Newsmaker: Obama and I: An ambassador’s tale

2012-11-10 18:13

Donald Gips helped the president with his first campaign and then came to SA

It started with an email.

In July 2004, ambassador Donald Gips, then head of strategy at a leading US communication company, heard an Illinois politician speak at the Democratic Party convention.

“I was as cynical about Washington as you could be,” says the former domestic policy adviser to former vice-president Al Gore during an interview at his house in Pretoria.

He’s sipping Coke Zero, the drink that got him through a stressful presidential campaign.

“But this guy, I realised, sang to my heart.” The guy was Barack Obama, the man who would become America’s first black president.

Back then, Gips wanted to meet the young politician. So he called up a friend who could put him
in touch.

“I said to my friend, ‘I want to meet this guy.’

My friend answered: ‘You and the rest of the Democratic Party.’”
Gips managed to get an email address and sent a message to Obama, offering to help with his campaign to become a senator.

“Usually when you send a letter like that, you expect to get back a fundraising appeal.”

Obama wrote straight back, but did not want money from Gips, he wanted his brains.

At a meeting in Colorado Springs in May 2008, Obama was polishing his shoes when Gips arrived.

Gips asked: “Surely you don’t have to shine your own shoes any more?” To which Obama responded: “I do, it reminds me where I come from.”

Soon Gips had to ask for a leave of absence from his job and began shuttling to Chicago to help Obama take his first steps towards the White House.

Gips remembers the defining feature of that first presidential campaign.

He said: “The focus was on if we won, how we would govern. The president didn’t think about governing while on the campaign trail, but he wanted to know there was a group already thinking about that.”

After the White House was won, Gips had the arduous task of finding the right people for the right jobs in the new administration.

Everyone wanted to be part of the most exciting time in recent history in the US government: they received 400 000 applications for 3 000 vacancies.

It took six months but eventually every spot was filled, and the time came for Obama to let Gips live his dream and come to South Africa as ambassador.

Together with his wife Liz, an education specialist, Gips took on the task of mending the fraught relationship between South Africa and the US.

Although former US president George W Bush appointed former president Thabo Mbeki as his “point man in Africa”, there was little real warmth and trust between the two countries.

Former US ambassador Eric Bost, appointed by Bush, used to complain that he didn’t get access to government officials, even if he wanted to offer them funding.

But those days are over.

Dozens of government officials, politicians and businesspeople are regular guests at Hill House, the Cape Dutch mansion in Waterkloof Ridge, Pretoria, where the US ambassador lives.

Gips refuses to take all the credit, preferring to say that the leadership of President Jacob Zuma and Obama kickstarted the new era.

But when struggle legend Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, ANC treasurer-general Mathews Phosa and presidential adviser Lindiwe Zulu came for an early breakfast to watch the election results on Wednesday, it was clear they did not come for the croissants and champagne.

Instead, they were there to celebrate with their friend, the ambassador.

It was not always clear that the second presidential campaign would be successful.

Gips admits he was concerned after the first presidential debate, where Obama was clearly outclassed by Republican Mitt Romney.

But, he said, “Obama gets better the more difficult the situation”.

Gips is heading back to the US after three-and-a-half years in Pretoria, citing family commitments, so he can afford to reflect a little.

Has Obama changed?

“I haven’t been around him enough in the past few years to answer that. But what I know is the only experience that prepares you to be president is being the president.

“After four years in the job, you can’t help but change,” he said.

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