Memoir: 'Not For The Faint Of Heart' Wendy Sherman tells NPR's Michel Martin about her unlikely rise from social worker to high-stakes negotiator with North Korea and Iran, a story laid out in her memoir, Not for the Faint of Heart.
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Memoir: 'Not For The Faint Of Heart'

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Memoir: 'Not For The Faint Of Heart'

Memoir: 'Not For The Faint Of Heart'

Memoir: 'Not For The Faint Of Heart'

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Wendy Sherman tells NPR's Michel Martin about her unlikely rise from social worker to high-stakes negotiator with North Korea and Iran, a story laid out in her memoir, Not for the Faint of Heart.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It may be hard to fathom now, but back in 2000, the U.S. and North Korea came close to a deal that could have curbed North Korea's nuclear program - or so says Ambassador Wendy Sherman. Sherman participated in some of this country's most consequential diplomatic negotiations for the Clinton and Obama administrations, including as lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal. She writes about all this in her new memoir "Not For The Faint Of Heart: Lessons In Courage, Power, And Persistence." In the book, Sherman asserts that the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was ready to complete a deal over his missile program, but the U.S. was not. So I asked her why not.

WENDY SHERMAN: Well, it's not clear why not. We got to the end of the Clinton administration, and a couple of things happened. First of all, the election not - never got over that year was between Al Gore and George Bush. And we thought we had to brief the incoming administration, whoever that was going to be. But that didn't happen until December.

And, secondly, President Clinton was trying to get Middle East peace, a very high-priority item for all of us. And he just felt he didn't have time to do both. I don't - I won't ever know whether we would've gotten that missile deal. It was a permanent moratorium on missile testing. At the end of the Clinton administration, there were no nuclear weapons in North Korea. There was no new fissile material. There were no long-range ballistic missiles. Things went south from there. And now, we are at a very difficult place.

MARTIN: So, look, I know you're a critic of this president's negotiating style, the current president. You said, for example, that Kim Jong Il, the current leader's father, showed a real mastery of details. And that is one of the things that allows a deal to take place. But given that you've pointed out in this book how personal diplomacy can be, is it possible that this current president - President Trump's very different style might yield results?

SHERMAN: Well, indeed, Michel, I thought it might. And I supported the president having this summit with Kim Jong Un, the current leader because both of these leaders believe they're the only one who matters. So I thought, well, maybe they could get a breakthrough. But I also said he needed to have a detailed plan going forward. He needed to have a team who could execute on that plan because he certainly can't do it every single moment of every single day. And it's a very, very hard negotiation. But it was clear at the end of the Singapore summit. There wasn't a team. There wasn't a plan. There wasn't detailed follow-up. And, today, they have secretly moved their nuclear program and their missile program forward. The president's looking for another photo op, and we're nowhere.

MARTIN: You know, there are a lot of surprises in this book for people who only know you because of your work in the State Department. You started your career as a social worker. Your father made some very consequential decisions for civil rights in Baltimore in trying to stop the blockbusting practices that were leading to - not just to white flight but were sort of hemming black people into neighborhoods that - when they could afford to live other places. And some of these decisions actually cost him his livelihood and your family's livelihood, frankly, at a time in your life that, you know, is not that easy. I wonder what lesson you drew from that.

SHERMAN: Well, what - the lesson I drew from that was really about courage, and my parents had tremendous courage. My father listened to a Rosh Hashanah sermon from our rabbi, who had been a chaplain during World War II and had been there when Dachau was liberated. And it made him wonder what ministers and priests had really said to their congregations as Jews were being rounded up. And the rabbi had just recently been arrested trying to integrate an amusement park in Baltimore and thought he owed his congregation an explanation. He said, for me, it is my obligation to make sure that African-Americans are not discriminated in the city of Baltimore.

So my father asked him what he could do. And he said, well, you could advertise open housing in the city of Baltimore, and my father said, well, that will cost me my business. There were no open housing laws at the time. And he said, well, you asked what you could do. This is what you can do. So he talked with my mother. They agreed to do it. Within six months, he had lost 60 percent of his business. He got some of that back, partly from the NAACP and Baltimore neighborhoods, which was trying to integrate neighborhoods without blockbusting. He helped Frank Robinson find a place to live, a very valuable...

MARTIN: The Orioles great, yes.

SHERMAN: ...Oriole. But by 1968, his business had closed. It taught me that courage is an extraordinary thing. It can make change and make a difference, but you have to be ready to pay the price.

MARTIN: You talk a lot in the book about the importance of being authentic. In fact, you - there's this really interesting anecdote that you told the beginning of the story when you're negotiating the Iran deal. And one of the strategies that the Iranians employed was to kind of constantly - renegotiating points that you thought you had already agreed to. You'd already spent way more time on this than you thought you were going to. You were - you burst into tears.

SHERMAN: Yeah. Somewhere along the line, I learned that women are not supposed to get angry, but it's OK to cry. But when I get angry, I start to cry. And I was very angry at that point. I started to yell at my counterpart. He'd not only screwed up my plans - because I had already announced I was going to retire from the State Department because we'd gone on so long - but he was putting the entire deal at risk, which was most important. And the tears started to flow. I couldn't do anything about it. He didn't know what to do with me. These were valid tears of frustration. And he - in some way, shook him up enough to get us to be able to move forward. So nothing I'd encourage other women to do. But the point of the story is you are who you are.

MARTIN: One of the other things that this book does is it points out that, you know, you are kind of an unlikely candidate to be one of this country's top diplomats. So how did this nice Jewish girl from Baltimore...

SHERMAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Who wanted to be a social worker, wind up becoming one of the country's leading diplomats? And do you have advice for other women?

SHERMAN: Sure, a couple of things. One, I wish for everyone an unexpected life. I got a terrific set of tools in my social work training as a community organizer and as a clinician. Indeed, I say that my clinical skills have been very useful with dictators and members of Congress. So I went from social work to politics to the world. And then, the last thing I'd say is that all of us, women in particular, have to get used to power and our own power. Men believe if they have 60 percent of what it takes - of the qualifications for a job, they're ready for the job. Women believe they have to be qualified on every dimension to take a job. It's not true. I would bet on any woman to do almost anything if they have a set of core skills. So believe in yourself, and go for it.

MARTIN: That is Ambassador Wendy Sherman, counselor to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, policy coordinator on North Korea, undersecretary of state for political affairs to President Obama. By the way, she was the first woman to hold that position. Her memoir is called "Not For The Faint Of Heart: Lessons In Courage, Power, And Persistence." Ambassador Wendy Sherman, thank you so much for joining us.

SHERMAN: Thank you, Michel.

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