Thursday, February 26, 2004

Only a tiny percentage of ambassadors embody Embassy Row’s highest standard of excellence: the

“diplomat nonpareil.”

A sterling combination of intelligence, pedigree, charm, wit, tact, bountiful hospitality and — at the very top of the list — an able and attractive spouse is required before legendary status is bestowed upon such “extraordinary and plenipotentiary” envoys.

Over the past 40-odd years, certain names stand out: Egidio Ortona of Italy; Herve Alphand, Emmanuel de Margerie and Francois Bujon de l’Etang of France; Count Wilhelm Wachtmeister of Sweden; David Ormsby-Gore (Lord Harlech) and Sir Nicholas Henderson of Britain; the Marques de Merry del Val of Spain; Faisal Alhegelan of Saudi Arabia; Ali Bengelloun of Morocco; and Alexander Philon of Greece, among perhaps a dozen well-remembered others.

It seemed fitting, then, that Rubens Barbosa of Brazil would be mentioned as a likely addition to the pantheon at the farewell reception he and his wife, Maria-Ignez, hosted Monday after five years en poste.

High marks certainly were in order with regard to Mr. Barbosa’s diplomatic skills.

“Rubens did a [tremendous] job on behalf of Brazil,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, deftly summing up prevailing opinion among the VIP policy-makers and journalists (including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer and World Bank President James Wolfensohn), who packed the salons of the Brazilians’ magnificent John Russell Pope-designed residence on Massachusetts Ave. NW.

Mr. Dodd noted that one of Mr. Barbosa’s most important contributions was helping avert a diplomatic crisis after the election of socialist candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as president of Brazil last year.

“He helped me get a new perspective on Lula. It turned out that he wasn’t an ideologue, but very pragmatic,” Mr. Dodd said while praising the ambassador’s effectiveness in convincing leaders of both countries that they could get along despite disparate ideological backgrounds.

Later, Mr. Barbosa explained that relations between the two countries are often “tense,” mostly because of the important trade issues that continually need to be negotiated. “Few people appreciate that the U.S. stake in Brazil is huge — larger than its investments in Mexico or China. More than 400 of the Fortune 500 companies have operations there.”

Despite problems in what he characterized as a “challenging and complex relationship,” Mr. Barbosa said he is leaving at a time of exceptionally “open, frank and balanced” exchanges between the two countries. “I think we managed to advance a positive agenda in the five years I served in Washington. The relationship is excellent.”

It certainly helped that Mr. Barbosa was “not only respected for his meaningful intellectual exchanges on many topics, but also personally liked,” as blue-chip lawyer and former protocol chief Lloyd N. Hand pointed out in the 300-strong crowd squeezing past waiters passing trays of fried yucca, plantains and other typically Brazilian hors d’oeuvres.

Others made sure to credit Mrs. Barbosa as an essential element in her husband’s success, especially for her support of many local charities.

“She actively reached out to the city and was his strong partner,” Didi Cutler said of her talented friend (Mrs. Barbosa is a psychologist, journalist and interior designer), “and besides that, she’s a lot of fun.”

As the daughter and granddaughter of previous Brazilian ambassadors to the United States, Mrs. Barbosa was certainly predisposed, if not preordained, to the job of ambassadorial spouse.

Her husband couldn’t resist a chuckle when talk turned to his wife’s exceptional background.

As he proudly put it, “The women in her family really knew how to choose.”

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