Carol Giacomo is a foreign and defense policy writer and a member of the editorial board of The New York Times. Previously, she covered foreign policy and traveled over 1 million miles to more than 100 countries with eight secretaries of state as diplomatic correspondent for Reuters in Washington, D.C. Before taking part in a Zócalo/UCLA Downtown event, “Is America Enabling Autocrats to Run the World?,” at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown Los Angeles, she spoke in the Zócalo green room about back channels, having her hotel attacked with rockets, and dancing in North Korea.
What was the last book you read?
I usually have a couple books I’m reading at the same time. One is A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel by Amor Towles, on audio book. The book I’m reading is by Bill Burns, retired deputy secretary of state and now head of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C. It’s called The Back Channel. He’s been at the center of many important diplomatic events, including the negotiations with Iran.
What’s your favorite airline?
I flew on Cathay Pacific, and I thought they were pretty good.
Which dessert can you not resist?
What do you miss about Lowell, Massachusetts, where you started your career?
That was a great time. That was my first job as a reporter, and I knew nothing. That’s where I learned about politics. That’s where I learned about ethnic diversity. That’s where I learned how to read memos on the city manager’s desk upside down, and how to sneak into apartment buildings so I could get an interview with a judge who was eventually removed for doing favors for a mob figure.
What was the most important lesson you learned covering local and state government in Connecticut?
I really grew up as a journalist at the Hartford Courant. That’s when newspapers were still pretty vibrant. It was locally owned. A very large newsroom with a lot of us who were all the same age, late 20s and early 30s. We grew up together as adults, as journalists, and as people.
On what machine do you most of your writing?
On a desktop computer. I like having two screens. I can write on one, and I can be looking for information on another.
What’s the scariest place you’ve ever been?
Two places. Baghdad, Iraq, in 2003 when I was at the Al Rasheed Hotel with Paul Wolfowitz and the place was rocketed. One person died in the room below and one room over. … The other place was Afghanistan in 2011 when I was out with a NATO patrol with the governor of Ghazni province, and NATO troops were there with us. The Taliban staged a mortar attack and we were pinned down for an hour.
What is most memorable from your travels to North Korea?
We were taken to a natatorium, and they had dolphins doing an act, and they had swimmers. It was the middle of the day and the place was filled, mostly with adults. Everybody was clapping in unison. … It was so rigid, and I was so glad I was able to leave.
That doesn’t mean we didn’t have what I thought were actual personal experiences. There were moments we got responses that weren’t scripted. One was a 12-year-old boy. We asked him: How did he feel about meeting Americans? He froze, and said, “My heart is pounding so fast.” And since there’s a proverb about the wolf and the lamb, we asked him how he saw us, as wolf or lamb. He said both.
We were there for four or five days, and the last night we took our host out to dinner. We were leaving the restaurant and talked to the restaurant waiter about how we would love to come back. I said, “The next time we’ll go dancing!” And so, he takes me in his arms and starts to dance in the streets in Pyongyang.
What’s your favorite place on earth?
Anywhere my son is.
Of all the secretaries of state you covered, who was the easiest to talk to?
Larry Eagleburger. But I thought you were going to ask me who the best one was.
Who was the best one?
He was secretary at a pivotal moment in time. And he worked for a president—George H.W. Bush—who was a foreign policy expert himself with whom Baker had the closest personal relationship. When Baker spoke, people knew that he spoke for the president. And Baker was a very skilled politician and wasn’t afraid to have people around him who were very smart.
What is the biggest misconception that Americans have about diplomacy?
Diplomacy is abstract to Americans. They have this perception of the State Department as being this elitist place. The military they understand, with guns and ships and planes, fighting to defend us. But they don’t understand that the diplomats are fighting for this country in a very different way, and only when they fail is the military required. … These days we rely on the military when we need to be doing diplomacy.
Which political leader, living or dead, do you most admire?
It’s easy to say Lincoln or Roosevelt.
What about non-Americans? Nelson Mandela?
I met Mandela. I was traveling with Secretary of State Warren Christopher. We were in South Africa, and I want to say it was 1993. There was just an aura around Mandela, who was amazing. … He really got South Africa back on the right track, but his successors didn’t do as well.