When I was nominated as Counselor for Public Affairs at the American Embassy in Nairobi, the man who had just been named the American Ambassador to Kenya asked me to meet him in Washington to decide whether or not he wanted me as part of his country team.
Smith Hempstone and I had lunch a few days later at a fine eating establishment several blocks from the White House.
Smith had been the editor in chief of the Washington Star, Washington’s evening newspaper. The Star took a more conservative political stand than the rival Washington Post, which was the morning newspaper. Hempstone joked he got the ambassadorial nomination because the Star had endorsed George H.W. Bush in the 1988 election. I suspect that was indeed true.
The first question I was asked by the man who was to lead our Nairobi embassy for the next two years was what book I was reading. He didn’t ask me about my experience to date, or my education — he wanted to know what book I was reading. I knew he had authored two books himself, which I had read in preparation for this interview. But I also guessed his question was not asked so I could tell him I had read his books. Rather, he wanted to take the measure my intellectual involvement in life and in the history and politics of Kenya.
As someone who has interviewed candidates for jobs I was struck by Hempstone’s approach. He was probing more deeply than the typical “why do you want this job” kind of question. He wanted to know if I possessed any depth about life in general and about my next career posting. I no longer remember my answer but I generally approached my assignments with seriousness and that showed in my choice of study material. I must have satisfied him I viewed my prospective assignment as more than just another step in a long career, that I had a genuine interest in the country to which we would be stationed.
A person I knew who wanted to build a library in Africa answered my question “why a library in the internet age?” with the observation “the internet brings information while books bring wisdom.” He had put me in my place quickly.
Ambassador Hempstone’s method of taking the measure of people who wanted to serve in the institution he would be leading sticks with me to this day. With a single question he was able to discover if my knowledge was “information” or “knowledge.” And since I was not expecting the question I had not prepared for it. I had to give an answer of some sort. “I was too busy watching the Emmys so haven’t read any books recently” was not an acceptable reply. Nor was “50 Shades of Grey.”
Until Ruth Hutchins took me under her wing in third grade I was a poor reader. Her challenge was to show me a whole world I could visit through books, and she succeeded. Before the middle of that year I was reading a book a day. TV had not yet made it into our house so there was little competition for a youngster’s imagination and I devoured books voraciously. I didn’t know it at the time, but all that reading improved my language skills, broadened my horizons and sowed the seeds for the person I am today.
“What book are you reading?” is a question I wish we could surprise every politician with before each election. The answer would certainly make us better voters.
Fred LaSor served 20 years in Africa with the U.S. Foreign Service. He just finished re-reading Morrison’s “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”.