THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Welcome, Ambassador Johnson
Michael Burland of The American magazine was invited to the US Embassy to chat with Robert Wood 'Woody' Johnson IV, President Trump's Ambassador to the Court of St. James's
Mr Ambassador, it's a pleasure to interview you and welcome you to Britain on behalf of the American community here. You're from a well-known family, of course [readers will know Johnson & Johnson, which makes medical and pharmaceutical products].
Well yeah, and growing up, my father would bring products from the company, like mouthwashes and tooth brushes and Tylenol and shampoo and we would try them. Now they call the shampoo 'No More Tears', but before it was called that it didn't work quite as well!
So you were the test rabbits?
A little bit! [laughs] But it was fun growing up because the culture of Johnson & Johnson is something everybody in the family is very proud of. And the people working there are proud of working for a company that has the opportunity to make people's lives better every day.
I moved on to business, in Florida, and acquired a cable TV company. We were in the forefront of that business – this was back in the seventies when most people still had 'rabbit ears' on the TV. You were trying to sell something that people could get for free, so you had to really make the argument that they were getting something extra, some benefits. One of our campaigns was "A sure way to get more" – better reception and a little bit of variety. It built into something pretty substantial and interesting and the business developed. Then I moved to New York and got involved with football.
Was football the reason you moved to New York?
No, I moved there because I'd sold the cable company and thought it was a good time to go to the Big Apple and see what was happening there. [He became involved with running and fundraising for many charitable organizations including those for lupus and juvenile diabetes, both of which have affected his family.]
Had you lived there before?
I hadn't, although grew up in New Jersey [he was born in New Brunswick, NJ]. When I moved to New York it was before Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bratton brought law & order back to the city so it was a rough and tumble place at that point. About 2000 I got involved with football when it became apparent that the Jets would be auctioned off.
Had you been involved in football before that?
In cable, for a long time, as entertainment content broadly speaking. I had looked at various ways to get into sports, and there's no better way to get into sports than football. It's kind of the top of the curve. I was lucky enough to win that auction.
You're not personally running the Jets at the moment?
No, my brother's running it. The President wanted me to focus on his objectives in the UK, which are security, first, and prosperity. Broad agendas, but important to him and his agenda to make America great again. It's both sides of the Atlantic. A huge job, but there are ways to make a difference if you focus on it.
Do you watch the NFL programs on the BBC?
I'm allowed to watch. [laughs]
But not comment! I understand. And are you going to the games in London?
No, I thought it was probably a better idea if I didn't attend the games, from the standpoint of the Embassy seeming to favor one of the teams over another. We have gone to soccer – what the British call football – we've been to a number of games and we bring our boys there. And we're going to get into cricket – my boys are taking cricket lessons, then playing rugby next semester.
You're not a career diplomat – have you gotten used to people calling you 'Mr Ambassador'?
No, I'm not used to that yet! But it's an assignment that I'm very honored to be carrying out on behalf of the President.
Are there particular skills from your business life that will be useful in your new role?
That's a very good question. There are over 190 United States Embassies or Diplomatic Missions and about two thirds of the Ambassadors are career foreign service officers, the rest are appointed. When you go to school [the State Department's Foreign Service Institute] you can really see the contrast. After 3 ½ weeks of being with the career people you start seeing the logic of the way it's organized. But business people can bring different skill sets, different but valuable. The Embassy is mostly made up of career people and a business appointee might have a personal relationship with the President, or the Cabinet, or both. Both business people and career officers add to the equation.
When you were sworn in at the White House you spoke of the bust of Sir Winston Churchill, which President Trump brought back into the Oval Office on his first day.
Yes, it was almost his first act. It was something that he cared about. And it faces the Resolute desk, which was given to the American presidents by Queen Victoria, and he elected to keep that desk, made from oak timbers of the British ship HMS Resolute. Both are pretty strong symbols.
Sometimes we think of the Special Relationship as starting after the Second World War, with Churchill and FDR, but the desk shows that it started earlier.
Oh yes, it goes way back. All the way back, for American history. We had a brief period when we didn't get along...! But we share so much – common heritage, common language, respect for the rule of law, and on and on.
How do you think the Special Relationship will change post-Brexit, which will affect all our readers?
Well, we're already through the Brexit vote. I think post-Brexit the Special Relationship will be fabulous, it will be strengthened and enhanced because we know how much we rely on one-another for both prosperity and security. We share information, with all of our agencies working hand in hand on a level of trust that is unequalled – we have a good relationship with the Five Eyes [an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand as well as the United Kingdom and the United States) but the UK-US relationship is very, very strong.
Have you traveled to Britain much before?
I've probably made 80 trips here and spent a lot of time touring the country, but I've never lived here for months on end. I was up in Manchester for the Conservative Party Conference recently, it's a great city. I took the train for the first time – a beautiful train. Looking out at the countryside, Britain has done a fabulous job keeping their open spaces open. It was breathtaking. I'm going to Belfast next week. I've been to Scotland, and I'm going again in a couple of weeks – it's a school vacation so my family and I are going to take a few days and drive around, play a little golf, check out the restaurants and meet the people. And I look forward to driving through Wales.
How are the plans for moving into the new Embassy building?
Grosvenor Square has been associated with the Embassy for over 200 years, and so much part of our history and Britain's has been written right on this spot. But this building, although it's a great building in a great location, was built in 1960 with '40s technology and so we have to move. Our responsibilities have changed and we have more people, and the technology too forced the decision about ten years ago to move. That's how long it takes – government in action, right? We'll be in there by January 2018. It's had a dramatic effect on the neighborhood. There are new residences, Apple's moving in to the big stacks of Battersea Power Station, there's a beautiful park, public transportation is going to improve, stores and restaurants are going in... it's going to be a vibrant part of the city.
They're calling it the new diplomatic quarter.
We've been talking to some of our colleagues and encouraging them to look at it, it would be nice to have a cluster of them.
President Trump is a friend of yours, what would you like expats to know about him?
Spend time getting to know him. And judge him by what he does. I've known him for 35 years, I have seen what he's done as a New Yorker. I've known his kids since they were little children, including Ivanka, and you could see what they would become almost from day one. That doesn't happen by accident, it happens because he's an excellent parent and he produced offspring that I know he's proud of. He gave them a lot of responsibility early and he's doing the same thing, I think, with government. He'll give a lot of responsibility but he also expects a lot. When you look at all the changes that are happening now, the American people have to be very happy that when he sees something that is not working, he corrects it. He doesn't sweep it under the carpet. That's kinda not normal, but it's the way he does things. What he's looking at, bottom line, is what's best for the American people. He made that point during the campaign and I think you'll feel that more and more as he gets more time in this job. That's the key, being a fiduciary – who do I work for? And it's the American people, long term. That's the kind of guy and the kind of President, that I admire.
I feel that the American people elected somebody who was not a traditional President, because a traditional President wasn't achieving what they wanted, and now is the time for change. The American people are pretty smart. You get millions of people making decisions individually, and this was the decision that they made, one they made with a lot of thought. And I think they're going to be happy with what they see over time – and maybe they're happy right now. I'm happy right now because I know him, and as people get to know him they'll get to like him.
Finally, what is the best thing about being Robert Wood Johnson IV?
That I get to meet people like you! [laughs] It's the responsibility and the ability to carry out the people's work. And focusing on what my assignment is for the benefit of other people, putting myself last in many cases and getting the job done.