US ambassador Scott Brown: President Trump's man in Wellington

by Michele Hewitson / 14 September, 2017
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Scott Brown is a sportsman and bus user – once voted America’s sexiest man – who finds fans of President Donald Trump everywhere. 

“Shall we get Trump out of the way?” I ask new US ambassador Scott Brown. It’s tricky. You both know you will have as many questions about his boss as you have about him. This could be galling, but there’s no sign of it. He says he’s not a cheerleader for his boss, but he’s a Trump man through and through. He likes talking about and talking up the Donald. He says, “Fire away. It’s your interview.”

I may have muttered, obviously not quite sotto voce enough: “A lot of people would like to get Trump out of the way.” He thinks that’s funny. He is good natured and doesn’t easily take umbrage. Besides, being madly competitive about everything, he regards a bit of verbal sparring as just another competitive sport.

He swims and runs and if he comes across people playing pétanque, say, he’ll give that a go. As happened down by Wellington Harbour. I don’t know whether he won, but he got one of his “Trump is a good guy” stories out of it. He has a collection of these stories, which go like this: “People love Trump, they just don’t like to admit it, publicly.” He says it’s those “average Americans, okay? Not on the Left coast, not in DC, not part of the Establishment …”

“When … as I was taking the bus from Lower Hutt into Wellington …” Hang on. The ambassador was taking the bus? “Of course. And the bus driver says: ‘We don’t have any ambassadors that usually take the bus …’ And I said: ‘Well, you know, Uber’s $76 and the bus is six.’ … And he said: ‘You know what? I like Trump … He’s talking to people like me who are working our rear ends off …’ You may not see it here, but people back home appreciate that.”

Those popularity ratings? “Who cares? He’s the President regardless of popularity. I don’t think it matters at all.” It might matter come the next presidential election. Brown might have to go home. “Yeah, so what? It’s politics, you know.”

Brown with his wife, journalist Gail Huff, and their dog, Gracie. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

A senator for three years, with a long career in Massachusetts state politics before going to Washington, Brown says he’s no longer a politician. The main difference seems to be that he can no longer criticise the President. This may be a relief.

A burning question: What does he think of the President’s taste in interior decoration? “I don’t follow interior decoration issues.”

Brown was one of the first to endorse Trump. You’d think he might have regretted this after Trump lashed out at John McCain, one of Brown’s “dearest friends”. Referring to McCain, who spent almost six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and is widely regarded as a war hero, Trump said, “I like people who weren’t captured.” When Brown was running for the Senate in Massachusetts, “the so-called Kennedy state”, McCain endorsed him when nobody else would.

Brown went to Washington and “no one would see me. No one. No senators, no congressmen.” He was seen as a loser. “I was from Massachusetts. I was 41 points down. The only person who would see me was Senator McCain, and he saw me because of my military experience. At that point, I had 30 years in the military and he has great respect for military people.” All of which ought to have made Trump’s shafting of McCain’s military reputation all the more unpalatable. “I’m already on the record about that. I said, ‘It’s inappropriate. I disagree. Senator McCain is a national hero. He deserves respect.’”

But “politics back home is a blood sport. I like them because they’re independent men and they can kick the shit out of each other … but at the end of the day, they’re going to find something to work on together.”

Breaking news – presumably not fake: Trump Forbids Military Service by Transgender People. Congress, McCain Criticise New Transgender Military Policy.

This is the trouble with going to see the US ambassador. Ten minutes after you leave, there are 10 new Trump stories.

Brown practising his guitar. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Small wonder he’s over the moon about his New Zealand posting. It’s a long way from DC. He loves the people, the place, the sport. He’s mad about sport. He went mountain biking for the first time. I don’t know whether he managed to find a Trump supporter up a mountain, but if anyone could, he’d be the guy.

Those pétanque players. He says, “Seven out of 10 of them were Trump guys, men and women. And people go up to me and they go: ‘I love your guy. Don’t tell anybody. Shh.’ Just like it is back home.”

I say, a trifle sulkily: “We’ll see if it’s like that in three and a half years’ time.” He says, cheerfully, “I’m focused on today.”

He says, by the way, about the Trump withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership that “with respect, I don’t think it was a good deal for New Zealand … Quite frankly, I think we can get a better deal.” He’s working hard on this, he says. What are the percentage chances he will get us a better trade deal? “I don’t do percentages.”

He does triathlons. He was swimming in a public pool in Wellington the other day when “one of the coaches said, ‘Oh, you’re the new ambassador, aren’t you? A lot of my [triathlon] students want to kick your ass.’ I said, ‘Okay, have them bring their wallets!’”

Does he shave his legs? “Actually, I won a contest in a triathlon for the hairiest legs!” He’s even competitive about owning the hairiest legs.

If you were to imagine the All-American regular guy, here you go. He is the model of that guy and he was the model for that guy. Has he got a framed copy of his 1982 nude Cosmopolitan centrefold picture somewhere? “No. But I have the original magazine somewhere.” Does he take it out and look at it? “Every day! I take it out and look at it. Every single day! You’re right. You caught me!”

He was a 22-year-old law student back then, but he still looks in such good shape. How sexist of me to say so. Shall we talk about the President and women? There can’t be a journalist in the world who thought they would ever have to put the words “pussy grabbing” and President of the US in the same sentence. If it makes you feel a bit sick just reading it, imagine having to put it to a decent, amiable US ambassador over a nice lunch. Predictably, you don’t get far. He wasn’t there. The President paid for it. He apologised. Anyway, surely the ambassador must concede the whole ghastly business was, at the very least, yucky. “It’s not something I would have said.”

Would he have said to France’s first lady, Brigitte Macron: “You’re in such good shape”?

Brown performing with guitarist Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick.

“I have said to many people that they clearly work out and they’re living a great lifestyle … I will continuously compliment people – man, woman or child – on various characteristics and things that they’re doing.”

I may have shouted, just a bit: “That is not the same thing.”

“It is!” he says. Then I say, mock leeringly: “Hey, you’re in such good shape!” He is already good at being a diplomat, so he laughs and says, “I don’t think he ever said it like that. With the eye raising!”

He is a funny sort of Republican. He is pro-choice – which he says is not quite as unusual as I obviously think for Republican politicians – but against “partial birth abortion” and against federal funding for abortion because “it’s how it is in the United States. The federal Government doesn’t provide funding for abortions.”

Should it? “No, I don’t believe so. It’s a personal choice.” A personal choice that only people with money can afford. “No, there’s plenty of opportunity for people who are on assistance to get that help.”

He says, “I’m what they call a Scott Brown sort of Republican.” He’s what Scott Brown calls a Scott Brown sort of Republican. It’s his stock answer, but what does it mean? “I define myself. I don’t let other people try to define me.”

The very nature of politics is perception and hence definition, and portrayal. “They try. But then they say, ‘What’s a Scott Brown Republican?’ And to me, a Scott Brown Republican is someone who’s hard-working, independent … I can’t say I’ve ever been influenced by somebody saying, ‘You need to vote this way or else.’ I’m like, ‘Or else what? What are you going to do to me?’”

He campaigned in his Chevy pickup, wearing work shirts and jeans, just a regular guy. He was described by the Washington Post as “mainstream in a nation that defines itself as mostly conservative”.

In other words and to quote that other All-American character, Popeye: “He yam what he yam and tha’s all what he yam.”

He is a bit hokey. He made a video to introduce himself and his family – his wife of more than 30 years, journalist Gail Huff, daughters Ayla, a country singer, and Arianna, a vet school student – and his dog, Gracie, to New Zealanders. How is Gracie? “She’s great, thank you. She is the most loving little thing. She just looks up at me and goes: ‘I love you.’ She follows me everywhere.”

I don’t mean to be rude, but Gracie is a particularly girly sort of dog. She is a yorkie, and my cat is bigger than his dog. “If you saw her, she’s an athlete … She’s fast. She’ll growl at you. What can I say? I like a girly dog.”

Gracie sleeps on the ambassadorial bed. “Yeah, she does. In-between me and the ambassadorial wife.”

He made another video, for the Team US Squash squad who were recently in New Zealand.

“One of the girls is named Gracie and she’s from my daughter’s high school, so I did a welcome video … Very serious, you know, shirt and tie and then at the end I go: ‘And by the way, Gracie, Gracie says “hi!”.’ And [the dog Gracie] gave a little wave …”

Brown is not just a bit hokey. He is so hokey. “Hey, it’s who I am.”

We know a bit about who he is from the introductory video. His parents split up when he was a baby, both going on to marry another three times apiece. His mother was on social welfare benefits at times. He had a series of stepfathers, some marginally better than the worst who beat his mother. When he was five, he heard his mother having “the crap beaten out of her … and I remember grabbing his leg and biting into him and he was just pounding me and pounding me”. The neighbours called the police, otherwise “I believe to this day that I wouldn’t be here”. His mother used to beat him with a piece of four by two. He was sexually abused at a camp.

He was the pawn in his parents’ bitter split. As a boy he would wait for hours for his father to come and pick him up, not knowing that his mother had told him not to come. That is an awfully sad story: a little boy waiting and waiting. “I still have thoughts about … excuse me,” he says and wipes his eyes.

At 12, he began drinking, stealing his mother’s car and shoplifting. He has never had therapy. He was saved, he says, by a tough but merciful judge, a couple of good teachers and basketball.

He eventually became friends with his father, who died a few years ago from Parkinson’s disease. Did he resent his mother’s bad choices? He says he did, and he was very angry, but he has forgiven her. His mother has Alzheimer’s, and when he visits, she doesn’t remember anything or anyone except him. “And it’s like: ‘I love you. I love you. I love you.’ And I say to myself: ‘Okay. I remember everything.’ But in the past two years, I’m at the point where I say, ‘Yeah. You know what? I love you, too.’”

Brown: a competitive sportsman.

He has written about this in his memoir, Against All Odds. He gave me a copy, pre-inscribed: “Michele – Keep the faith!”

“It’s a real honest, hard-core, no BS type of book.” But why did he write such a book? “Because I didn’t want people misinterpreting or distorting my life.” It was a way of taking control back? “Absolutely.”

An odd, but related, question: Why is he a Republican? “No, no, it’s a great question. I think because growing up, I didn’t have anything, I didn’t have a penny. And you’d say: ‘Gosh, you should be a Democrat. Your mom was on welfare.’” But he believes in the Ronald Reagan vision of the American dream. “If you work hard, two or three jobs … you can start a business … you can make money … [And] a lot of the folks I saw that were getting public assistance, they kinda weren’t as motivated … I didn’t want to be dependent on anybody. I wanted to make my own money.”

On social issues, he says he’s “almost a libertarian”. He believes in God but is not a big churchgoer. He prays twice a day. He prays “to do well and not make mistakes and not screw up”. Is that what God is for, to stop him screwing up? “Maybe! Ha. I’ll let you know.”

He has smoked dope a couple of times but didn’t like it; it made him eat and “I eat enough”.

Does he really believe that waterboarding is not torture? “I had to look up where that came from. I love … all the great portrayals of me in the first articles: ‘Insult: Trump Sends Us a Nude Model Who Believes in Torture.’ That was great! I’m like, ‘What are they talking about?’ And what they’re referring to was a debate question, 10 to 15 years ago, and the question was: ‘Do you support President Bush’s enhanced interrogation techniques?’ At that point I said, ‘Yes, it’s allowed. He’s authorised it. So I support the President.’

“President Obama changed it. ‘Do you support President Obama changing it?’ He’s the President. He can do whatever he wants. I’m a military attorney. I advise joint chiefs of staffs as to what’s right and wrong in the military. So the short answer is: ‘No, of course I don’t believe in torture. Never have.”

Does he have any Russian friends? “The only thing I have Russian is russian dressing.”

But seriously? “I think it’s a waste of time. And if in fact there has been anything done inappropriately, then they should do a full investigation.”

There should be a full investigation into our waiter. The waiter says: “Excuse me, are you the new ambassador?” I say, “He’s a big Trump guy.”

The waiter says, “Same!” The waiter and the ambassador high-five. “Backfired!” says Brown, triumphantly. He has planted the waiter. “I wish I did. I couldn’t have planted any better.” I may have said the F-word. He tells the plant that he’ll get him a cap. He already has a cap. Okay, he says, “I’ll get you something special.” He really will. “Of course. We’ve got to take every convert we can.” Why can’t I have a cap? I ask. “I’ll get you something,” says Brown, “but I’m afraid of what you’ll do with it.”

He’s a very astute fellow, the new ambassador.

Scene of a car attack during protests in Charlottesville. Photo/Getty Images

Brown’s views on the news

ON CHARLOTTESVILLE:

“As the President has said, the Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into the car attack that killed one innocent American and wounded 20 others. Those who acted criminally in the racist violence in Charlottesville should be held fully accountable. I have been on the record for decades speaking out against racism and violence and I continue to condemn the violence we saw in Charlottesville.”

ON THE WHITE HOUSE STAFF TURNOVER:

“There is always a natural turnover and it is up to the President to assemble the team he feels most comfortable with. As you know, I am not in DC, so I don’t know all the ins and outs of staffing in the Administration. General [John] Kelly is doing a great job and will handle the admin in the White House. I’m focused on doing the job that the President has given me to do, and when I ask for support, I get it immediately.”

ON TRUMP’S BANNING OF TRANSGENDER PEOPLE IN THE MILITARY POLICY:

“I was actually instrumental in reversing the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy to allow gay people to serve in the US military. The most important thing is how does a policy or decision affect the mission of the military. It is my understanding that there will be a review process. I know the senators making the decisions, I know they will look at how a change affects the military. Once the analysis is done, a decision will be made.”

Brown once said this: “When a soldier answers the call to serve and risks life or limb, it has never mattered to me whether they are gay or straight. What matters is whether their service and sacrifice is with pride and honour.”

This article was first published in the September 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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