Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Boyd Matheson: International tensions are high, Russian meddling in past, current and future elections is a serious cause for concern. Angry and divisive rhetoric, trade wars and America's place in the world are straining relationships with allies, friends and foes around the world. Many wonder if American diplomacy abroad is dead. Deseret News InDepth editor Jesse Hyde provides insight and perspective from his time in Russia with U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman Jr., who may well be the last diplomat. All this on this week's episode of Therefore, What?
In the midst of all of the political things going on, all the international brouhahas that are out there, we're very excited today to be joined by Jesse Hyde from the Deseret News. And Jesse you've had a really interesting perch to look at some very interesting things as it relates to U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman Jr. You just released a powerful in-depth piece on what may be the last diplomat. Give us a little backstory. How did this all come about?
Jesse Hyde: Absolutely. So when Ambassador Huntsman was first appointed, I happened to be reading a book called "In the Garden of Beasts" by a journalist named Eric Larsen. And this book talks about the ambassador to Germany right before World War II. During the rise of Hitler — so in no way am I comparing the era we're in to pre World War II or President Vladimir Putin to Hitler — but it kind of gave me this idea of like, how fascinating it would be to be in a place that is at the center of the news and we are in a very historic moment. I mean, regardless of what we eventually find out about, you know, ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin or, you know, lack of any substantial ties; regardless, it's a really interesting moment in time. And so I thought, what would it be like to be that guy in the middle and what does he know about all of these things that as Americans, I think regardless of your political views, that there's some level of question, you know, what is the relationship? So that was kind of the germ of the idea. And then I reached out to him and kind of periodically hassled him, you know, can we meet? And eventually he agreed.
BM: That's excellent. Yeah. And what an opportunity to go over to Russia. We'll talk about that in just a little bit. I think the one thing on everybody's mind and really where you began your piece is with Helsinki, the colliding universes of Trump and Putin and the U.S. interest there. Tell us how that played out. What was the ambassador's view of all of that playing out in front of him?
JH: Yeah, so he was actually sitting on the front row. And for those who don't recall, this was the first official meeting there had been, I think they're called "pull asides" between President Trump and President Putin. But this was the first time that they were officially meeting and yeah, Ambassador Huntsman was sitting there on the front row. He was careful about, you know, I asked him how did you feel in this moment that really became huge headlines here in the United States. In that, if you recall, there was a moment when a reporter asked President Trump, he said, "President Putin has said there has been no election meddling. With the whole world watching, you know, who do you side with? President Putin or U.S. intelligence?" And you know, his answer was, it's hard to explain exactly what his answer was without reading it. But it was sort of this rambling answer where many people interpreted it as if he had kind of thrown America under the bus. In fact, those are almost the words that Ambassador Huntsman's daughter Abby, who I think at the time she was on Fox News, now she's the host of ABC's "The View," she said that he had thrown America under the bus. The late Sen. John McCain said that he had abased himself before a tyrant, and many of the biggest names across the aisle, whether it was Sen. Chuck Schumer or Sen. Ben Sasse, that kind of came down on like a ton of bricks on President Trump.
And I wondered what was that like to be the ambassador. You're in these meetings behind closed doors and suddenly you're on the front row and you hear this. He was very careful — actually he wouldn't tell me what he went through his mind. But there's a picture, and I wrote about this, that captured that moment. A New York Times photographer took it and you know, you see Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he's like got his head to the side. He's kind of closing his eyes, scratching his head like, oh, man. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. He's a very inscrutable person. It's hard to ever read him. So who knows what he was thinking. And then there's Ambassador Huntsman, who, you know, his shoulders are kind of slumped forward, his chin is tucked, his eyes are closed and, you know, so I don't know what exactly is going through his mind. But Mary Kaye, his wife, said she was watching the press conference from their residence in Moscow. It's called Spaso House. And she said, "I immediately knew, oh, there's gonna be a lot of fallout from this and a lot of it's going to fall in John's lap."
BM: Yeah so as you got over there, I'm really interested for our listeners to get the perspective of what it felt like over there. You captured a lot of this in the article which was great. But peel back the curtain a little bit. What did it feel like knowing — I think at one point you mentioned that Jon Huntsman Jr. is probably the most spied-on man on the planet between what the Russians are doing and what the U.S. intelligence folks are doing. But what was the feel there as you went around the embassy, as you had kind of that day-to-day look at what his world is like?
JH: I was born in 1976, you know, so when I'm a kid it's like "Rocky 4" was a big movie, right? So like, I'm an end of the Cold War kind of kid. And so that was still kind of in the back of my mind. You hear so much about Putin and I had friends who'd gone there say 20 years ago and all I can say is the country has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, in that unless they're really sneaky, and maybe they are, no one was following me. I'm not that important. And so I didn't feel any level of surveillance. That said, Ambassador Huntsman, like you said, he may be one of the most spied-on — probably is in the world in that he said that — it's in the article — this surveillance feels like a straitjacket almost. He told this great story that for like 10, 15 years there was a seal of the United States in the family room of the Spaso House. So this is an area that only the family of the ambassador can even enter and it was given to the ambassador by Russian schoolchildren, and finally, when the U.S. had the technology to sweep the room for bugs they found in the eye of the eagle a camera. It was either a camera or listening device, but either way it was like in his residence you know, the ambassadors had been spied on for 10 years. So you know Ambassador Huntsman kind of chuckled about that. But what isn't quite as funny and actually psychologically it's tough. They call it a hardship post and part of that is, he said you know you'll have people at the next table who make you know they're there. You'll have people who are following you who want you to know, that there will be things left in your home. So you know that someone has been there.
So yeah, so he was very, very careful about what he said, in that he knew everything he said was being listened to. In fact, he said that when his father called him, the late Jon Huntsman Sr. who died in February, he called one day and he said, I'm done. He said, I'm going to hospice, and Ambassador Huntsman tried to convince him to delay that because he knew that once he went to hospice, you know, a form of cancer that John Sr. had for years had returned and so he just knew he only had a short time left. But he said it was so hard because I couldn't have the conversation I wanted to have with my dad. There's certain things I wouldn't say because I knew people are listening. And it was just sort of heart-wrenching because he flew back as soon as he could. And he's driving up Foothill Drive and his brothers are there around his father's bed and they say you're gonna make it here in time. Ten minutes before he gets there, they call them they say dad just passed. And so he never got to have that final conversation, to have with his father who he said wasn't just a dad. He was my best friend.
BM: Yeah, let's drill down on that just a little bit. Obviously Jon Huntsman Sr. was a giant of a man in every way, in terms of his business prowess, his philanthropic activities, a real force in the community and in the world, and to have that kind of ending with no kind of closure moment or opportunity to say last goodbyes, but maybe talk for a minute about what you learned in terms of their relationship. Obviously one that spanned their businesses and their other activities, but there was also a connection there in terms of kind of the political side in terms of father and son. What did you learn about that?
JH: Absolutely. As part of my research for this profile I read Jon Huntsman Sr.'s book, "From Barefoot to Billionaire," and every time he writes about Jon Jr., his oldest son, you can just feel how proud he was of him and how much he loved him. You know, Jon Sr. was involved in politics. He worked in the — you probably know this better than I do. But I believe he worked in the Nixon White House, if I remember correctly, and so he always really, I wouldn't say he pushed Jon Jr. in that direction, because I don't think Jon Jr. would characterize it that way. Jon Jr. had a natural interest in public service and also in international affairs from, I mean, he studied that at Penn (University of Pennsylvania), where his father also went to school. And so at the age of 32, you know, he's an ambassador to Singapore. But for sure, his father was, I think, very proud and saw that that's an area his son wanted to go in and certainly encouraged him to do so. And I think when he ran for president, he writes about this in his book, "From Barefoot to Billionaire," how proud he was when his son announced his candidacy. I think at the Statue of Liberty. So for sure shared interest there and I think a lot of pride in Jon Jr. Both as a candidate for president, but also as a governor here for two terms.
BM: Obviously he had a great impact here on the the state of Utah. Let's stay on this political vein for a minute. Obviously, there's still speculation about his political future. What's next? Many people, I'm one of them, who thinks he's an extraordinary statesman and diplomat, and the politics was always the harder part of the program for him. So curious if you got any inklings in terms of future and how does that play in the context — he had this moment where he was, you know, becoming ambassador to China for President Barack Obama and now ambassador to Russia for Donald Trump. That's about as far across the political spectrum as anybody can go. So how does that all play in? Does he does he still have another race in him? Or is this service to country going to be kind of the capstone?
JH: Yeah, great question. And you can't help but wonder about that when you spend time with him. I mean, if you're with him for 10 minutes, you think this guy could be the president. This guy should be the president. I mean, part of it is, he looks, you know, like, right out of central casting. But also, just like the experience, I mean, to be a two-term governor, I think he had like close to a 90 percent approval rating. There were so many great things about his tenure here. Then to be an ambassador for Singapore, China, Russia, you know, talk about experience that would fit the job. In terms of whether he has another run in him, he says, I can't imagine. And I think part of that is when he was first kind of seen as this rising star, and you can go back to 2009 there were reporters from New York flying out here profiling him because he was seen as a likely Republican you know, frontrunner to challenge Obama and the re-election. And so people have always thought this guy could be the president. But I think, like you said, and he says this too, that his political instincts., he says I don't have it in me to like go after somebody, to attack somebody. I talked to Fred Davis, a Republican ad man who did the national campaign for Huntsman, and he said, it's not that he doesn't have it in him to be a president or to run for president. He just doesn't have it in him for this era right now. And I think that's kind of the tragedy of it. You see a guy who's very measured, who's careful, who's well-educated, who's classy, decent, all of that. But we live in this era where, you know, ask Mary Kaye, why couldn't your husband to be president, and she said, "He's not crazy enough." Jon, Jr. was more diplomatic, but he basically said, we live in a time when you have to be an entertainer to be the president. And to his own admission, he wasn't willing to go that route when he ran. Like I said, he didn't want to talk over people, didn't want to attack them. So who knows? You know, I think the country would have to change quite dramatically for everything to be in place for him to run and be the right candidate.
BM: Yeah, a little bit of an indictment on the process and where we are that good women and good men you know aren't going to step up for that very reason. I think it's also interesting you know, I used to always ask candidates who would come in, you know, wanting an endorsement or whatever, my question was always what would this person do — how would they make a difference in the world if they didn't win this job? And I think Jon Huntsman is one of those rare folks who you could say, well he's got business and philanthropic activities and, because my feeling is always if the office you're running for is going to be the best job you ever have, then every moment you're awake you're going to be working on holding on to that as long as possible, which makes it impossible to show real courage, real political courage in particular. I know there's been some interesting speculation around Huntsman in terms of the anonymous op-ed to The New York Times and some of the other rumblings within the cabinet. Any perspective there in terms of not just, you know, involved-not involved, but just how does that weigh on him? And what do you think he thinks about all of this drama and craziness around the highest office in the land?
JH: You know, you mentioned earlier, I think country first is how you put it. And I believe that was his campaign slogan when he ran for president. It sounds so corny, and so cliche. And I think all of us, especially as journalists, we're sort of trained to view everyone skeptically, but especially politicians. So someone says that and you think, yeah, right. You want to be the president you would do whatever it takes to be the president. But if you spend time with Jon Huntsman Jr. and you talk to people who know him really well, and I think actually if you look at his life, a case can be made that when he says country first, he really means it. I mean, you said, here's a guy who was the ambassador to China. When he accepted that, John Weaver, who would become his campaign chair, said to John McCain, who was running for president, is this guy crazy? This is going to kill him, politically. Jon Jr. joked with me and said maybe it did.
Now, to your point, he accepts the ambassadorship to Russia under Donald Trump, couldn't be more different than Barack Obama, which for a different set of people, but perhaps just as big, would disqualify him for another run. So my conclusion was, these aren't political calculations for him. They really are the president asked me to serve and I'm going to do it. And he would bring up his boys a lot. He has two sons who are active-duty Navy, and they went to the Naval Academy, which is so hard to even get in and then to stay. One of them flies F-18s, lands on aircraft carriers, so that's like the top 1 percent of the Navy, right? Yeah, for a guy with the net worth he has, the options he has, to have his sons serve in the military. I really think he's putting his money where his mouth is, and it's not just a campaign slogan.
So in terms of what's written about with the White House, the reported dysfunction, I mean, he's adamant he didn't write the anonymous op-ed. I think in some ways, the speculation that he wrote it, though, is kind of a compliment to how he's viewed, in that people see him as a very honorable person, as someone who really would put country first. And part of it is just they're trying to, you know, reconcile this ideological moderate guy, you know, he has no labels. He was with that group, the Atlantic Council, and now he's working for Trump. And there's for some people, it's like, how does that make sense? But I think the answer is, it's the country first idea.
BM: Yeah. It's such an interesting contrast between that kind of feeling of country first, and I know that he and Mary Kaye in their conversations about their boys who are in harm's way every day, and that kind of country first vs. America first, very nationalist rhetoric that's coming from the president. What does that tension feel like?
JH: That's a great question. I mean, Jon Jr. would joke about his Fillmore roots, you know, that's his dad's family, and how he had some uncles who served in the Navy. And he actually said, you know, these guys were very nationalistic. And he's certainly not. He's a guy who's lived all over the world. I think when he was elected governor he had been to 82 countries and didn't know where Springville was. But had been to 82 countries. But yeah, I mean, he's a guy who — it's interesting because he'll talk about the American experience or experiment. He will talk about (Alex) de Tocqueville or (Jean-Jacques) Rousseau and those ideas are still in his mind. The way he'll put it is we try out a lot of different things. And we see what works and that's kind of the strength of our democracy. He said it's not that we're better as a people. But what's really remarkable about our country is how resilient these systems are, how resilient our democracy is. His caveat, though, and what he worries about now is this loss of civility and a loss of respect for democracy and what he means by that is, and he said this a couple times to me, we're in an era where some people decided we're going to spend the next four years trying to tear somebody down instead of saying, this is my country — so this goes back to your question of country first — and how can I help this person. How can I make America as great as it can be? But you know, he sees it that way of like, this is my country. How can I serve it? And you know, regardless of whether you're happy with the election or not, this is how democracy works. This is who our president is. And so I think his view is, I'm going to serve our president and you know, he's proven it, whether it's Barack Obama, whether it's Donald Trump.
BM: So as you interacted and had conversations with the Ambassador Huntsman, looking at the global stage, not just Russia, but kind of the broader peace. So many of those relationships in NATO and the UN and other key allies around the world, there seems to be that tension and that fraying. And a lot of it is based on the rhetoric. Did he share any additional insights in terms of how the rhetoric coming out of the White House is impacting things, not just in Russia, but across the world?
JH: That's a really good question. I wish I would have asked him that. What he did say specifically about NATO. And I wrote about this a little bit in the piece, is that immediately after the Helsinki summit, he was dispatched by the secretary of state to go to Brussels and meet with the 28 other NATO ambassadors who had concerns. They had concerns about what they heard at the press conference, but they also had concerns about things they had heard were spoken about in private. Now, that isn't to say those things were actually said, you know, a lot of this is rumors, but, you know, he said, and I don't want to misquote because I don't have my notes in front of me, whether it was Germany or small, you know, other nations part of the NATO Alliance, but, you know, they needed reassurance that the NATO alliance was strong and I do think part of that probably does have to do with. I think it had just been, I don't know if it'd been a week before two weeks before when Trump had met with NATO and said a lot of things that worried members of that Alliance. And I think you know, the complicating factor there is that for obvious reasons, Vladimir Putin doesn't like the NATO alliance. And there have been these aggressions with Crimea. And you know, Estonia is worried about, you know, he's got his eyes on them. And so for me, I think having Jon Huntsman there, you know, as a journalist, you're always trying to kind of hold back what you think. I'll say this, I am glad that he is the ambassador to Russia. I think he's very well-suited for that job. And just as an American if I step back and take off my journalist hat I'm glad he's there.
BM: Yeah. What was most surprising to you as you spent time with him, spent time with the family, anything jump out as well, I wouldn't have expected that out of Jon Huntsman Jr.?
JH: To be honest with you. The most surprising thing to me is I just came into it trying to be as open-minded as I could. But like I said, there's that skepticism. And I don't think journalists are the only ones who have it. I think all of us, I shouldn't say all of us, but as Americans, it's so hard not to be jaded about our politicians and to think, you know, they're opportunists. They'll do whatever it takes to become president. And so it was hard for me to believe this country first thing, so when I was with them, I'm constantly thinking, what's the play here? You know? I mean eventually you want to be the president, right? But eventually, I thought, you know, instead of being so skeptical of this guy, I should take him at his word. And when he's saying country first, it started to be the only thing that made sense when I tried to view it through like political calculations. It did not add up to me. And so yeah, I mean, to be honest, that was what surprised me the most is I really do think he's in Moscow, which is not fun. He told me last year there were six hours of sunlight in December. It gets very cold. You're under constant surveillance. I mean, I visited him when he was here for medical procedure at his house up, you know, in Federal Heights, it's an amazing house. You know, you see the pool out in the back and you're like, why would you not want to stay here? And so it truly is, you know, service to the country and I admire that.
BM: Yeah. You mentioned him coming back for a medical procedure, right? An interesting change after you'd been with him in Russia. He called you. He was back in the U.S.. Tell us what happened there?
JH: Yeah. The last night I was in Russia, there was a reception at where he lives called the Spaso House. So every night, it felt like there was some kind of, you know, reception, and there'd be all these diplomats. Well, this one was a cello concert. There was a string quartet that has flown in from New York. So of course, I was planning to attend, and about an hour or so before the reception, he said, hey, can you come 10 minutes early, Ambassador Huntsman wants to tell you something. And I'm thinking, OK, what could this be. But I'm also thinking of certain things he told me that maybe he wanted to say, hey, I shouldn't have said that. There was something he told me that he said, hey, I don't want that in the story. And we'll leave that you know. We'll honor that agreement.
But he also said I have cancer. And I just was like shocked because I'd spent a week with them. And he had been so just, you know, charming and it didn't seem like he was under a tremendous amount of stress. And I think that's a tribute to, you know, I guess his skills as a diplomat in that I didn't realize what he was carrying. As it turns out it's stage 1, it's melanoma. So it's one of those things that if you catch it really early, he's probably fine. And he told me I'm going to be flying back to Utah in a week and get it taken care of. But, you know, it was interesting to me is right after that there was a concert and I'm sitting in the back and there's all these diplomats around the world. And I'm thinking about how stressful this week has been. And then this cello quartet starts to play and it's you know, they play these mash-up hits of like Lady Gaga with like Beethoven and everybody's smiling and you know they're kind of like humming the words and Huntsman is a musician, you know he had a prog rock band called Wizard, a week or two before he had been — there's kind of a like Central Park in Moscow called Gorky Park. He got up on stage and play the keyboards with this Chicago cover band.
So I'm thinking he's really going to love this. And I finally see him up in the front and he's not tapping his toe, he's not smiling, has his eyes closed. And in that moment, I thought the mask dropped, this is how hard this job is for him. And he lost his father and he's just been diagnosed with cancer. And he said, you know it really puts things into perspective what really matters when you face mortality like that. On top of that he lost Sen. John McCain, who was a really close friend. So I think if anything else it just kind of put things in perspective for me about what he's been dealing with over the last year.
BM: As you're talking about that relationship with Sen. McCain, obviously they were very close, a lot of interaction there, but what do you think or what do you sense that he learned from John McCain or has internalized from John McCain that he's now applying in a in a really interesting space? You know, I mean, I always think of John McCain, I always think OK, five years at the Hanoi Hilton, mostly in isolation. That is a very lonely space to be. I think Ambassador Huntsman is in a very lonely, very isolated space, not just because he's all the way across the world in Russia, but in terms of what he can say, what he can do, a lot of alone time with thoughts. And I wonder if you sense any connection or lessons learned from McCain that are now helping Ambassador Huntsman in his role?
JH: Yeah, that's great insight. I mean, I think part of the reason why Ambassador Huntsman identifies so much with John McCain. John McCain's nickname was the "Maverick," and in a lot of ways, Ambassador Huntsman has been a maverick or an iconoclast. He dropped out of high school so you know, imagine your dad's like a billionaire, very prominent. You dropped out of high school to join a rock band. And a lot of the stances too that he took as governor, they weren't politically popular for a Republican and even his endorsement of Sen. McCain over Mitt Romney was kind of a maverick-type move.
And I talked to someone who told me why he made that decision. And he said, you know, it was really about what was kind of best for Utah. He worried that Sen.r McCain would hold it against the state if he was elected, and the entire state, all the political figures endorsed Mitt Romney and not John McCain. But he really also thought Sen. McCain would just be a better candidate. And that was kind of a maverick-type move. So I think in that way, he identifies with him, but I hadn't thought of it the way you put it. But that's really good insight about the loneliness because I do think that when you don't always go with the flow and you take stances that are based on principle over politics, that is kind of a lonely place., I think losing his dad has been hard for him because he told me that there's been no one to fill that void and so probably that person now obviously is his wife Mary Kaye, I mean and I can only imagine that their relationship has only become stronger when you know you're under constant surveillance and if you have to get in an argument that you don't want to be overheard you literally have to walk 10 minutes over to embassy, take the elevator up to the floor that's soundproof so you can have an honest conversation. So you can imagine how that would make you even closer. But yeah, I'm sure it is a lonely position and feeling, often.
BM: Yeah and then that isolation, that leadership isolation. Leaders usually run out of energy before they run out of opportunity. Do you sense that Ambassador Huntsman still has some gas in the tank, some energy to continue to fight in what is just a very complex three-dimensional chess kind of world that he's living in?
JH: Yeah, absolutely. Even with his health scare. I mean, this is a guy, who honestly my sense was, he's doing a job that he was born to do. I mean this is a guy that, like his idea of fun would be to curl up by the fire and read like four books of Winston Churchill, you know, and just the way he talks about international diplomacy you know he's a guy who says Chile and Hamburg correctly. So he just he loves learning about the world and he told me, he said, I love this job. He said being governor of Utah's the best job but this is the most fun job, or something like that. And I believe that he really loves what he's doing, and so yeah, I think in spite of it being challenging, in spite of the health challenges, he's got a lot of energy left in the tank for sure.
BM: All right, the last thing we do on this show is we talk about Therefore, What? So people have been listening to this podcast, they've heard some really fascinating insight and I encourage everyone to go to deseretnews.com and read Jesse's piece on Ambassador Huntsman and really are there any diplomats left in the world, is he the last diplomat. And in this section, Jesse, I'm gonna give you the Therefore, What? What do you hope people take away from this piece and this profile on Ambassador Huntsman? What do you hope they do as a result of going through this process?
JH: You know, in many ways, Ambassador Huntsman is a throwback to a different era. Even some of his references are sort of dated, like he'll bring up Nelson Rockefeller you know. I asked him at one point what historical figure he most admired. You oftentimes will get this answer, but he said Teddy Roosevelt. And I think there was this era in America and it would be wonderful if it came back and that was you know JFK had the slogan about, "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." And I think in many ways, you know when you think about a Teddy Roosevelt, a guy who came from wealth and privilege and was a real blue blood, and for as flawed as even JFK may have been, when you read about his service in Vietnam and he had these back pains and again a blue blood, prominent, wealthy family, I love that about Jon Huntsman. I love that he comes from a lot of money, he didn't have to make the choices he's made, he certainly didn't have to have his sons serve in the Navy. He wouldn't use the word have to. He would say it's an honor and a privilege. Therefore, What?, I would hope that as Americans we, regardless of our backgrounds, whether we're wealthy, whether we come from more humble beginnings, that we look at ourselves and we think how can I serve my country? How can I fill that same obligation that, you know, because I have been given much I too must give. I love that about him. And so for me that would be my kind of Therefore, What? thing that hopefully all of us could take away from, you know, his example of his service throughout his career, not just in Russia.
BM: Wonderful. Jesse Hyde from the Deseret News. Thanks for joining us this week.2 comments on this story
Remember, after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is Therefore, What? Don't miss an episode. Be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on Deseretnews.com/podcast and subscribe to our newsletter This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, thanks for engaging with us on Therefore, What?