U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker arrived at The Spokesman-Review on Tuesday afternoon in a white PT Cruiser. No black limo, no flags waving, no police escort, no entourage. He was delighted to have driven himself into downtown Spokane through a snowstorm. He spent some childhood snow time in Spokane, long before his driving days.
I don’t know what I expected the U.S. ambassador to Iraq to be like, but Crocker was a complete surprise. He spoke so softly we moved our tape recorders closer to better catch his voice. For 90 minutes, he talked about Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. He never once glanced at his watch. Unlike some of the “important” people we interview, he had no aide hovering near him, casting warning glances that time for questions would soon run out.
Crocker seemed like a regular Spokane nice guy. Indeed, toward the end of our editorial board meeting, he revealed this fact: The dream of returning to Spokane keeps him going. He and his wife, Christine, a retired Foreign Service secretary, own 13 acres in rural Spokane County. A year from now, they plan to be living here. Crocker will not continue to serve in Iraq, nor any other global hot spot, even if asked by the new president.
“That’s one thing we do to remind ourselves there is a future,” he said. “We go over those (Spokane) house plans again and change a wall here and change a wall there.”
Crocker, 58, craves normalcy. He brightened while describing a recent glimpse of it in Iraq. He took a walk in an area of Baghdad now rebuilding from devastating car bombs in early 2007. “I did it in a soft hat, no helmet. I speak Arabic and it’s great because you can connect directly, and boy did they want to talk. ‘Yeah the security is great, but what about the electricity? The school needs rebuilding. Nice sewage project here, but the road’s been dug up for four months,’ It’s a good sign.”
Crocker’s mother lives in Spokane, and he has timed visits with her to coincide with Bloomsday, which he has run the past three years. He met his wife, who grew up in Chicago, when they both served in Baghdad in 1979. They honeymooned here, and Christine fell in love with Spokane. Crocker promised her they would one day return.
“I’ve lied to my wife in the past. I told her that Pakistan absolutely is it. We’ll do Pakistan and come back to Spokane. Well, we didn’t. But I’m telling her this is it. We’re doing Iraq and going back to Spokane.”
His father was in the Air Force, so Crocker lived in several places during his childhood, but he attended elementary schools in the Spokane Valley during part of the 1950s-1960s era when Spokane was much more provincial. Famous people rarely hailed from Spokane, nor did they visit much. Some of us dreamed of escaping this nothing-happens-here town to work in exotic locations. Crocker has lived out that collective dream. Now, he dreams of the opposite.
“I love what I do, but you give up a lot,” he said. “It’s just so great to get behind the wheel of a car and take off on your own. Or walk into a grocery store.”
I told him one thing hasn’t changed from our childhood. Spokane is still not the kind of town where people flaunt their wealth or status. Or the kind of town where people are overly impressed with either. I see retired pro basketball great John Stockton in church sometimes. No one corners him after Mass for an autograph. GU basketball coach Mark Few coaches kids’ soccer teams in tiny fields behind church parking lots. No one bugs him.
“It’s the most egalitarian area,” Crocker agreed. “They don’t care who you are. They call you by your first name.”
Ambassador, Spokane awaits your return. Welcome back, Ryan.
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