Madam Ambassador is a new book by Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis—mother of two, first-time diplomat and the first Greek American woman appointed as a United States Ambassador—as she finds herself posted in Budapest.
A charming and entertaining tour guide, Kounalakis sees the world of international relations through fresh eyes. With no background in diplomacy (Kounalakis had previously worked as a property developer), she endures a grueling vetting process in which she’s asked if she’d ever cheated on her husband or sent an embarrassing email, and attends ambassador “charm school,” a two-week intensive training session with other prospective diplomats. But when she finds herself at the helm of a medium-sized US Embassy in a former Soviet satellite nation, she realizes that nothing could have prepared her for the realities of this new life in Hungary.
A helicopter ride to visit troops in the Afghanistan war zone, a tense meeting with the newly elected Prime Minister, and…a wild boar hunt! Eleni Kounalakis was forty-three and a land developer in Sacramento, California, when she was tapped by President Barack Obama to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Hungary under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. During her tenure, from 2010 to 2013, Hungary was a key ally in the U.S. military surge, held elections in which a center-right candidate gained a two-thirds supermajority and rewrote the country’s constitution, and grappled with the rise of Hungarian nationalism and anti-semitism.
The first Greek-American woman ever to serve as a U.S. ambassador, Kounalakis recounts her training at the State Department’s “charm school” and her three years of diplomatic life in Budapest—from protocols about seating, salutations, and embassy security to what to do when the deposed King of Greece hands you a small chocolate crown (eat it, of course!). A cross between a foreign policy memoir and an inspiring personal family story—her immigrant Greek father went from agricultural day laborer to land developer and major Democratic party activist—Madam Ambassador draws back the curtain on what it is like to represent the U.S. government abroad as well as how American embassies around the world function.
With startling candor, Kounalakis recounts the triumphs and gaffes of her newly-public life. Along with glamorous dinners and meetings comes the strain of fitting in. Her husband, a respected journalist, finds that he’s discouraged from attending gatherings organized by the diplomats’ spouses club, traditionally seen as women’s events. Kounalakis’s children, accustomed to American-style discipline, are surprised at the realities of their new school. But Kounalakis meets all challenges head-on, and is soon welcoming a parade of visits by high-ranking US government officials including Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton.
Part foreign policy memoir and part all-American story, Madam Ambassador is a thoroughly entertaining and inspiring example of leadership.
Ambassador Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis was the U.S. ambassador to Hungary from January 2010 until July 2013. She lives with her husband, Markos Kounalakis, and their two sons in San Francisco.