The UN's 'priest of the world'

Former Senator John Danforth finishes his first week as new US ambassador to the United Nations.

John Danforth has added another impressive feather to his professional cap, which already includes three terms as US senator, Episcopal priest, and peace negotiator in Africa's longest-running war.

This week he began serving as the 25th US ambassador to the United Nations, a post that has historically been a stepping-stone to even more powerful positions. Mr. Danforth may not be in this job long. Some say he could replace Secretary of State Colin Powell in a second Bush term.

For now he has his work cut out for him. He becomes America's liaison to the 59-year-old international body at a time when US diplomacy with much of the world has been put through their paces. With the war on Iraq testing alliances, and the Israeli-Palestinan issue as heated as ever, experts say that Danforth will have to summon all the skills from his Senate days to navigate the choppy waters of Turtle Bay.

"You have to be able to wheel and deal, to win friends and influence people, and I have no doubt that anybody who was in the Senate for three terms, like Senator Danforth has, those qualities," says Jean Kirkpatrick, who served as UN Ambassador under Ronald Reagan from 1981-85 and is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Danforth is a moderate Missouri Republican who left the Senate in 1994. His appointment indicates that after two years of antagonism in which some Bush officials derided the UN as "irrelevant," Washington now concedes the vital role of the world body. (The White House had initially won UN support for pressuring Saddam Hussein to disarm but not to oust him.) As Danforth recently told his hometown newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, when the president called him June 2 to inquire whether he'd be willing to replace John Negroponte, who left to become ambassador to Iraq, Danforth says he was reassured by what Bush told him.

"He said that the UN was important and that we couldn't win the war against terrorism without it," Danforth said. "That ... was really important for me - and for the world - to hear."

Impressive team

Danforth was born in 1936, the grandson of the founder of the cereal and grain empire Ralston Purina. He graduated with honors from Princeton, then from Yale with degrees in both law and divinity. He started out as a lawyer in Manhattan until an Episcopal bishop in Missouri convinced him to become an ordained "priest of the world," according to the Kansas City Star. (He officiated at Ronald Reagan's funeral last month.)

Danforth returned to Missouri and ran for state attorney general in 1968 at age 31. He won, and assembled an office that included young lawyers John Ashcroft, the current US attorney general; Clarence Thomas, now a justice on the Supreme Court; and Kit Bond, Missouri's current senior senator.

In 1976, Danforth won his first campaign for Senate. He reportedly made George H.W. Bush's short list of possible vice presidents in 1988. Likewise, George W. Bush considered Danforth before settling on Dick Cheney.

After his retirement from the Senate, Danforth was asked by Democrat Janet Reno, then attorney general, to lead the investigation into the 1993 inferno that claimed the lives of 80-plus Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Danforth's panel exonerated the FBI of responsibility. More recently, his diplomacy in Sudan has been credited with helping to broker an agreement to end the African country's 21-year civil war between the Arab Muslim north and the Christian and Animist south. Sudan dominated his inaugural press conference on Wednesday, when he warned the Sudanese government that the US is pushing for sanctions if the country doesn't disarm the militias that have reportedly killed up to 30,000 civilians.

But Danforth had mostly been enjoying semiretirement, spending time with his wife and their 13 grandchildren until the call came from President Bush. Analysts suggest several reasons for Danforth's selection. For one, he glided easily through the confirmation process. Second, Danforth's selection puts a softer face on Bush's foreign policy, while bumping him toward the center during his reelection campaign, says Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a liberal think tank in Washington.

"Danforth comes from a foreign-policy tradition both parties had followed for 50 years, that puts heavy weight on alliances and international institutions the US has helped build," says Ms. Mathews. "The Bush foreign policy has been ... a radical departure from that tradition. Choosing Danforth signals a change of direction - or is intended to - that we put high value in this position and are sending one of the most distinguished members of our party."

The next secretary of State?

Immediately on Danforth's plate is Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as senator he was a strong supporter of Israel), and the confrontation with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs.

All this diplomacy could help him down the road. The UN ambassadorship has long served as a launching pad for many in Washington. George H.W. Bush, for example, was ambassador from 1971-73 before moving up the ladder, and Daniel Moynihan parlayed his ambassadorship from 1975-76 into a US Senate seat from New York. Madeleine Albright was UN envoy from 1993-97 under President Clinton before becoming his secretary of State. Richard Holbrooke (1999-2001) was a serious contender to be Al Gore's secretary of State and may be a candidate should Senator Kerry become president.

"Even when the UN is not particularly popular in Washington, which is often, not many have turned down this job," says James Sutterlin, a distinguished fellow in UN studies at Yale. "It's a high-profile post with a lot of media attention and direct access to the president.... It can be exploited for personal ambition and lends lasting prestige to the person who has the job."

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