Mr. Beazley Goes to Washington

Australia’s U.S. envoy: Asia-Pacific region no longer a “strategic backwater”

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For most diplomats, nothing can be more injurious than a slip of the tongue. But during 2010’s “Snowmageddon,” Australian Ambassador Kim Beazley endured a far more painful slip.

“I fell on black ice twice, first taking out the patella tendon in my right knee and the second time taking it out in my left,” he recalls. It was his first week in Washington.

Days later, the temporarily paraplegic but ever-jovial Mr. Beazley was wheeled into the White House, where he presented his credentials to President Obama.

“It was good because people felt guility, so they felt that they had to see me.” he says, laughing. “So for a while, I could get in to see anyone - so much so that the deputy head of mission said, ‘We haven’t had access like this. Can you stay in the wheelchair a bit longer?’ “

Even with the cane he’s been using while in rehab, the bulky 6-foot-2 college rugby player remains an imposing figure - one who, at 62, has built an equally imposing resume.

During a 27-year parliamentary career, the silver-haired Perth native served as opposition leader, finance minister, deputy prime minister and defense minister - a job that earned him the nickname “Bomber Beazley” and lasting friendships with U.S. counterparts Caspar Weinberger and Dick Cheney.

Mr. Beazley never became premier, losing elections as head of the Australian Labor Party to right-wing “Coalition” leader John Howard in 1998 and 2001, albeit with a narrow popular-vote majority the first time.

“Like Al Gore, he’s best the prime minister we never had,” quipped Chris Bowen, a minister in the current Labor-led government who noted that Mr. Beazley - like Mr. Gore - had messaging difficulties in the modern media environment.

Kim would never use one word when four would do,” Mr. Bowen said. “He thinks in 30-year sweeps, not 30-second sound bites.”

Mr. Beazley retired from parliament in 2007, convinced he was done with public life.

“We’re not like Americans,” he says. “You tend to have your political career and then you go. Americans sort of dip in and dip out.”

But when offered the ambassador’s job in late 2009, he says he didn’t blink.

“He’s genuinely passionate about the United States and the bilateral relationship,” said Chris Barrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Beazley during his first stint as Labor leader.

Mr. Barrett recalled working on a speech Mr. Beazley delivered during a visit from President Bill Clinton. “He managed to inject all these Civil War references - he has this encyclopedic knowledge of the Civil War - and you could see the effect they had on the president.”

Earlier this month, Mr. Beazley’s boss - Prime Minister Julia Gillard - offered her own ode to America, moving House Speaker John Boehner to tears with her speech before a joint session of Congress.

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About the Author

Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.

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