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Mark Gilbert: ‘My phone rings and it’s Barack Obama …’

Mark Gilbert with his Chuck Close portrait and dog Simon. Photo/David White

US Ambassador to New Zealand Mark Gilbert talks reading, rugby and his relationship with the President.

Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope changed the course of Mark Gilbert’s life, culminating in the appointment of the former professional baseball player as US Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa. The 58-year-old took up the position in January, the first major-league ballplayer to represent his country as an ambassador.

Gilbert rose through the professional baseball ranks in the 70s and 80s, finally playing as an outfielder for the Chicago White Sox in 1985. When his sporting career was cut short by injury, he turned his talents to business, most recently working in the US as managing director of financial services company UBS.

Gilbert is quietly spoken, courteous and engaging. He’s taken up his post as Obama enters the last 18 months of his troubled presidency.

You have a strong professional and personal relationship with Barack Obama. How did that come about?

I had met him prior to reading The Audacity of Hope. But when I decided I wanted to do a presidential campaign, I decided to read the book to get a real feel for him. Afterwards I sat down with him and talked to him about what he cared about, his vision for the country. We talked about health care, poverty in America, wars that seemed to be never-ending, budget deficits, things that had to be dealt with before it was too late. I decided to support him.

The President has faced opposition not just from Republicans but also his own Democratic Party – how did it get to that point?

Democrats and Republicans, in their hearts, really care about our country and historically would take their positions and come together to get the best result. Unfortunately, there have been people who have intentionally kept this from happening because they didn’t want the President to have victories. One time was when there was a bipartisan Bill in the Senate to do something or other and then the President came out and said he supported it too. Seven of the Republican senators whose names were on the Bill voted against it when they found out the President supported it.

Mark Gilbert with President Obama.

You say you don’t have time to read much these days, aside from official papers, so what’s given you pleasure in the past?

I like biographies and gravitate towards books about world markets and finance. I’ve read former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System and Timothy Geithner’s Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises. Another book in that vein, one of my favourites, is Too Big to Fail, by Andrew Ross Sorkin.

I really enjoyed reading Michael Lewis, who writes about finance and also about sport. He wrote Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game – maybe more people saw the movie than read the book, but it is the book about my life. The people in it were all people I knew; Billy Beane, who’s the general manager of the Oakland A’s – I played against him some 36 years ago. Many people in the book were contemporaries or friends and I was reading about a subject that I really cared a lot about.

Michael became very famous due to his first book, Liar’s Poker, about being a bond trader at Salomon Brothers back in the bonds heyday of the 1980s. His recent books include The Big Short about the global financial crisis in 2008/09 and Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. I found it fascinating. And he wrote The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, which was made into a movie.

You and your wife Nancy have brought some of your own extensive art collection with you. Do you have a favourite piece?

Nancy and I have a Chuck Close. He has been voted by some as the greatest portrait artist of the last half-century. We found out in 2012 he was doing a portrait of the President and we were very fortunate to be able to buy one. It was the first time Chuck had done a watercolour, and as soon as we saw the image, we knew we had to own it. It’s one of 10; ours is signed not only by the artist but also by President Obama.

Gilbert in his Chicago White Sox days. Photo/Getty Images

Sport was a big part of your life – are you familiar with rugby?

Yes. Nancy and I, like all new ambassadors and their spouses, did a video to announce ourselves. When we found out Gilbert was the official manufacturer of rugby balls, Nancy came up with this great idea for somebody to throw one to me at the end of our video. But as Gilbert is my last name, Americans thought I had specially put my name on the ball. And as the footage was shot right outside the White House, on the lawn, some Kiwis thought it was green-screened. So the embassy put out stills that had been taken from the side, clearly showing the White House and other background. Kiwis got to know, yes, it was the White House, and we were able to tell Americans, actually, Gilbert is the official manufacturer of rugby balls.

Is it true that you’ve now commissioned your own rugby balls?

We contacted the Gilbert company and USA Rugby. We’ve used the USA Rugby ball. On the back side, we’ve had flags reproduced, the US flag and the NZ flag. Some have the US and Samoan flags, as I’m accredited to Samoa too. When I presented my credentials in Apia, I presented one to the Prime Minister, who has added it to his wall of sports memorabilia.

Back to books – I gather you got an immediate personal response from an author after a recent purchase.

We were at Newark airport. I decided to buy a book for the flight and chose Dreams from My Father. I go into the store, I pay for it, I walk out and my phone rings and it’s Barack Obama. I said to him, “I just bought your book”, and he said he would have given me one. It was very funny.

This article was first published in the July 18, 2015 issue of the New Zealand Listener.