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In Copenhagen, a U.S. ambassador who is also a reality TV star

October 16, 2015 at 8:22 PM EDT
U.S. Ambassador to Copenhagen Rufus Gifford has an unusual side job: he’s the star of his own reality TV show in Denmark. As special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports, this, combined with his unique brand of diplomacy, is raising eyebrows among traditionalists.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Television viewers in Denmark are tuning in tonight for the season two premiere of a surprise hit reality show. Its star is the U.S. ambassador to Copenhagen, Rufus Gifford, who was given the job by President Obama as a reward for raising more than a billion dollars during the last election campaign.

Ambassador Gifford, who is gay, married his partner in Denmark last weekend.

And, as special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Copenhagen, his unique brand of diplomacy is raising eyebrows amongst traditionalists.

MALCOLM BRABANT: In a city accustomed to flamboyance, the union of the U.S. ambassador to veterinarian Stephen DeVincent wasn’t only the wedding of the year, but also a landmark for diplomacy, Rufus Gifford-style.

RUFUS GIFFORD, U.S. Ambassador to Denmark: Here in the country that created fairy tales, we get to have our fairy tale. And now I guess it’s a case of happily ever after or something, right? But Americans are pretty good at that. They are. So we’re just so happy.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The couple’s cheerleader in chief is the ambassador’s father, Chad, former chairman of the Bank of America.

CHAD GIFFORD, Ambassador’s father: Rufus is just such a people person. He has this unique ability, and it’s no — there’s nothing false about it. But he just cares. He cares about people. And that smile says it all. So, it’s — he’s so genuine, it amazes me.

MALCOLM BRABANT: How do you think this style helps America?

CHAD GIFFORD: As an American, I worry about our country and frankly about our politicians, that seem to say what they think they need to say to get elected. And I abhor that. I think it’s sad for our country, and Rufus is the opposite of that.

He says what he thinks. And he just believes what he says, and I just wish we had more like him.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Within an hour of tying the knot, the ambassador was posting on social media, where he has a huge following.

RUFUS GIFFORD: So, this is as far as you can come, but on October 16, please join us for the premiere of “Jeg er ambassadoren fra Amerika,” season two, on DR3. See you then.

My time in Denmark is running out. I have got the best job in the world. This is just your average Wednesday.

But I have just over a year left in Denmark. And I want to spend every minute of my time here engaging as many Danes as I possibly can.

MALCOLM BRABANT: TV executive Erik Struve Hansen recognized the ambassador’s box office potential and is responsible for creating a show that has wowed viewers of the country’s main youth channel.

ERIK STRUVE HANSEN, Television producer: I think it’s become that big a success because of Rufus’ character. He is what we call a big character. All of our viewers and a lot of people in Denmark, they love him. They think he’s a good role model. He’s so positive and he likes Denmark as well. He’s very positive about our country.

MALCOLM BRABANT: For Ambassador Gifford, it was a huge relief when, in June, the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was a constitutional right a quarter-of-a-century after Denmark led the way.

RUFUS GIFFORD: You were the first country in the world to recognize same-sex unions. So, the idea that we’re doing it here, it is a tribute to that as well.

(SINGING)

RUFUS GIFFORD: That’s “Hail to the Chief.” That’s giving me a pretty big promotion.

MAN: I was not talking about you.

(LAUGHTER)

ERIK STRUVE HANSEN: I think a very good ambassador, as he is, and so open and so warm, of course, gives the Danes a good impression of America.

RUFUS GIFFORD: I don’t know if this a diplomatic thing today or not. I mean, do I think that we have had a — do I — well, let me say it this way actually. We, as the United States, on these issues, have come so, so far over the course of the last 10 years.

Today, I think we tip our hat to Denmark and the journey that you have been here on for so many years. And also I think this is — tonight, we are celebrating, partying late into the night with all of our friends and family under the American flag.

And I am so grateful for the journey I think our country has gone on these issues. So perhaps there’s a little bit of diplomacy there, too, and what I say all the time is diplomacy is about people.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill once described diplomacy as telling somebody to go to hell in such a way that they would ask for directions.

Harry S. Truman, the former American president, said that tact was the ability to stand on a man’s toes without messing up the shine on his shoes. The reality is that in Denmark, foreign relations are a walk in the park. It doesn’t present the challenges of Russia or China.

But the ambassador, a former Hollywood producer, has not managed to win over foreign policy expert Hans Mouritzen, a traditionalist when it comes to diplomacy.

Don’t you think that he’s perhaps got some lessons to teach traditional diplomats, in that he seems to be doing an awful lot to be able to promote America’s image?

HANS MOURITZEN, Danish Institute for International Studies: Yes, but the thing is that I think that he’s promoting his own image, because I think people can understand that it’s more his own image than the American image, because people know all kinds of things about U.S. foreign policy which they don’t like, but they like Mr. Gifford.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Do you not think that this might work in some other parts of the world, for example, where perhaps you need to have a different, fresh approach?

HANS MOURITZEN: No, it wouldn’t work in Eastern Europe, because they don’t like gay people. So it has to be in Western Europe. And, yes, that’s about it. It couldn’t be in Africa. You have to have a very common cultural background, because to understand many of the things he says, you have to have this Anglo-American background, which we have in Scandinavia. So it works very well here.

MALCOLM BRABANT: At his residence, the ambassador disagrees.

RUFUS GIFFORD: I think you could do this in any country around the world. Is it easier in Denmark? Absolutely. If you go to other countries which certainly might not be as receptive to American messaging generally speaking and the American brand is far worse than it is in Denmark, I think the work is going to be much harder.

I think openness and honesty always win out in the end. And will you get hit in the meantime? Sure. Will it be hard in the meantime? Absolutely. But it’s still worth it because I think people respect it.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Rufus Gifford has worked for President Obama for almost nine years, and diplomatic sources say he enjoys the trust of the White House. The big question is whether he will seek political office once his term ends in a year’s time. His father hopes not. He says the ambassador is too good for that.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Copenhagen.

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