Have you heard the one about the American ambassador with his own reality show? While we here stateside don’t know much about our diplomat in Denmark, Rufus Gifford, most Danes are on a first-name basis with the affable 41-year-old with leading-man looks, thanks to Jeg er ambassadøren fra Amerika—or The American Ambassador.Gifford’s reality show—which the ambassador prefers we call a documentary series “because, frankly, I’d like to have as much distance between me and the Kardashians as possible”—airs on the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s DR3.
Since 2014, it has given viewers an up-close-and-personal look at foreign relations, Gifford-style: bantering with his then boyfriend, now husband, veterinarian Stephen DeVincent, 56; being briefed at the embassy; lunching with the Danish defense minister (“It’s our job to help build an international coalition [in Iraq]”); learning Danish; singing a cappella about commerce with the trade minister to “New York, New York”; working out at the gym; hosting an outdoor screening of True Detective for the entertainment industry (with Nic Pizzolatto in attendance) at the residence; attending gay-pride events; and celebrating his 40th birthday with an intimate gathering of American friends and DeVincent at Rydhave, the 1885 villa where the couple live with their golden retriever, Argos (“Argie”). When Jeg er ambassadøren hit the air, it became an immediate hit—and went on to win Gifford the Danish equivalent of an Emmy.
As with so many things, the idea for the show began with a YouTube video. In Gifford’s case, it was a State Department–produced, meet-the-ambassador promo that got the attention of TV producer Erik Struve Hansen, who’d recently done a reality show with a Danish pop star. Struve Hansen says he saw beyond “corny” scenes of Gifford introducing himself in Danish, kayaking with DeVincent on the Potomac, and talking about Denmark, to see a guy who “looked like a Hollywood film star” and was “warm and had good energy.” Gifford was also open about his sexuality and active on social media—the very model of a modern diplomat.
The ambassador was about a year into the job when Struve Hansen approached him about the show, having spent a lot of time getting to know Danes of every stripe. (“I did not know shit until I got here,” he admits in one episode.) What Gifford found was the “American brand [had taken] a hit,” especially among young Danes skeptical of U.S. foreign policy. They were also curious about exactly what he did. “There’s this preconceived notion,” he says, “that ambassadors go from the golf course to cocktail parties, and who knows what happens in between? I don’t play golf, and, of course, I go to a couple of cocktail parties. But that is just so not the job.” So what better way “to tear down the walls” and follow the directive of his boss, Secretary John Kerry, to “‘get caught trying’ to do things differently” than with a reality show?
Risk taking has always been the M.O. of the man who earned his plum position by jumping on the Barack Obama bandwagon early. After Brown University, Gifford fled the Boston bedroom community of Manchester-by-the-Sea for a career in Hollywood, first as an assistant, then as a producer. But by 2004, he was having a late quarter-life crisis (“I wanted to make Chinatown and Ordinary People. . . . But the movies I was working on wereDaddy Day Care, Garfield, and Dr. Dolittle 2”).
When he didn’t get into business school, he quit his job anyway and volunteered for Kerry’s presidential campaign—appointing himself “California house-party coordinator,” speaking at weekend campaign parties, and collecting checks—which led to his eventual hire by the campaign. Post-election, he made a name for himself as a political consultant. In 2008, he turned down a job with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, hoping to get a call from Obama—whom he’d met and briefly spoken with in 2007, when the then undeclared senator walked into a Democratic party hosted by Ted Kennedy on Ethel Kennedy’s arm. By 2012, Gifford was finance director of the president’s re-election campaign, helping to raise $1.2 billion. In 2013, he became one of the first openly gay ambassadors confirmed by the Senate.
On the show, interspersed between trips to Greenland (“This is ground zero for climate change”); D.C. (“I never felt that people were interested to see you succeed. They said congratulations and then . . . trashed you behind your back”); and then back to Boston with DeVincent for his mother’s 70th birthday (celebrating with a photogenic family straight out of central casting), Gifford goes in deep with viewers. In his childhood home, he recounts how as an anxious kid he needed his mom at the front of the school’s pickup line every day—and how she later discovered he was gay by reading his diary. “She had an 18-year-old son who was massively depressed,” he remembers now. “I think if I were a parent, I’d want to find out why.” Gifford is just as candid on-camera, speaking like you would to a close confidant. The result is a charismatic portrait that’s got Danes crushing on him—and DeVincent and Argie.
“He’s become one of the darlings of our channel,” says Struve Hansen, who expects big ratings for the 2015 season finale in which Gifford and the equally telegenic DeVincent tied the knot at Copenhagen’s City Hall, on October 10, in front of friends, family, and a big crowd, including press gathered outside. (Gifford tweeted and Instagrammed pictures of President Obama’s handwritten congratulatory note, as well as one of the newlyweds.
“Politicians don’t usually seem to come from the heart, but Rufus is the total opposite. He comes across as genuine,” says former political blogger and commentator Lotte Hansen. In addition to winning over the public, Hansen says Gifford has reached out to both Denmark’s left- and right-wing political parties.
Peter Christensen, a newspaper editor on the culture desk at Politiken [http://politiken.dk] who’s become friends with the ambassador, says his popularity is also due to his many trips around Denmark meeting people “on every level of society. He takes his job very seriously, but at the same time, he is disarming and . . . self-deprecating, in an almost Danish way.”
Gifford has also wowed the country’s entertainment industry by winning the 2014 TV Award (yes, that’s what Denmark calls their version of the Emmys). When he won the “big character” award, he wondered whether it was a compliment, which Struve Hansen assured him it was. The producer is accustomed to the ambassador sometimes being confused about Danish culture in what Struve Hansen says is his otherwise “perfect life.” Indeed, Gifford’s gaffes are another reason Danes find him endearing. It’s funny when he’s kind of clueless about the country’s biggest stars, or dumps a shot accompanying his beer into the brew rather than drinking it solo. He’s also gotten raves from his exclusive American audience. “Everyone from Secretary Kerry to several senior members of the State Department have seen the show and are actually quite excited about it,” Gifford says, adding, “at least that’s what they tell me.” Says Richard Stengel, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, “We give ambassadors great latitude and discretion in media engagements in their host countries. Ambassador Gifford has been one of the most creative in identifying novel and innovative ways to connect with his local audience to advance the image of the U.S. and our foreign policy goals.”
His accessibility hasn’t come without his critics: some commentators in Denmark have suggested that Gifford’s celebrity status has made the Danish press less critical of the nice American man from television. The show will end its run this month, though, with no plans for a third season. Gifford’s charm offensive will continue for another year, until the next president assigns a new ambassador to Denmark.
So what does life post posting look like? “I have no idea what we’ll do next,” he says. “I say ‘we’ because Stephen is a big part of the equation [since] he’s moved around the world for me. . . . If he wants to move to Kenya and go work on saving elephants, I’ll figure out what to do, because he deserves that time.” One thing he knows for sure is the couple will maintain ties to Denmark: “My time here has been incredibly important to me and will continue to be important for the rest of my life.” And our next diplomat in Denmark will have some awfully big shoes to fill.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."