Rogue Ambassador

Lance Gould reviews 'Rogue Ambassador' by Smith Hempstone

Published August 6, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Earlier this year, when President Clinton visited Africa -- the first U.S. president to do so since 1978 -- Kenya was conspicuously absent from his itinerary. Once an obligatory destination for any high-ranking American official in the East African neighborhood, Kenya is now on America's unofficial "pariah" list. Blame the rule of its despotic president, Daniel arap Moi.

Moi's "face appears on every coin minted and on bills of every denomination," writes journalist and diplomat Smith Hempstone in his new memoir, "Rogue Ambassador." "The shopowner who does not display Moi's photograph on the wall of his store is at considerable personal risk ... The courts rule as he wishes, and he jails opposition legislators and newspaper editors with impunity." As the U.S. ambassador to Kenya from 1989 to 1993, Hempstone courageously stood up to Moi, applying pressures diplomatic, economic and otherwise every time the dictator-cum-magician made a dissident disappear.

As the former editor in chief of the Washington Times, Hempstone would seem to be an ideal conduit of behind-the-scenes information concerning Kenya, first world/third world relations and the workings of American diplomatic machinery. Indeed, he proudly wears his journalism credentials on his sleeves. Unfortunately, Hempstone seems to have left his shirt in Nairobi. His ruminations careen so wildly from factually incorrect to politically incorrect to simply ludicrous that they seriously dim the virtue of his bravery.

In fact, were not this collection of recollections attributed to an actual person, one might reasonably confuse them with the memoirs of fictional Queens bartender Archibald Bunker. Hempstone, who presumably lived in a cave before George Bush appointed him to be our man in Kenya, makes such startlingly derogatory references to women, Jews, Catholics and -- most disturbingly for an ambassador to an African nation -- blacks, as to merit a Senate investigation into what planet he lives on.

For starters, Hempstone describes a papal office in Rome that he visits as, "like most Vatican offices ... reeking of disinfectant and the sour smell of celibacy." One fellow he encounters is described as "a dumpy little Bronx Jew." A member of his own staff is ingloriously remembered for the way he looks in his chapeau, "a large African-American -- in his wide-brimmed straw hat he looked like Smokey the Bear."

Women do not seem to figure highly in Hempstone's universe, either. He expresses pleasure that no Kenyan women worked at the American embassy, because "inevitably they led to trouble in the compound as the male servants vied for their favors." He describes two female ambassadorial colleagues -- Raynell Andreychuk of Canada and Cristina Funes-Noppen of Belgium -- as "two adornments to the diplomatic corps, both unencumbered with husbands." An Austrian national named Joy is described as "blond but not particularly pretty ... She was sexually promiscuous, even omnivorous."

Even men of less than average height evoke Hempstone's Spinal Tap diplomacy: When choosing between two equally qualified candidates for a senior diplomatic administrative post, Hempstone chooses the taller individual, reasoning that "I had had only two bad run-ins in my life, and both had been with very short men, some of whom compensate for their lack of altitude with an aggressive and combative style of interaction. This I didn't need or want."

Hempstone is as oblivious to facts as he is to political sensitivity: He writes of meeting with "former Senator Paul Laxalt of Arizona." Laxalt was, of course, actually a senator from Nevada. He also reveals a remarkable naiveti when he becomes incensed about a rumor that American intelligence could possibly have been involved in the murder of a Kenyan diplomat. "All branches of the U.S. government were forbidden by law from participating in 'wet' operations (assassinations), in contrast to some other countries' intelligence services." Yeah, and the good folks at the CIA also obeyed all traffic laws and flossed after every meal.

As the title suggests, Hempstone is anything but diplomatic. But though Ambassador Hempstone seems to revel in his role as "rogue," clearly the line between "rogue" and "ass" is a thin one.

By Lance Gould

Lance Gould is a deputy features editor at the New York Daily News. He is also the author of "Shagadelicaaly Speaking: The Words and World of Austin Powers."

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