During a whirlwind two-and-a-half-day return visit by French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte, who left Washington suddenly in May to become President Nicolas Sarkozy’s diplomatic adviser and “Sherpa” (the one who does the heavy lifting), he and his wife, Marie-Cecile bid farewell to nearly 3,000 friends and associates at four separate events at their embassy last week: a VIP reception Thursday, a huge staff love-in Friday followed by a private dinner, and the annual Bastille Day Celebration on Saturday.
Mr. Levitte, considered by diplomatic specialists to be one of the best ambassadors ever to serve in Washington, was widely praised by many of the 700 VIPs at Thursday’s official farewell at La Maison Francaise. Their comments echoed France’s influential newspaper Le Monde, which carried a glowing profile about him last month titled “Le Diplomator” a takeoff on “The Terminator,” California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action film persona. Le Monde’s story called Mr. Levitte “a pro’s pro” in diplomacy, noting his “superhuman qualities” of being “so perfect and precise that he is almost like stainless steel that doesn’t even tarnish.”
Local admirers noted that the ambassador’s political skills were complemented by his kindness. Joel Buchwald, son of the late humorist Art Buchwald, said he specifically came to thank Mr. Levitte for being so kind to his father when he was under hospice care, especially for arranging that he be presented with the French Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres medal.
Everyone wanted a few moments of private time with the Levittes, but there were no speeches; the popular couple never stopped shaking hands and hugging well-wishers waiting patiently in a receiving line that stretched, at one point, several hundred yards from the entrance down to the massive gates on Reservoir Road Northwest.
Others didn’t wait at all. Former Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Alan Greenspan and his wife, NBC Reporter Andrea Mitchell, along with former World Bank President James Wolfensohn and his wife, Elayne, were among those hustled to the front of the line by over-zealous embassy staff — much to the dismay of those who had been waiting 30 minutes or more.
“Rank has its privileges, and so does ‘former rank’ apparently,” a perturbed dowager groused to fellow standees. “They should never have bypassed senior members of the diplomatic corps” (who, for the record, included the ambassadors of Singapore, Denmark, Belgium, Poland, Egypt, Malaysia, Morocco, Argentina, Bulgaria and Japan among many others).
“I know too many people here to cut in front,” former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger advised a friend.
Most, however, took it all in stride. “Watching the faces of the people getting out of limousines, then realizing they had an interminable wait, was even better than the champagne and foie gras,” another guest said with a laugh.
Once inside, however, it was nothing but praise and fond farewells for the hosts from the many prominent guests, who included Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Arnaud and Alexandra de Borchgrave, Nina and Philip Pillsbury, Janet Howard, Malcolm and Pamela Peabody, John Firestone, Susan Eisenhower and Ann Nitze.
Former Rep. James W. Symington remembered introducing the “sauve and savvy” Mr. Levitte to the Federal City Club when he first took up his post in December 2002. “We have been very fortunate to have had such a strong line of great French ambassadors here, but none of them have been better than Jean-David and Marie-Cecile Levitte,” Mr. Symington said. “He was a bright man at the right time who always had just the right words, the understanding and the firmness. They are a perfect diplomatic couple and understand the U.S. very, very well.”
Businessman Charles J. DiBona said Mr. Levitte “did a good job here when it wasn’t easy for a French ambassador to serve,” referring to the dark days when some in Congress actually wanted to ban french fries from the Capitol’s dining rooms because of France’s opposition to the Iraq war.
“He was marvelous during the time of tensions between the U.S. and the United Nations’ Security Council,” noted Djibouti Ambassador Roble Olhaye, the dean of the diplomatic corps. “France and the U.S. owe him a lot.”
No one doubts that Mr. Levitte was selected for his current job because of his new boss’s desire to improve bilateral relations.
“President Sarkozy always expresses deep friendship towards the U.S, as he did in victory speech in May 2007,” Mr. Levitte told a reporter following Thursday’s reception. “He has committed himself to use this friendship between France and the U.S. for peace and stability around the world. It is an honor to serve as his diplomatic adviser and I am glad I will have many opportunities to come back to the U.S., where I had the pleasure to serve as the French ambassador.”
The tirelessly diplomatic Levittes (who often worked and entertained on weekends) are expected to be replaced by Pierre Vimont, another around-the-clock career diplomat who has most recently served as foreign affairs director of the French Cabinet.
c Social Editor Kevin Chaffee contributed to this report.