101 Ways to Become Secretary of State

My New Year’s resolution is not complete without a peek at my career plan for the next 30 years. If you’re like me, you would be reviewing that plan, too; can’t hurt in this day and age when companies are digesting jobs like the Venus flytraps and no longer even bother to burp out recycled, lower paying jobs.

Career planning is simply a vehicle we get to ride on. The journey might be interesting or not, might be an adventure or not, but it is the destination that truly grips our attention. Is success waiting for us at the end of the rainbow?

Richard St. John hints at some of the real secrets of success: passion, persistence, and apparently pushy mothers help, too — but that’s for another post. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also has something to say about passion and the road to success (Women’s Conference 2008 Remarks, October, Long Beach, California):

“Look, the first thing that I try to do is to explain to everyone that I try to mentor or that I’m trying to give advice – there isn’t really any particular road to success. You have to find the road that works for you. And so my conversations go something like this: A young student or maybe, now, a young Foreign Service officer will come in and then they’ll say, well, how do I get to do what you do? And what they mean is, how do I get to, one day, be Secretary of State? And I say, well, you start out as a failed piano major and you go on from there. […] And so the most important piece of advice that I can give is, don’t let somebody else define what you ought to be and what you want to be. When they look at you, they say, oh, you’ll want to do this because you look a certain way or you come from a certain background. I’m a perfect example of someone with no Russian blood who decided to study a culture that I had never seen, a place that I had never been, and it’s worked out for me. And so my advice is: Do what you love and forget the rest of it.”

That’s wonderful advice and all, and I hate sounding cantankerous but I should point out — perhaps her speechwriters did not realize this — a young Foreign Service Officer (FSO) can perhaps dream of becoming U.S. Ambassador one day but to get, to be Secretary of State, one day?

I think the Italians have a beautiful peachy word for this — “nonsenso.”

In the long history of the United States Secretary of State as the highest ranking cabinet secretary in both the line of succession and precedence, from Thomas Jefferson (SoS #1) in September 26, 1789 to Condoleezza Rice (SoS #66) appointed on January 26, 2005 — we had one career diplomat, one who went on to encumber this position.

The only FSO to ever become Secretary of State was a guy nicknamed “the Burg,” or more formally, Lawrence Eagleburger, the 62nd Secretary of State. Do you know how long he was in office? From December 8, 1992 – January 20, 1993. That’s right – exactly 43 days and some hours, give and take some minutes.

So — if I were a young person with fire in the belly and burning ambition of becoming Secretary of State one day, I’d skip the Foreign Service Officer’s Test (FSOT). You don’t have to but I would. Why? Because as a career diplomat, and given our history, the chance of rising up to the top position as Secretary of State is exactly 1.5%.

As an aside — if you simply want to be ambassador one day, please go ahead take the Foreign Service Exam. Um, unless you’re sitting on a large trust fund because as one political ambassador says, “in 90 days, you can become a diplomat,” (the type of diplomat you’d be after three months would be debatable but quick translation – why spend your life in cubicles with some hell-holes thrown in for adventure when there’s an easier way). Here’s a list of 50 who had the “smarts” and did it the easier way during the previous go round.

Anyway, if we go twenty appointments back just for fun – this should bring us to Cordell Hull, our 47th Secretary of State and longest serving SoS. A quick run down from the last 75 years shows that we had five SoS who came out of the academe, five from the legal profession (AG, Deputy AG) and five who were politicians (representative, senators, governors-Senator Clinton makes six); three from the military profession, one from corporate America, and one career diplomat.

There are 101 ways to become Secretary of State. One is to start as a career diplomat but that route is a long obstacle course, kinda bumpy and the outcome is not at all certain. Frankly, when you get to be “P” that’s probably as good as it gets in the career ladder. So take this route at your own risk.

The remaining 100 paths seem clear – crystal clear – kick-off that political campaign for town mayor, city council, school board, or whatever – anything that gets you on a ballot. I mean, you do have to start somewhere even if it is a tinsy winsy town — as long as it’s in America. Start somewhere …or elsewhere … as a journalist once sang at a Gridiron dinner (with music from “When I Was A Lad” by Gilbert and Sullivan – h/t to John Brown):

When I was a Stanford professor,
I tutored a certain Texas governor.
I showed him the countries on a great big map,
And I never scolded him when he made a gaffe.

Okay, there are other ways, too — but only those who knows the secret handshake are allowed to share. Speaking of songs, Lenore Skenazy has come out with The Year in Carols. The lead song is The Secretary of State Girl (to “The Little Drummer Boy”). A tad late news but when has the Secretary of State ever made it to the caroling collection?

Come, they told me, pa rum pum pum pum.
The prez-elect to see, pa rum pum pum pum.
He ran a perfect race, pa rum pum pum pum.