James Rubin is in the happy position of experimenting with careers
many people strive for. A spot of high-end journalism and TV punditry, a
teaching slot at the London School of Economics and, as of last week, a
partnership at Brunswick, the respected financial PR firm.
'Alan Parker is very persuasive,' the former Clinton aide says, to
explain why he took his latest job. 'But we both know this is an
experiment that may not work out.'
The Brunswick chairman's willingness to take a risk on Rubin - Parker is
rumoured to have diluted his shareholding in a bid to secure Rubin's
signature - is a mark of the value he brings to an employer.
Rubin has been subject to countless approaches from potential suitors
since moving to London last year.
Rubin left the US Democrat administration six months before this to join
his wife, CNN foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour, in London. He
has since bagged newspaper columns and Newsnight appearances, together
with an LSE class on decision-making in US foreign policy. It is
something he should know about, having served as Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright's number two for the last three years.
'When you've spoken for the United States of America, it's very
difficult to speak for just one company. At Brunswick, I will be able to
work on one crisis management problem or fighting one regulator, then
after a few weeks move on to a fresh issue,' he says.
It was as a manager of crises that Rubin made his name. Specifically, he
was the face of the US government during Nato's bombing of Serbia in
1999. As chief spokesman for the State Department, Rubin gave a live
one-hour televised briefing to the media every day for three months.
It is the sort of relentless PR task that makes selective briefing by
British party spin doctors look like child's play.
The challenge was made more arduous by the fact that for most of the
campaign, Amanpour was reporting from the Balkans; her link with Rubin
was well known and she was a declared target for Slobodan Milosevic's
Rubin has maintained relations with Albright, who was widely seen,
perhaps because of their shared Jewish backgrounds, as a mother figure
'The truth is we were friends as well as her being my boss. Because she
was a woman and much older than me there was lots of psychobabble about
the mother son thing,' he says.
Given that Rubin's past includes preparing Bill Clinton for major TV
appearances, one might expect corporate affairs to hold little thrill.
Indeed, Rubin is quite firm that his shelf-life in commercial PR is
limited and that he is keen to make a return to US government service
whenever the Democrats regain power.
The exact sort of role he hopes to take in a future administration casts
doubt on his commitment to commercial PR.
'I try to keep my aspirations within limits,' he says, 'but I suspect
next time I'll try and take a job that involves a policy-making role,
even though I may do more media stuff than most advisers.'
As if to stress his preference for policy over communications, Rubin
saves his most enthusiastic tone of voice for memories of a diplomatic
assignment he was given during the closing stages of the Kosovo war. He
was sent by Albright to negotiate the disarmament of the KLA with its
Despite some KLA remnants still operating within Macedonia, the project
was considered a success, hastening the end of the conflict and the
safety of Serbs within Kosovo. On the basis of this, and despite his
earlier modesty, he does not object to suggestions that he would make a
good secretary of state himself. Or perhaps a US ambassador to the
United Nations, another job he helped Albright to perform, between 1993
In the meantime, Rubin is Brunswick's major door opener. He is content
in this role, even though he was not prepared to do it for any of the
major corporations that wooed him. 'The problem is that when you do that
for a bank you need to perform a finance or legal function once you've
opened the door. I can't do those things, but I understand crisis PR and
how journalists think.'
Rubin's tenure in corporate PR is likely to be short - he will jump ship
as soon as the Democrats return - but while he is there he is likely to
raise its game. He will certainly make Holborn a more dramatic place to
work: 'I don't see advocacy as cute phrases or leaking stories to
journalists. I see it as battling in the court of public opinion, just
as a lawyer battles in a court of law.'
Before he returns to government service, his Brunswick handlers must be
hoping the experiment in their world is a success.
1985: Research director, Arms Control Association
1996: Clinton/Gore campaign spokesman
1997: Assistant secretary of state for public affairs
2001: Partner, Brunswick Group