

“Yes, sir,” I blurted.  “We’ll do it.  Thank you for your confidence in me.”

I hung up and Kay and I looked at each other.  

“What have we done?” I said.

Thus begins “A Walk on the Beach, Confessions of an Unlikely Diplomat”

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