A Good Diplomatic Cable Tells A Story

Composing diplomatic cables is an art form, according to Mark Lagon. The former ambassador and now instructor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, talks to Renee Montagne about the art and craft of composing a diplomatic cable.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Let's sample now some notable diplomatic cables from a long time before WikiLeaks. This one came from Yemen's neighbor across the Red Sea, Egypt, in 1863.

Unidentified Man #1: (Reading) Misters Speke and Grant arrived at Alexandria last week. The report of their discovery of the sources of the Nile is confirmed.

MONTAGNE: That cable appears in a collection of historic dispatches put together by a former diplomat, Peter Eicher.

INSKEEP: His books title is "Emperor Dead." Those two words were the full text of a 19th century dispatch an American once sent from Russia.

Another cable, as they're called, came from the American consul in Hong Kong. In 1880, he traveled to Bangkok where he found conditions at the consulate disgraceful.

Unidentified Man #2: (Reading) Sickles(ph), the consul, is an imbecile and a mere figurehead. And the consulate is entirely controlled and conducted by Torrey(ph), the vice consul, who lived a great many years in Hong Kong and is a notorious scoundrel.

MONTAGNE: Then there are the witty and wry dispatches from James Russell Lowell, a well-known Romantic poet and occasional satirist. He was appointed ambassador to Spain in the 1870s. And here's how he described a newlywed young king and queen being received by the court.

Mr. MARK LAGON (Georgetown University): The foreign ligations witnessed the royal procession from the balconies of the presidency. It was a very picturesque spectacle, and yet, so comically like a scene from Cinderella, as to have a strong flavor of unreality. It was the past coming back again and thus typified one of the chronic maladies of Spain.

INSKEEP: In the 1850s another man of letters, Nathanial Hawthorne, the guy who wrote "The Scarlet Letter," was a U.S. diplomat in Liverpool, England. He often dealt with unruly and illiterate American sailors who got into fights and he had to turn their accounts into coherent narratives like this one.

Mr. LAGON: At about 2:00 in the morning, he was called on deck by the second mate and informed that a man had been stabbed. He immediately went to his assistance, found him dangerously wounded on the left side near the fourth or fifth rib. He then had the perpetrator put in irons.

MONTAGNE: One need not be a novelist to treat a cable as an art form. Mark Lagon teaches at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and was a senior advisor to both secretaries of state in the Bush administration. He's written and read thousands of cables and has some tips on composing a cable for the ages.

Mr. LAGON: The key is the lead. Explain what the point is up front and say something colorful, and save the less important stuff for later. But you can get across a moral idea, you can get across a strategic idea, by telling a story.

MONTAGNE: Let me just ask if any cables in history, particularly stand out for the writing.

Mr. LAGON: Well, perhaps the most famous is called "The Long Telegram." George Kennan wrote a long telegram when he was the acting ambassador in Moscow, and he described what the viewpoint of Stalin's Russia was. This was in 1946 moving from being allies in World War II to thinking, oh my goodness, this was going to be our major competitor in the world. And he offered, in very, you know, literary terms, what we needed to do. He suggested that world communism is like a malignant parasite that feeds on diseased tissue, and that we need to help with the Marshall plan to bolster Western Europe.

MONTAGNE: Some of these cables that have came out, through WikiLeaks anyway, have been much remarked upon for their how startling they are in the way they describe heads of state or how the interactions between heads of state - some of that's quite serious, but some is quite amusing. One we spoke of, yesterday on this show, just briefly, was a very funny and richly described - a wedding in Dagestan. This is a little like creative writing.

Mr. LAGON: It is. Here's a wonderful passage from this cable about a wedding. The intelligence colonel sitting next to us, dead drunk, was highly insulted that we wouldn't allow him to add cognac to our wine. It's practically the same thing, he insisted, until a Russian intelligence general, sitting opposite, told him to drop it. We were inclined to cut the colonel some slack though. He's head of the unit to combat terrorism in Dagestan. We were more worried when an Afghan war buddy of the colonel's, and too drunk to sit, let alone stand, pulled out his automatically and asked if we needed any protection. Now, the ambassador and his team got across everything that they thought was important in this area through the story of a wedding.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. LAGON: It was a pleasure joining you.

MONTAGNE: Mark Lagon served as the U.S. Ambassador to combat human trafficking and is currently a visiting professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

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