Mimic with a fine ear for detail

For a man who is having the President of the United States to stay next week, Jeff Bleich, US ambassador to Australia, is surprisingly relaxed.

But one senses that is his permanent mode. The former special counsel to the White House, former hotshot media lawyer at the firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson and former president of the State Bar of California seems to accomplish things effortlessly.

"They're going well," he says of preparations for his guest as we sit down at the Turkish Halal Pide House in Yarralumla. "We're down to the detail and the devil is in the detail."

Like Bleich, this place is informal and relaxed: formica tables on the footpath, a fridge of drinks and delicious Turkish food.

In how many countries can the US ambassador sit outside on the footpath, I wonder? Of course, at the next table are two Australian Federal Police officers and, at another table, sit two embassy staff but, after five minutes of talking to the disarmingly affable Bleich, they are forgotten.

Bleich confesses to liking the pides with meat and cheese but says his wife, Becky, likes the feta cheese and spinach one. He orders his wife's favourite, though the owner, Ugur, soon crowds our table with extra things: dips, vegetable puffs and stuffed zucchini and eggplant.

"You have to try the Turkish soda," Bleich says. "It tastes just like bubblegum." And it does. Maybe it appeals more to Americans brought up on soda. I swap to water.

The centrepiece of Barack Obama's two-day visit, which begins on Wednesday, will be his address to a joint session of the Australian Parliament. He is also going to Darwin, where the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin next year and the 60th year of the ANZUS Treaty this year will provide a backdrop to celebrate the defence relationship. He will announce a new joint defence facility.

For Bleich, it will also be a chance to catch up with a friend. Obama and Bleich met when they were just finishing law school. Bleich had gone to Berkeley Law School in California and was working as a law clerk for District of Columbia circuit Court of Appeals judge Abner Mikva.

"Judge Mikva was popular because he was a feeder judge to the Supreme Court - he had applications from top students at about 15 schools," Bleich says. (Bleich would go on to work as a law clerk for the then US chief justice, William Rehnquist, the next year.)

Obama was already famous, at least in legal circles. He was the first African-American to be president of the Harvard Law Review; had been offered a book deal, and was a brilliant student. But, strangely, Obama had not applied to Mikva.

"I told the judge I heard a rumour he's not applying to anyone. He's going to do something more productive, like community organising," Bleich recalls.

Bleich, an accomplished impersonator, lapses into a gravelly Chicago voice. ''I gotta get 'im," he says Mikva replied. ''This is the sort of guy I should be hiring."

"Instead of me?"

"Exactly,'' the judge said.

Bleich was charged with recruiting Obama. The two got on famously on the phone and the seeds of a friendship were sown. But he could not persuade Obama to change his plans.

Bleich went back to Mikva. "The good news, judge, is that he is even better on the phone than on paper. The bad news is he wants a job with a purpose." Mikva couldn't persuade him either.

But Mikva, a mover and shaker in Democratic politics in Chicago - he had been a congressman and special counsel to president Bill Clinton - became a mentor to both men.

Bleich later helped on Obama's quest to become a US senator for Illinois in 2004. After Obama delivered his keynote address at that year's Democratic Convention, Bleich recalls, Obama modestly turned down morning talk shows.

He told Bleich it was way too early to be talking about higher office when he was not yet a senator. That conversation made Bleich realise this was a man with a steadiness and discipline rare among politicians.

In the 2008 presidential race, Bleich was co-chairman of Obama's national fundraising committee and later served in the White House as special counsel.

The Australian post has almost always been filled by a political appointment, so it was no surprise Obama followed this path.

But Bleich is a cut above the usual political friends sent to Australia and could have served in almost any post. So why Australia?

It turns out Bleich had been here before, while working on a big case.

"If you can enjoy a country while taking depositions [evidence], then you know it is a great country," he says, laughing. "By the time I had come back, I had joined the shiraz of the month club and my wife said, 'Boy, you really must like it.'"

Australia is also part of the changing demographic of Asia and the Pacific, Bleich says.

''In terms of the next half-century, it's going to be written in this region. And if you are looking for partners in the region to work with on the key issues, there's no better one than Australia," he says.

"It is, geographically, the right place at the right time. You have just the right resource mix for the growing needs of the region; a rare combination of an understanding of Asia but a European background and an ability to move easily in both worlds," he says.

Australia also offered a chance to have an experience of living overseas with his family, who have been along for the ride during Bleich's extraordinary, multifaceted and busy career.

The kids, he says, have gone "completely native". His eldest son, Jake, has just completed the HSC; middle son Matthew is threatening to stay beyond the end of the posting - which will come next year if Obama loses - and his daughter, Abby, is enjoying it too. "We'll just tell the next ambassador 'we left you a 17-year-old. He eats a lot but he's pretty good,'" Bleich jokes.

We talk briefly about the HSC. Bleich notes how stressful it is to reduce entry to university to a single score. The US has the SAT score but colleges also look at a student's grade point average during high school, as well as sporting, art and community achievements, and many now require application essays.

When Bleich arrived, he nominated climate change and nuclear non-proliferation as two issues he saw as areas of close co-operation between our two nations.

Our lunch took place the day before the Gillard government had its carbon tax legislation passed, and Bleich made no secret of his delight.

"Every action that is taken around the world puts steel in the spine of other nations, and creates a moral obligation, probably more so with Australia because it's the 13th-largest economy in the world, it's a member of all the international bodies and it has a big seat at the table," he says.

"When you act, other nations take notice," he says.

There's also an evident frustration at some of the rhetoric during the Australian debate, particularly the argument that the US and China are not doing anything.

Bleich points out the Obama administration's economic stimulus program put about $100 billion into energy programs and it has new standards for vehicles that are among the toughest in the world.

California, the seventh-biggest economy in the world, is also about to implement a comprehensive cap-and-trade scheme, he says.

''The notion that we're [the US] not doing anything is just not correct. It's just we're not doing it at the federal level at the moment," the ambassador says.

There is only one tense moment, when I ask about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Would the US expect Australia to extradite him if he returns here?

''Well, there are no charges pending in the US,'' a suddenly cautious ambassador says, ''so it is premature.

''We are investigating an individual who stole classified material from the United States. To the extent that there were persons who were aiding and abetting, we are looking at that too."

Bleich notes the Pentagon Papers case provides a limited precedent of protection for a newspaper which publishes stolen government material. But, if the material was solicited, it might be different.

The main objection to WikiLeaks' actions is the impact, he says.

"They just took random documents. A lot of people have said they just revealed more detail about what was already known about the government's activities. So the issue is, how did that help?" he says.

"I know it hurt. Sources were endangered, people who provided information on issues before they became a big issue are now reluctant to share it. People who got that information were less likely to share it in writing, so you don't get a clear, concise, consistent record.

''For all those reasons, it degrades the quality of information the government needs to make good decisions. So it's a very unhealthy thing, a dangerous and immature thing to do," he says.

As for extradition? "We will have to see whether there is an offence against any person, and Australia will have to evaluate its own extradition obligations."

There is speculation Bleich himself might turn to politics when he returns to the US. Meanwhile, he still has 12 months in Australia.

He misses really good Mexican food, standing up in court and working in the White House. And he's found plenty of people here to share his obsession with all things Elvis.

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