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Arkansas Odyssey: Ambassadors Experience the Natural State
The Washington Diplomat / January 2013

By Larry Luxner

LITTLE ROCK — It was a scene straight out of Hollywood. Under a huge tent set up in the backyard of the Arkansas governor’s mansion — a three-story Georgian Revival home reminiscent of “Gone With the Wind” — long picnic tables decorated with checkered tablecloths groaned under the weight of down-home Southern cuisine: black-eyed pea salad, roasted potatoes, barbecue chicken, dry-rub smoked beef brisket, honey and dill salmon, turnip greens and apple crisp.

As 150 or so hungry guests speaking a cacophony of languages stood on the chow line, local bluegrass band Runaway Planet entertained the crowd with “Folsom Prison Blues” and other songs made famous by native son Johnny Cash — followed by a high school dance troupe that proudly showed off its clogging skills.

Presiding over the evening’s festivities was guayabera-clad Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe and his wife Ginger. The first couple stopped at each table to make sure their guests were enjoying themselves — just as fictitious Southern Gov. Jack Stanton (played by John Travolta) did with his wife Susan in the movie “Primary Colors,” which was loosely based on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election campaign.

Only Mike Beebe isn’t running for president, and his guests weren’t wealthy donors — but rather the largest group of foreign ambassadors Arkansas has ever seen.

“This is really a treat for all of our ambassadors to get together here, and we’re certainly pleased you chose Arkansas for your Experience America tour,” Beebe told the delighted diplomats and their spouses, representing 43 countries ranging from Azerbaijan to Uruguay.

The BBQ was one of many highlights of the Oct. 21-23 Arkansas adventure, which was arranged by Capricia Penavic Marshall, the U.S. chief of protocol (see our cover story).

“The State Department does an excellent job at organizing these trips,” said Deborah-Mae Lovell of the tiny Caribbean twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, who’s participated in eight of its 11 “Experience America” trips since 2008 (she missed Alaska, New York and Wyoming). “This gives me a chance to meet with a cross-section of the population, from government officials to business executives, educators and young people. It enhances the work I do as an ambassador.”

That’s exactly the point of the Experience America excursions — to get ambassadors outside the Beltway, and their comfort zone, to see other parts of the country. Since 2007, ambassadors from more than 100 nations have traveled to destinations such as Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, as well as multiple cities in Alaska, California, Florida, Texas and Wyoming.

As the Office of Protocol puts it, the mission is to “foster international goodwill and cultivate the relationship between the diplomatic corps and the people and institutions of the United States through an exchange of ideas, cultures, and traditions.”

The goal is to also forge lucrative business connections. As such, many local dignitaries show up to greet the diplomats — leading not only to friendships and partnerships, but also to unexpected coincidences.

At Gov. Beebe’s barbeque, Cathie Matthews, director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, was overjoyed when she found herself seated next to Tanzanian Ambassador Mwanaidi Sinare Maajar. It turns out that back in the late 1990s, Matthews had spent some time in Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam, as marketing chief for a telecom firm. The two women hugged and even exchanged a few words in Swahili.

A few tables down, Lovell was so taken with the clogging show that she jumped up on stage and joined the dance, to the delight of her normally staid colleagues.

Foreign diplomats accredited to the United States rarely get together outside D.C. or New York. But here in Arkansas was a whole bus full of them, representing political entities as tiny as the remote Pacific atoll of Tuvalu (population 9,800) and as powerful as the 27-member European Union (population 503 million).

Claudia Fritsche, ambassador of 62-square-mile Liechtenstein — the second-tiniest country on the trip — said Arkansas was one of only six U.S. states she had not yet visited; now she can finally scratch it off her list.

“I’m deeply impressed by the natural beauty and the truly entrepreneurial spirit of the people of Arkansas,” she said. “And there’s also something one expects, but I’m still humbled by it: Southern hospitality.”

Her seatmate from Luxembourg, Ambassador Jean-Louis Wolzfeld, agreed. “America is far more than its capital city, and it’s important to see how people live and think outside the Beltway.”

Wolzfeld, whose prosperous duchy is about the size of Pulaski County — where Little Rock is located — said Arkansas appealed to him “because it’s a small state for America and everybody knows each other. In that way, it’s very much like back home.”

There’s also one way it’s not like back home: Luxembourg is one of Europe’s most expensive countries, while Arkansas is one of the cheapest U.S. states. A gallon of gasoline costs $6.49 in Luxembourg, compared to $3.15 in Arkansas — a fact not lost on some of the world’s most powerful diplomats as they checked their BlackBerrys, smoked cigarettes and otherwise killed time (some more patiently than others) at a Valero discount gas station halfway between Little Rock and Fayetteville.

That Interstate 40 potty break was perhaps the least scripted moment of a meticulously choreographed adventure that had been planned weeks and months in advance by staffers in Marshall’s office.

* * *

With only 2.9 million inhabitants and no world-class cities, majestic mountains or soaring monuments, Arkansas — a tad bigger than Greece and slightly smaller than Bangladesh — may seem a rather unlikely place for the State Department to schlep one-fourth of the entire Washington-based diplomatic corps. As Beebe noted, recalling his 12-day trade mission to China last April: “The Chinese know only two things about Arkansas: Bill Clinton and Walmart.”

Yet the Natural State is much more than that, as the 42nd president himself told the visiting ambassadors during a welcome dinner at the $165 million steel-and-glass William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park — just a few hours after their arrival at Little Rock’s newly renamed Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.

“If you want to experience Arkansas, go up to the hills where Hillary and I were married in Fayetteville,” he said following a private reception in which every diplomat and spouse on the tour posed for individual pictures with the famous ex-president. “I want you to know Walmart and Tyson Foods, but also go to the Crystal Bridges art museum, which was built by a remarkable Israeli architect, Moshe Safdie, whom I met when Israel and Jordan signed their peace agreement.”

In his speech, Clinton eulogized another icon, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern — the liberal Democrat and 1972 presidential candidate who had died that morning at the age of 90. He also noted the nastiness of the 2012 campaign that pitted President Barack Obama against his ultimately unsuccessful Republican challenger, Gov. Mitt Romney — a campaign in which Bill Clinton played an instrumental role in drumming up support for Obama, his wife’s one-time rival for presidency.

“We’re still small enough that, at least in the old days, we were actually friends with people of the other political party,” said Clinton, a folksy, savvy political operator. “We find all this bitter, angry talk that’s going now absolute insanity.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton couldn’t meet the ambassadors personally, but warmly welcomed them to Arkansas through a video link as the diplomats dined on duck rillette salad sourced from Stuttgart, Ark., the self-proclaimed “duck hunting capital of the world.” That was followed by smoked corn bisque, Arkansas venison on bone marrow risotto with roasted Arkansas root vegetables, and finally lemon blueberry cake flavored with thyme grown in the Clinton Center’s own sustainable garden.

“Through this program, you’re visiting places and meeting people you might otherwise miss,” the secretary of state said in her prerecorded message. “Your visit to Arkansas provides a great opportunity to build new relationships between our country and yours. You’ll travel to Fayetteville — one of the prettiest places in America — and you’ll see the famous Razorbacks. You’ll meet some of the most creative, best people the United States has to offer. Arkansas may be a small state, but it has a huge heart.”

* * *

Before settling back to enjoy the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra’s Quapaw String Quartet and performances of “New York State of Mind” and “Jersey Boys” by the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, President Clinton invited Ambassador Akec Khoc of South Sudan — the world’s newest nation — to stand up and be recognized; a round of applause ensued.

The former president also waxed nostalgic, telling his foreign guests what it was like growing up in his hometown of Hope, Ark., where he attended kindergarten and first grade, and later Hot Springs, where he graduated from high school.

“I was nuts about politics and I remember watching the 1956 elections, but like Gov. Beebe and Sen. Dale Bumpers, I didn’t have a television when I was a child. We were 10 when we got a TV, and my family controlled how much TV I could watch,” he recalled. “Besides, there were only three channels. Most of us couldn’t afford to take vacations; our idea of a vacation was swimming in the lake, or fishing in the creek. So we grew up in a storytelling culture. I hope you’ll get a chance to sit down with people and listen to their stories.”

Sufficiently impressed with their important new friend, the distinguished diplomats wandered around the museum after dinner, gazing at the hundreds of artifacts on display — from the bulletproof black 1993 Cadillac One limousine used during Clinton’s presidency to letters addressed to Bill and Hillary from Elton John, Arsenio Hall and Jordan’s Queen Noor. They also checked out life-size replicas of both the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room, as well as a 110-foot-long timeline that recounts, in minute detail, every key event of the Clinton administration.

Marshall served as social secretary in the Clinton White House. As she introduced the president, the protocol chief spoke with obvious pride about Experience America, a program launched by her predecessor, Nancy Brinker.

“When I came to Little Rock to join a certain unknown governor in 1991, my life was changed forever. Having returned many times over the years to Arkansas, I have grown more and more fond of this amazing state,” she said. “We have come to Arkansas through a program called Experience America. This type of engagement is what we at the State Department call people-to-people diplomacy, which means using every diplomatic tool at our disposal to strengthen our relations with the world — and now it’s Arkansas’s turn to be a part of it.”

The next afternoon, while taking a well-deserved break from her responsibilities as U.S. protocol chief and bus chaperone, Marshall explained how it all works.

“Embassies pay their own way, and they pay for their stay. What we do is work with airlines and our host committee,” she told The Diplomat. “When President Clinton heard about what we were doing, he told me, ‘You must bring the ambassadors to Arkansas, and I want to be here when they come.’ The folks at the Clinton Presidential Center worked very hard at aligning the stars to make it happen.”

It also helped that in a recent State Department survey asking Washington-based ambassadors where they wanted to go next, three states — Alaska, Arkansas and New Mexico — came out on top.

“Our focus on the Experience America trips is not only to showcase the beauty of our great nation, and the diversity of culture and tradition, but also to create business relationships with people from all backgrounds,” Marshall said. “For example, when we went to Los Angeles, the ambassadors attended a wonderful luncheon hosted by Warner Brothers. They were quite frank about how a country can prepare a package to invite a studio to go on location and film in their country. Later, the ambassador of Gabon signed a deal with them; it all came about from that luncheon.”

* * *

With dollar signs in mind, local business leaders fêted the ambassadors as if they were celebrities at not one but two lavish events — first at a lengthy Governor’s Business Roundtable Breakfast on the 30th floor of Little Rock’s tallest building, then the following day at the University of Arkansas’s sprawling campus in Fayetteville.

“Even through the worst recession in my lifetime, our business leaders have persevered, maintained and have been able to expand,” Beebe said over breakfast, noting that Arkansas has gained 27,000 jobs since the economy hit bottom in 2009.

“We care deeply about your economic viability for very selfish reasons,” he told the diplomats. “When we do poorly, the rest of the states do poorly, and when the states do poorly, the globe does poorly. So it’s important for us to get together and talk about economic strategy. It’s our job to tout who we are and what we have available. And what we have available is an ever-increasing advanced workforce.”

Beebe, who’s led trade missions to China, France, Germany, Great Britain and Cuba, said Arkansas has been relatively successful in attracting investment from Western Europe and Asia, “though we’d like to have a few more companies from the Caribbean, Latin America and the Middle East.”

Arkansas would also like to sell more to the world. To that end, Paul Rivera, general manager of the Caterpillar factory in North Little Rock, said his Illinois-based company — the world’s largest name in mining and construction equipment — spent $148 million to build its world-class facility in Arkansas three years ago. The factory now employs about 600 people.

“We produce things every country needs,” Rivera said, noting that 45 percent of his factory’s output is shipped outside the United States. And in response to a question from Botswana’s ambassador, Tebelelo Mazile Seretse, he added: “Africa is a huge growth market for Caterpillar, served primarily from our European and Brazilian markets, but we’d like to produce machines — especially for mining and road construction — closer to the point of use.”

Eric Fox, plant manager for global cosmetics giant L’Oreal, told diplomats his 900,000-square-foot factory in North Little Rock produces 300 million units of mascara, eye shadow, face powder, nail enamel and lipstick every year under the brand names Maybelline and Lancôme.

“This is the largest cosmetics plant in the world for L’Oreal,” said Fox, who manages 800 employees. “We’re now opening factories in Russia, Brazil, Egypt and Indonesia. Western Europe and the U.S. are fairly mature markets, so there’s little room for growth, but the global middle class will grow from 1 billion today to 2.7 billion by 2050, and these people are going to need quality beauty products.”

As Tanzania’s Maajar told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after that meeting: “Everyone likes to do business with China, but we want a mixture, because competition is good for Africa. And I think it’s time for American business to be looking to Africa.”

Ambassador Anibal de Castro of the Dominican Republic told us that he foresees future partnerships sprouting from the visit.

“The trip offered a great opportunity to take in the real America,” he said. “We not only met with top representatives from industry and the higher education sector, but could appreciate the diversity, entrepreneurial spirit and deep sense of community that characterize this country. We are looking forward to establishing new trade relations between companies based in Arkansas and the Dominican Republic.”

* * *

In Fayetteville, the ambassadors were enthusiastically welcomed to the University of Arkansas by Razorbacks cheerleaders, backed up by the school’s marching band. They also learned how to “call the hogs” — a rousing university tradition that dates back to the 1920s — and posed for photos under a statue of Sen. J. William Fulbright, founder of the Fulbright program, which since its inception in 1946 has given scholarships to more than 300,000 promising students in the United States and more than 150 countries worldwide.

Here too, business was on the agenda, with presentations by two of the state’s most important companies: Bentonville-based Walmart, the planet’s largest retailer, and Springdale-based Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest processors and marketers of chicken, beef and pork.

“Our rate of growth exceeds all other metropolitan areas in the Midwest,” said Mike Malone, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. “We’re adding 31 residents to this corner of Arkansas every day. More than a quarter of a million people have moved here in the last 20 years. They come and stay, and they love it.”

The state’s most famous corporate name is, of course, Walmart, which began in 1962 with just one store in the town of Rogers, about 20 miles north of Fayetteville.

“Our goal was to bring to small, rural communities the same benefits people would have in affluent cities,” said Rosalind Brewer, president and CEO of retail chain Sam’s Club. “Today, Walmart operates under 69 banners around world, with Sam’s Clubs in China, Brazil and Mexico.”

Last year, Sam’s Club alone posted sales of $49 billion — more than the annual GDP of 19 countries represented by the ambassadors listening to Brewer’s speech — and its stores cover a combined 81 million square feet, which is three times the size of Monaco. Its parent company, Walmart, with well over 2 million employees and 2011 revenues of $419 billion, would rank as the world’s 23rd-largest economy — smack between oil exporters Norway and Saudi Arabia — if it were a country of its own.

“Many of you here today represent countries that Walmart sources from, and it’s a long list that includes Thailand [tables, jewelry and TVs]; Egypt [rugs and shirts]; Germany [wines] and Cambodia [gloves and dresses],” said Brewer.

“One of our goals is to be a good global citizen, and 70 percent of impoverished people are women. Walmart has the size and scale to help, by empowering women across our supply chain. So over the next five years, we will source $20 billion from women-owned suppliers in the U.S., and double our sourcing from women-owned suppliers internationally.”

Like Brewer, Donnie Smith, president and CEO of Tyson Foods, looked out at the roomful of ambassadors and saw potential new sales to a multitude of countries.

Rattling off statistics, Smith said that Tyson — with 115,000 employees and $33 billion in annual revenues — is the nation’s second-largest tortilla maker and the largest manufacturer of pizza toppings, though beef comprises 40 percent of company sales, chicken 35 percent and pork 15 percent.

“Over time, chicken will continue to grow in per-capita consumption. Today, we’re in countries where we see an emerging middle class and a good supply of feed grains,” he said. “Latin America is a huge growth opportunity for us, but we’re also in India, where per-capita chicken consumption is only five pounds a year. We have three operations in China — the only place where we have company-owned farms.”

All that farm talk resonated with Moroccan Ambassador Mohamed Rachad Bouhlal, who three months earlier visited Wyoming as part of Experience America.

“Arkansas is an agricultural state, and agriculture is very important for Morocco. We are a big exporter of processed foods and livestock,” said Bouhlal, recalling with fondness Bill Clinton’s 1999 visit to Morocco to attend the funeral of King Hassan II, as well as King Mohammed VI’s reciprocal visit to the United States a year later. “There’s a lot we can learn from each other, and I’m sure possibilities for partnerships exist.”

Bouhlal and his esteemed colleagues got a break from the speeches and sales pitches their second night in Little Rock, when several dozen diplomats settled into the Capital Bar and Grill to watch the third and final Obama-Romney presidential debate.

Interviews were strictly off-limits during the 90-minute exchange on foreign policy, which frequently erupted into partisan bickering about taxes and the budget deficit.

The ambassadors remained generally quiet, sipping their drinks, though a few guffawed loudly when Romney accused the president of shrinking the size of the U.S. Navy and Obama shot back with his now-famous “horses and bayonets” sound bite. A few minutes later, the entire bar broke into applause after moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News pleaded with the two candidates to bring the debate back to foreign policy.

* * *

Arkansas may not have the Washington Monument, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge or Mount Rushmore, but within the Natural State’s borders sits the nation’s most painful symbol of racial intolerance — and, perhaps, its proudest shrine to the U.S. civil rights movement: Little Rock Central High School.

On the morning of Sept. 23, 1957, an angry, screaming mob of more than 1,000 whites — defying the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering integration of all public schools — refused entrance to nine promising black students who had been specifically invited to attend the all-white high school.

After violence broke out, the state’s segregationist governor, Orval Faubus, ordered the nine removed. But the next day, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the brave black students back to class — under the protection of the newly federalized 10,000-man Arkansas National Guard.

Yet even though they had finally won their day in court, the nine faced constant verbal and physical abuse from their hostile white schoolmates (one black student, Melba Pattillo, had acid thrown into her eyes).

The conflict forced a constitutional standoff between Faubus and the federal government. The following September, the governor ordered all schools in Little Rock closed in what came to be known as the “Lost Year.” Black and white students alike suffered, though the black community became the target of many vicious hate crimes.

Eventually the Little Rock Nine graduated and moved on with their lives. The crisis spawned two made-for-television movies and in 1996, seven of the Little Rock Nine appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where they confronted several white students who had tormented them so many years before.

In 1999, President Clinton presented each of these heroes with a Congressional Gold Medal, and 10 years later, they witnessed the inauguration of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president.

Two of those nine, Ernest Green and Carlotta Walls LaNier, met with the visiting ambassadors as local TV cameramen and news photographers crowded the entrance to Little Rock Central High School, which today serves 2,450 students and is the only functioning high school in the United States to be located within the boundaries of a national historic site.

“Your attendance is a historic moment for Little Rock,” said Green, 71. “As President Clinton said, you listen to the stories, and we have lots of stories to tell. But as a 16-year-old trying to graduate from high school — through all the turmoil of that year — I had only one goal in mind: If I completed high school here, we would have broken an important barrier for other young African Americans to follow.”

LaNier is today a real-estate broker in Denver. She’s also written a book, “A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School.” But back in 1957, all that mattered was getting through the most difficult year of her life.

“I wanted to apply to universities throughout the country, and I knew that if I had Little Rock Central High School on that transcript, it would open up a few more doors for me,” she told the VIPs. “So my focus was to maintain a good grade point average. I needed that diploma to validate all the things we had gone through.”

Earlier this year, LaNier, 69, donated to Washington’s Smithsonian the dress she wore to her first two days of school. That, along with her diploma, her report card and other memorabilia will be displayed in the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in 2015.

Over the next two days, the ambassadors and their spouses went on to view priceless art at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, tour the 900,000-square-foot Dassault Falcon jet aircraft factory just outside Little Rock, and watch grad students conduct experiments at the molecular beam epitaxy lab at the University of Arkansas’s Nanotechnology Center.

But when it comes to raw emotion, the visit to Little Rock Central and their meeting with Green and LaNier will be the enduring highlight for these 43 diplomats long after their other memories of Arkansas have faded away.

Antigua’s Lovell summed it up well.

“Whenever I hear your story, I burst into tears,” she told the two civil rights icons. “I’m honored to be in your presence.”

Larry Luxner, news editor of The Washington Diplomat, tagged along with the ambassadors to Arkansas for this story.

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