Returning to His Roots
One of the first questions John Emerson ’75 is asked as he travels throughout Germany or welcomes guests at his new home at the U.S. embassy in Berlin is about his heritage. “Germans are very happy to hear about my German roots,” he says. “It’s a connector in that sense.”
Emerson became U.S. ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany in August. The move marks the fourth time in as many decades — the first coming when he was a student at Hamilton — that he has spent extended time in the country. “During these visits and subsequent family travel, I have been struck by the warmth of the German people, as well as the special relationship that America and Germany share,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing in late July. “The partnership between our two countries is one of our most important alliances as we confront the economic and security challenges of the present day.”
For Emerson, the ambassadorship is the latest stop on a career path that has included roles as a respected Los Angeles attorney, a member of President Clinton’s senior staff and chief executive at one of the world’s largest investment management firms. The skills that he has developed along the way are diverse, which is what makes them ideal for the challenges he has already faced in his latest role as a diplomat.
A life-long fascination with Germany
Born in Chicago, Emerson grew up in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. Later he moved to Bloomfield, N.J., and then to Larchmont, N.Y., where he attended junior high and high school.
He was exposed to German language and culture from an early age. His grandmother’s parents had immigrated to the United States just months before she was born (in the late 1890s). Emerson jokes that he initially opted to take German classes at age 12 in order to decipher his father and grandmother’s secret conversations. But his other reason for learning the language stemmed from his interest in science.
“At the time, I thought I was going to go into science, and German is really the language of science,” Emerson says. “Many of the great scientists of the time — think of all the German Jews who came to the U.S. to escape Hitler — were German.”
Emerson continued studying German in high school and college. A class on the history of Nazi Germany with Hamilton Professor of History Michael Haltzel would further pique his interest in the region. Upon graduation, Emerson visited Berlin and stayed with Haltzel, who had moved there to become the inaugural director of the Aspen Institute Berlin. The two toured the city, going through Checkpoint Charlie into the eastern portion of the then-divided municipality. “It was a fascinating time,” recalls Emerson, who found that experiencing East Berlin and the contrast with the West was, for him, one of the most interesting parts of the visit. “And I had a great tour guide.”
And his guide also remembers well the Germany from that trip. “The wall was up. Most people thought it was going to be there for a long time, if not forever,” Haltzel says. “East Germany was the most successful of the communist countries. It was very, very hard to be in Berlin in 1975.”
Law school and involvement in local politics would keep Emerson away from Germany for a little over a decade. In 1988, while serving in Los Angeles as chief deputy city attorney, he was selected by a German non-profit political foundation, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, to visit Germany as a part of an American-German delegation. He spent three years traveling throughout the country as a fellow through this young leaders’ program. In coming years, Emerson would visit again with his family.
From radio host to critical thinker
During his first year on the Hill, Emerson became known as “Raldo,” a play on the surname he shares with the great American Transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. By the time he reached his senior year, however, he was more commonly known by the nickname “Emo” — “that is the one that really stuck,” he says.
Emerson and Jeff Janata ’75 co-hosted the so-inspired “JJ and the Raldo Show” on WHCL. “We were pretty outrageous,” he recalls. “I wouldn’t say we were shock radio, but we came pretty close to the line.” Though Emerson is hard-pressed to remember specific moments from their time on the air, he does recall the show’s fame, or infamy, among the student body. “The funniest thing was when we would be in Commons having a meal and hearing folks talk about ‘did you hear X on JJ and Raldo?’ not knowing that Jeff and I were sitting right there.”
Emerson credits Hamilton’s small size with enabling him to explore a range of activities that he never would have had a chance to pursue otherwise. Along with hosting the radio show, he delved into drama, landing a major role his senior year in a college production, the comical farce Love for Love, despite little previous involvement in the Theatre Department. He also served as co-speaker of chapel, along with Bob Halligan ’75, which meant hosting weekly Monday night assemblies. “It was basically our job to entertain as much as anything,” Emerson recalls. “But it provided me with a safe area to grow and develop some confidence and really find a direction that I wanted to go in.”
All these experiences buoyed his personal development. “There’s no question that Hamilton gave me the opportunity to really grow as a person,” he says. Just as importantly, Emerson cites the effect of his professors on his academic evolution. “I had some professors, who whether they even know it or not, had a big impact in helping to shape my interests and move my direction,” he says. Two professors in particular made him switch his academic track.
Emerson came to Hamilton looking for a small liberal arts experience and planning to major in biology. That trajectory soon changed to psychology, but it would change again. Blocked out of an upper-level psychology course during his sophomore year, Emerson instead enrolled in History of Western Philosophy taught by professors Norman Bowie and Russell Blackwood.
“After the first week I decided, this is where I’m going to go,” Emerson says. “I absolutely fell in love with it. … They were simply the best teachers I’d ever had to that point. The class was lively; discussion was fun.” He and his classmates were required to submit a weekly two-page essay, each on a different topic. The solution to the first assignment continues to perplex him:
A woodsman says: “I’ve had this axe for 20 years, and during that time it’s had three heads and two handles.” Is he correct in saying “this axe?”
“A bunch of us stayed up all night debating it,” Emerson recalls. “To this day, I’m not sure what the right answer is — but that’s the beauty of it.” He soon switched his major to philosophy, with a minor in government.
A case of the politics ‘bug’
As far back as his time AT Hamilton, Emerson had thoughts of pursuing a career in politics and government, a desire that led him to attend law school. “He certainly talked politics all the time,” says Steve Frantzich, a former Hamilton government professor. But Frantzich also thought Emerson may have felt family pressure to go into the ministry. After all, both his father and maternal grandfather were Presbyterian ministers.
But Emerson never felt so obliged. In some respects, his seniors had also dipped their feet into the political scene. His father had considered a career in law and government before deciding on the ministry, and his grandfather, the Rev. John Sutherland Bonnell, also had a personal interest in politics. The prominent New York City pastor forged close ties with two parishioners who were well known in political circles, Allen Dulles and Wendell Willkie, and Bonnell became one of the first to publicly challenge Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s.
While Emerson may have been building off his family’s partiality to politics, he was initially uncertain on where or how to begin. Then came the January of his junior year at Hamilton when he traveled to Washington, D.C., on a “Jan Plan” directed by Frantzich. (Beginning in 1969-70, the College’s academic calendar was revised to include a winter term, which has since been eliminated.) Students were required to pursue a Winter Study Project for at least three of their four years at the College. For that winter month of 1974, Emerson participated in a program that focused on political careers where he had the opportunity to speak to mostly retired members of Congress and White House staffers, interviewing them about their experiences.
“That was really my first time ever to spend time in Washington, and I absolutely loved it,” Emerson recalls. “To the extent I was interested in politics, I definitely had the bug big time spending that month there.”
Frantzich says that it was not until later conversations with Emerson that he came to realize how influential the experience had been for his former student. “I think it opened his eyes to Washington. He got fascinated with the Washington scene. The people he had seen and talked about and read about all of a sudden were there.”
Ambassador Emerson’s path to his post abroad took him first across the United States and through a number of professional roles. After graduating from Hamilton, he attended the University of Chicago Law School where he earned his J.D. in 1978.
Emerson relocated to the West Coast thereafter and joined the prestigious Los Angeles law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, where he was named a partner specializing in business and entertainment litigation and administrative law. It was here, in California, where he first shifted his gaze to politics, serving as head of Gary Hart’s presidential primary campaign in 1984. Though Hart would win California, his first shot at the Democratic nomination was ultimately unsuccessful. Four years later, Emerson worked as Hart’s deputy campaign manager in his second disappointing presidential bid.
“In ’88, the campaign really ended in May of ’87,” Emerson says, likely referring to the release of rumors of the candidate’s extramarital affair. “I remember driving back to LA thinking, OK, I’m not going to tie my political career to another politician — I’m going to do it on my own.” Afterward he spent five years as Los Angeles’ chief deputy city attorney. He ran for the state legislature in California, but lost narrowly by 31 votes. The defeat proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“It ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me, because it opened up the opportunity to go help Bill Clinton,” Emerson says, referring to his next venture — managing Clinton’s winning campaign in California.
The stakes were high in 1992. Other than Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, the state had gone Republican in each of the previous 10 presidential elections. Clinton needed California’s electoral votes to secure the presidency, so either he, Hillary Clinton or vice presidential candidate Al Gore visited the state once every three days. Emerson spent a good amount of time with the candidate — they’d finish long days of campaigning together in the hotel suite playing Hearts “until all hours.” As Emerson describes, Clinton was “indefatigable.”
In the final days of the campaign, Emerson suggested an unorthodox approach to Clinton’s California Get Out The Vote (GOTV) rally. These events are usually held in areas where a candidate has a large support base — they don’t intend to convince, but rather to make the final push to bring supporters to the polls. Emerson’s suggested location for the rally, however, drew criticism.
Clinton had established a base of support in Orange County, a typically conservative area. “So I argued that we should do our California GOTV rally there, in the heart of Reagan Country,” Emerson says. “The campaign scheduler in Little Rock and the vote counters would hear nothing of it, ‘explaining’ in what became heated conversations what GOTV was for. I stuck to my guns and finally appealed to [lead political strategist] James Carville, who got it immediately. We had 20,000 people show up in the heart of Orange County for a GOTV rally two days before the election holding ‘Reagan Country is Clinton Country’ signs. Film clips from the rally led the Today Show, GMA and CBS Morning News programs the next day.”
The victory was a turning point in Emerson’s career. His major role in Clinton’s victory over incumbent president George Bush led to the opportunity for him to serve in the Clinton White House. Emerson says that experience gave him key insights that ultimately paved the way for an ambassadorial career. “Unquestionably, having the opportunity to work closely with Bill Clinton in the White House gave me both a broad exposure to the workings of the federal government and, to be honest with you, in part the credibility from a substantive standpoint to be offered a position like this,” he says.
Emerson and his wife, Kimberly Marteau Emerson, also an attorney, relocated to Washington, where Emerson served on the president’s senior staff. As deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, Emerson was Clinton’s liaison to the nation’s governors. He also acted as the unofficial “secretary of California” and for a year worked as deputy director for presidential personnel. He helped win Congressional approval for several administration initiatives, including the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and China’s recognition as “Most Favored Nation” with the U.S. in trade relations. At the same time, Kimberly Emerson became a senior executive with the U.S. Information Agency (USIA). The agency, now a part of the State Department, drove the country’s public diplomacy efforts, and she traveled on presidential trips overseas to help advance these initiatives.
While in Washington, the Emersons also became parents, first to daughter Jackie and later to twins Hayley and Taylor. Because of their demanding careers, Emerson ultimately decided to return to the private sector. Some friends in finance introduced him to then-chairman of the privately held international investment firm Capital Group.
“[The firm] was willing to take a risk on someone who was, as I would later put it, a ‘skill set’ hire,” Emerson says. “I owe a great deal to the fact that Capital’s culture and leadership were willing to take a risk on me, and it worked out beautifully.” Emerson left the White House after Clinton’s second-term election to begin his third career in investment management. For more than 16 years, he served as president of the personal investment management division of Capital Group, managing assets for wealthy individuals.
“I loved my time there, had P&L (profit and loss) responsibility and had the opportunity to grow a business within the company,” he recalls. “There is no question that the management skills I honed at Capital have been very helpful in my current job.”
At the same time, Emerson remained politically active, serving as California chair of Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign in 2008, and from 2009 to 2012 as the Southern California finance chair of the Democratic National Committee for President Barack Obama. In 2010, he joined Obama’s advisory committee for trade policy and negotiations, representing Capital Group. Emerson also earned a reputation as a civic leader on the West Coast, serving as chairman of the board of the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County and as a director and vice chairman of the Los Angeles Metropolitan YMCAs.
His ambassadorship to Germany marks his fourth career, and Emerson ascribes his flexibility in these professional transitions to his alma mater. “There’s no question that a good founding in a liberal arts education, where you have exposure to a variety of disciplines, provides flexibility to be able to make those kinds of changes in one’s career and life and be comfortable with them,” he says. “Essentially, you’re learning how to think, you’re learning how to write, you’re learning how to communicate, and you are indulging your curiosity about the world around you in a good, strong liberal arts school like Hamilton.”
A star performance
Emerson’s nomination to serve as ambassador to Germany came in June. The news did not come as a surprise, even though Emerson insists, “nothing’s certain until it happens.” Several months earlier, he had received a call from the White House asking if he might be interested in an ambassador post and, if so, which countries would be at the top of his list. The White House soon advised him that President Obama had selected him for nomination to Germany. Then the vetting process began. About a month after his official nomination, he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee along with four other nominees to other European ambassadorships. His performance stood out among the others, says Haltzel, who attended the hearing as a spectator.
“I know I’m biased, but I think he was just obviously the star this year … he did a super job,” Haltzel says. Emerson’s former mentor speaks from experience; he vetted candidates for European ambassadorships for 11 years as senior foreign policy advisor to Vice President (then-senator) Joe Biden. As Haltzel recounts, Emerson even made a Republican senator laugh, a laudable feat in an age of polarized partisan politics.
The ambassador’s former professor was not surprised by Emerson’s nomination. “I always thought he would eventually wind up in public service,” Haltzel reflects. “John had the full package. He’s highly intelligent, he had the drive, he had the interpersonal skills — he basically had it all. He’s clearly ambitious in the right way, so I never doubted that he would take this turn.”
Frantzich also notices in his former student something that stood out — an unwavering levelheadedness. He cites an occasion when he visited Emerson during his tenure in the Clinton White House. “Even though he was interacting with these high-named, heavy-named kinds of people, I didn’t see a lot of change in him. It wasn’t that he’d been wowed by the politicians he was around. He had his feet on the ground.”
His former mentor describes Emerson — the man he taught at Hamilton, who he hired to work in a YMCA summer camp that he ran in Minnesota, and the one with whom he kept in contact as they both grew older — as simply a friendly guy. “He got along with everybody,” Frantzich says. “It didn’t matter who he was with.” He believes this trait will make him a successful ambassador. “I think that the kind of person who enjoys other people and makes friends so easily would be a very good diplomat.”
While Emerson’s personal qualities equip him well for the nuances of diplomacy, his financial expertise prepares him for the key bilateral relationship. Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations began this summer and continued into the later months of 2013. The agreement aims to remove trade barriers between the European Union and the U.S.
“I can’t think of anyone who would be better equipped to basically not only explain our policies to Germans, but rather forcefully explain exactly what we think,” Haltzel says. “These kinds of negotiations clearly are going to have rough points where we don’t agree. We have great relations in general with Germany, but still we have differences.”
Two weeks after the U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination on August 1, Emerson and his family, along with their two dogs, made the move to Berlin. The Emersons’ oldest daughter, Jackie, was just getting ready to start her first year at Stanford University. The twins are now juniors at an international school in Berlin. “They’ve handled it beautifully,” the proud dad says. “They have become stars of their soccer team, which just won the German and then the European international school championships, so we’re thrilled about how well they’re doing.”
John and Kimberly Emerson work as a team. They travel the country together, about two days a week, sometimes taking separate trips. Kimberly takes the lead on representational responsibilities at the residence, such as dinners, receptions and roundtables. To all of this, she brings her experience with public diplomacy from her time at the USIA and in various other civic leadership positions.
From the start of his ambassadorship, Emerson faced challenges. Late October brought allegations that U.S. intelligence officials at the National Security Agency had been monitoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone. An explosive reaction from both the German national and international communities followed.
A German national newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, described Emerson’s subsequent handling of the issue as a mix of “seriousness and jovial cheerfulness.” He has tackled the controversy directly, having conducted more than a hundred press interviews and town hall meetings. The newspaper reported that the new ambassador “made clear that every revelation forces us to make a decision whether to come to a standstill or to continue the path toward a closer transatlantic partnership, underscoring that ‘if we do not move forward, we will fall back.’”
“There’s no question that my training as a litigator, and through politics and government with having to deal with the press in challenging situations, has been extremely helpful in terms of being comfortable being put in that kind of position,” he says.
While the new ambassador remains sensitive to the German perspective on surveillance, which is shaped in part by past government abuses by the Third Reich and the East Germans, he is working to assure that a spotlight on this issue does not distract from other key matters of mutual interest to the two allies. Other priorities Emerson outlined during his presentation to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee include promoting U.S. trade and investment with Germany through the TTIP and supporting the countries’ mutual national security initiatives. He also hopes to foster access to the German market for U.S. firms that employ environmentally friendly technologies and help stabilize the Eurozone. A strong German and European market, he says, leads to more jobs for Americans, too.
That being said, Emerson says his top priority remains fostering relationships that will restore trust between the U.S. and Germany. “I’m working with our government back in Washington to make sure that we’re taking action to address those concerns,” he says. “But to do so in a way that does not put our national security interests at risk, because so much of what is happening in intelligence gathering is really geared toward protecting our citizens and protecting those of our allies.”
A Legacy of Ambassadorial Alumni
When Elihu Root, Class of 1864, was invited by President McKinley to serve as secretary of war, the preeminent corporate lawyer accepted, describing the appointment as “the greatest of all our clients, the government of our country.” The future secretary of state, U.S. senator and Nobel Peace Prize winner is among the first in a line of Hamiltonians whose open-mindedness and integrity, whose skills in negotiation and communication, and whose thorough knowledge of international affairs led to appointments as U.S. ambassador.
John G. Erhardt, Class of 1915, U.S. envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Austria (1946-50); U.S. ambassador to the Union of South Africa (1950-51). Serving during the difficult post WWII era, Erhardt was principal advisor to General Mark Clark, the U.S. representative in a four-power military council that commanded the Allied Forces in Austria. Ambassador Erhardt previously served as the first secretary of the embassy in London, director of the Office of Foreign Service and, in 1941, as acting assistant secretary of state.
Philip C. Jessup, Class of 1918, U.S. representative to the United Nations General Assembly (1948-52); U.S ambassador-at-large (1949-53). Jessup figured prominently in the discussions leading to the admission of Israel into the family of nations and in resolving a tense dispute between Yugoslavia and the Western allies over the eventual Yugoslav-Italian border. Appointed by President Truman as the nation’s first official ambassador-at-large, he played a crucial role in ending the Soviet blockade of Berlin, one of the major crises of the early Cold War era. Ambassador Jessup was a principal advisor to Secretary of State Dean Acheson when Senator Joseph McCarthy falsely accused him of having “an unusual affinity for Communist causes.” Although the allegation was discredited, it severely damaged Jessup’s reputation and career trajectory. For many years a professor at Columbia University, he served from 1960 to 1970 as a judge of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Robert G. Miner ’34, U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone (1967-71); first U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago (1962-67). Ambassador Miner served as first secretary in the U.S. embassies in Athens and Paris before his appointment as U.S. council general in Istanbul. In 1958, he was named director of the Office of Greek, Turkish and Iranian Affairs.
Sol M. Linowitz ’35, U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States (1966-69); U.S. special ambassador to the Middle East (1979-81). Linowitz, who helped establish and served as chairman of the Xerox Corp. from 1960 to 1966, was tapped by President Carter in 1977 to serve as one of two negotiators on the Panama Canal treaties. As special presidential envoy for the Middle East, he later negotiated peace treaties with the Palestinians. Ambassador Linowitz founded the International Executive Services Corps, which supports companies in developing countries. He was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1998, at which time President Clinton remarked that getting “advice from Sol Linowitz on international diplomacy is like getting trumpet lessons from the angel Gabriel.”
William H. Luers ’51, U.S. ambassador to Venezuela (1978-82); U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia (1983-86). Following his retirement from the Foreign Service, Ambassador Luers served for 13 years as president of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, followed by a decade as president of the United Nations Association of the USA, where he worked closely with secretaries general Kofi Annan and Ban Ki Moon to improve relations between the U.S. and the U.N. In 2002, he founded The Iran Project, an organization that aims to reduce misunderstandings between Iran and the U.S. through ongoing dialogues.
Peter D. Constable ’53, U.S. ambassador to Zaire (1982-84). Ambassador Constable held earlier positions in Pakistan and, in 1979, became a senior deputy assistant secretary of state and a key member of the State Department task force formed to deal with the Iran hostage crisis. After retiring from the Foreign Service in 1984, he helped oversee security provisions of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty following the Camp David accords and served as executive director of the Initiative for Peace and Cooperation in the Middle East, a nonprofit he helped launch.
Robert P. Paganelli ’53, U.S. ambassador to Qatar (1974-77); U.S. ambassador to Syria (1981-84). An Arab-Middle East specialist in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Qatar, Paganelli twice served in Rome, where he was deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires (1979-81). During his service in Syria, he negotiated with the Assad regime for the release of Robert O. Goodman, Jr., a U.S. flyer shot down over Lebanon. The lieutenant was held captive by the Syrians for 30 days before he was turned over to Paganelli and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Following his retirement in 1985, Ambassador Paganelli became executive director of the Young Presidents’ Organization, a continuing education organization for CEOs.
James H. Yellin ’60, U.S. ambassador to Burundi (2002-05). Previously director of the Office of Central African Affairs in the Department of State, Ambassador Yellin served as deputy chief of mission in Burundi (1995-99) and as deputy to the president’s special envoy to Africa’s great lakes region (1999-2001).
Edward S. Walker, Jr. ’62, U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (1989-92); U.S. deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, ambassadorial rank (1993-94); U.S. ambassador to Egypt (1994-97); U.S. ambassador to Israel (1997-99). During his time as ambassador in Israel, Walker worked closely with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Sharon in preparation for the Wye negotiations; previously he had worked with Vice President Gore and Egyptian President Mubarak on a major initiative to reform the Egyptian economy. From 2000-01, he served as assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs and until recently was president and CEO of the Middle East Institute. Ambassador Walker is the Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Professor in Global Political Theory at Hamilton.
Arnold L. Raphel ’64, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan (1987-88). At the age of 44, Raphel was among the youngest Foreign Service officers ever assigned to a major ambassadorial post. He had received his first assignment in 1967 as vice consul in Iran, and in 1975 was appointed political officer at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. As senior special assistant to secretaries of state Cyrus Vance and Edmund Muskie (1979-81), he played a key role in the Iran hostage negotiations. Assigned as senior deputy assistant secretary to the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in 1982, he helped formulate U.S. policy toward Iran in its war with Iraq. Ambassador Raphel died on Aug. 17, 1988, in an explosion that destroyed the plane carrying Pakistan’s President Zia. His last major contribution was in connection with negotiations over the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
Karl I. Danga ’69, U.S. ambassador to Comoros, acting (1987-90). Danga served as charge d’affaires (acting ambassador) at the embassy in Moroni, Comoros, in the absence of a resident ambassador who also fulfilled duties in Madagascar. His last post was as deputy chief of mission in Asmara, Eritrea (1993-95).
Michael Klosson ’71, U.S. ambassador to Cyprus (2002-05); U.S. consul general to Hong Kong and Macau (1999-2002). Ambassador Klosson served as deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassies in Sweden and The Netherlands (1990-96). His Washington, D.C., assignments included deputy assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs for Secretary of State Albright and special assistant to both secretaries of state Haig and Shultz. In 2007, he joined Save the Children. As vice president for policy and humanitarian response, he represents the organization at international conferences, including the G8 and G20 summits, and has testified before Congress.