Joseph Wilson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Ambassador Wilson, welcome to Berkeley.
It's good to be with you.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Connecticut, but that was an accident of birth. I know nothing about Connecticut. I was raised in California. My family is an old California family. When I was growing up we in the house always talked about my great-great uncle, who had been mayor of San Francisco and governor of California, "Sunny Jim" Rolph. We grew up in the Bay area, and then subsequently down near where my father grew up, in the Los Angeles area of San Marino. My brother still lives in San Clemente, and my parents both passed away in Palm Springs. So we were all around California.
Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?
My parents always had a commitment to public service. In fact, there is a long history of public service in my family. Most of it is through the military, but also an uncle who was mayor and governor, and an uncle who was a congressman as well. In our house, there were always a lot of politics, mostly Republican politics.
And your parents were writers.
They were. My parents went to Europe, the first time in 1959, and they liked it so much they moved back there permanently in 1963. They lived there for four years, and they wrote for newspapers. They wrote, essentially, articles on cultural differences in Europe from the United States. And they wrote for, among other newspapers, the San Francisco Chronicle.
So you got the international bug early.
That's right. I spent a lot of time living in Europe. I followed the bullfights in Spain. I had lived in France for a year and Switzerland for a year, and spent all my summers surfing in Biarritz.
And so come time for education, where did you do your undergraduate work?
I came back to California, to the University of California at Santa Barbara. I was sitting in Switzerland filling out application forms to the great universities of Europe when I ended up thumbing through an old surfer magazine, and an article caught my attention. The headline of the article was "It takes a B average to slide to campus point." I actually have that framed. As soon as I read that, I threw all the other applications away and focused on going to Santa Barbara.
So it wasn't the Nobel Laureates or the historians?
Well, I like to think that we were a little bit ahead of our time, because over the last five years the University of California at Santa Barbara has garnered three Nobel prizes.
What did surfing teach you about life? I can't help asking that.
I'm not sure what it taught me about life, but it taught me a lot about sitting in the ocean, and watching waves and swimming. It's an interesting sport, because you depend on the ocean to provide the impetus for what you're doing. It's not like climbing a mountain and skiing down. You have to go find the waves, and then ride the waves and stay on the board. I was in the era of the long board, so we were doing different things than what the kids are doing now. I watch the sport now, and it is just amazing how adept and how talented these kids are who do it. It's a much, much different sport than when I did it.
And then you were a contractor and a builder?
I went to Santa Barbara in the late 60s, '67 to '71, which, of course, were the years that were marked by anti - Vietnam War protests. After I finished college, we were all pretty antiestablishment -- Ronald Reagan was governor of California, and Dick Nixon was president. My cohorts did things other than go right into business. I learned the trade of carpentry, and I was a carpenter for the next five years.
Then you decided to go to graduate school. To get into graduate school, as I understand it, you took the Foreign Service exam.
I had been a carpenter in Santa Barbara, and then Lake Tahoe. And that was great; it was a lot of fun. In Santa Barbara, you could just work out in the sun all day long. We moved up to Washington State after I got married, and I found out that being a carpenter in Washington State is a little colder and a little wetter than it is California, and not nearly as much fun. So I looked around for something else to do, and I decided I would go back to graduate school.
[As a requirement] for the School of Public Administration/Public Affairs at the University of Washington, you had to demonstrate that you were committed to a career in public service. It was geared to people who had already started their public service careers. So I took the Foreign Service exam in the hopes that that would demonstrate to the dean that I was serious about public service, because I had had no previous public service experience.
And you passed the exam and went into the Foreign Service right away.
To my surprise, I passed the written exam, and I subsequently passed the oral examination, and while I got a nice little fellowship and a stipend to go to school, before I was able to complete the Master's program I was offered a job, and so I took it.
You were a little surprised, I think, that you made it. But they must have felt you had an understanding of American culture and ways of doing things.
I was surprised to have passed the written exam, and in the oral exam I was very surprised. I didn't think that I had done very well. In fact, both those exams were the only exams I ever took where I had no idea how I had done. Perhaps the board that did the oral examination saw potential, rather than talent. That's all I can figure.
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