Leading by Example in Madrid

There's tremendous power in living in accordance with your own word.

Courtesy of 	BlackJack3D / Getty Images
Courtesy of BlackJack3D / Getty Images

My obsession, initially, was to set the new tone of American representation in Madrid: first, among my own staff; then, with the Spanish authorities; and finally, among the society of the country that welcomed me.

During the first month I met with the ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense, the president of the Community of Madrid, the mayoress of Madrid, the leader of the opposition party and, finally, on October 15, with the president, Mariano Rajoy. I also saw almost all the ministers of the Government. At that moment, we were negotiating the Free Trade Agreement between Europe and the United States, which involved practically all the commercial sectors of the country: Agriculture, Energy, even Culture (for matters of intellectual property) had things to discuss with us.

First meetings are always the best, because you’ve not yet done anything, so everything is considered in a positive light. It’s like a first date: the meeting during which you get to know the other party, you evaluate them (and they evaluate you), and we all emphasize the most-beneficial aspects of our relationship.

In these instances, I always bring a gift. Most commonly a book about Junípero Serra, the Franciscan priest who founded the California missions in the eighteenth century and who, therefore, to a certain degree, founded California when that territory still belonged to the Viceroyalty of New Spain. This book about Friar Serra let me show the Spanish influence on my country and, moreover, had a special meaning for me: Serra was from Mallorca and I had my first contacts with Spain there. He had remained in California and, three hundred years later, I arrived from California. I even included his motto in my official medallion as Ambassador: Always onward together.

These things might seem silly details in the framework of international politics, but when things become complicated (and as I’ll share later, they sometimes became so), showing respect and appreciation makes resolving differences easier.

That said, for any relationship to work, you must have something good to offer. My closeness with the Obamas helped a lot to arrange the president’s visit to the White House so, as soon as I arrived, I already had a great project for Spain. In the first weeks, I also offered from the residence my first interview to the newspaper El País. And I presented my credentials before the King Juan Carlos.

Once the bases of my political work were established, I began to consider the Embassy’s social projection. For our first official receptions, I still didn’t know many people in the city. The Embassy’s protocol team drew up lists of some three hundred and fifty invitees, most of them military leaders, politicians, and businesspeople. Michael and I stood at the door and greeted the rows of invitees, shaking hands and smiling for photos, while my Minister Counsellor, Luis Moreno, who was always at my side, introduced us. Then I said a few words. All according to tradition.

Little by little, I began to make small changes, such as to the food served at these dinners and meetings. It might seem a meaningless detail, but it was part of a presidential policy. In those years, one out of three American adults and one out of seven American children suffered from being overweight. Michelle Obama had embraced the cause of healthy nutrition, promoting complete information on product labels, changing school menus, and increasing people’s access to fruit and vegetables, even in department stores. To add visibility to her work, she cultivated a vegetable garden at the White House, which she worked in personally and to which she invited the children of nearby schools.

Michael and I avoided meat wherever possible, not just because of its health affects, but also due to our passion for animals and our desire to prevent their suffering. In line with the values of the First Lady, we cultivated a vegetable garden in the grounds of the residence and worked to bring children with learning difficulties from the A LA PAR Foundation to garden in it.

In this regard, it was crucial to have a chef who was able to be much more than a chef. In visiting Madrid, I had foreseen bringing with me the chef of our own home, Chris Kidder, a wizard of organic cooking, but Michael had rotundly forbidden it, because he would continue living in Los Angeles and didn’t want to lose him. Luckily, Chris recommended a colleague of his who lived in Spain. His name was Byron Hogan. I gave Bryon a little test in the house of a female friend, a sort of casting of different dishes, and his talent proved to be out of this world.

Byron turned into our executive chef and perfectly fit the social dimension we needed. He sowed and harvested the vegetables with the children from the foundation and then brought them into the kitchen with him. When we served dinner or canapés at any reception, we announced: “This food was grown in our own garden.”

And we spoke about the foundation, about Michelle’s work, about solidarity. It was a way of leaving a positive mark on the society around us, while at the same time we promoted the presidential values. And, of course, just as the presidential couple did, it was a way of leading by example, of living in accordance with our words.

Published with permission from El amigo americano

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