By former presidential interpreter and website founder Fred Burks
Not many people have had the privilege of working directly with our world leaders. As I was most fortunate to have had this great honor, and as I resigned from interpreting work in late 2004 after 18 years with the U.S. Department of State, I thought I'd share with you brief descriptions of some of the many fascinating experiences I had while working as an Indonesian language interpreter with top dignitaries.
To read the inspiring story of the many little miracles that led me to this most rewarding work, click here. A key empowering revelation I had from my time spent with these leaders is that, though these people may know more than us about what's happening behind the scenes in global politics, they are much more like you and me than you might ever imagine. You take care and have a great day and week ahead!
With very best wishes,
Former language interpreter for Presidents Bush and Clinton
Note: For a Washington Post article on my resignation due to excessive secrecy demands, click here
March 6-12, 1995 – UN World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen
Upset at the US because of a recent political statement, Indonesian President Suharto refuses to meet Vice President Al Gore just hours after I arrive in Copenhagen to interpret for their meeting. Yet as the US Mandarin interpreter missed her plane, and as I also speak fluent Mandarin, I receive a late night call asking me to interpret the next morning for a meeting with the Chinese delegation. Waiting in the receiving room that morning, I watch Chinese Premier Li Peng get very upset that Gore (who is finishing up a meeting with an African president in the adjacent room) is not there to greet him several minutes before the appointed meeting time. The premier storms out of the receiving room with his entourage two minutes before the scheduled time, exclaiming to US officials that Gore's tardiness is an insult and an outrage. "If Gore wants to meet with me," Li Peng blares, "he can come to my office." The Chinese delegation is located far across the pavilion. To avoid an international incident, a very tired Gore runs across the huge compound, much to the consternation of the Secret Service, to meet with the the upset Chinese.
Oct. 26, 1995 – White House meeting with Clinton, Gore, Indonesian President Suharto
In bargaining about the potential sale of a fleet of F-16 fighter jets to Indonesia, President Suharto claims, "We're just a poor country." Al Gore has legs crossed, chews gum (both culturally inappropriate), and talks very fast during the meeting. I am impressed when a White House secretary tells me that President Clinton knows the names of the kids of all the many White House secretaries. He is very well liked by his staff. His advisor hounds him immediately after Suharto leaves with suggestions on how he could have done better and what to do next.
June 23, 1997 – USMC Commandant General Charles Krulak meets Indonesian counterpart General Suharto (not the president)
At a special dinner in General Krulak's personal residence, a three-star US general tells of several amazing experiences he witnessed in a visit with Indonesia's special psychic forces. Among other amazing feats, he saw Indonesian troops on motorcycles successfully ride blind-folded through an obstacle course. He also hid a coin in a large grass field where he couldn't have relocated it himself, yet psychic troops who had not seen him hide the coin were able to immediately locate it. General Krulak laughs all this off as psychic nonsense.
February 13, 1998 – Clinton/Suharto phone call
The call starts with several Indonesian advisors consulting among themselves about the content of the call. Then President Clinton joins in with the advisors to hear their recommendations. After conferring, President Suharto is called, and Clinton and Suharto converse with all listening. After the conversation, Clinton debriefs with his advisors. Clinton then hangs up, and the advisors discuss further on their own (Contrast with President Bush who never used any advisors on the three calls I did with him). Due to a party with all my best friends on my 40th birthday, I miss interpreting for a second call a week later.
Sept. 30 - Oct. 1, 1998 – Chiefs of Defense Conference, Honolulu
The most secret meeting at this conference is a one-hour discussion attended only by the top military chiefs of the 20 Pacific Rim nations represented and the few assigned interpreters. Nothing remotely resembling cover-up or conspiracy is discussed. These top generals and admirals focus largely on how they can better work together to provide regional security.
March 4 - 5, 1999 – Secretary of State Albright with President Habibie, others