Q&A with Sam and Marilyn Fox

ELLEN FUTTERMAN, EDITOR

Sam and Marilyn Fox

Sam and Marilyn Fox are back. After spending a few months shy of two years in Belgium, he as the U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium, she as “Mrs. Ambassadorable” as he likes to call her, the couple is now home and as busy as ever with family, friends, charity work and their various businesses.

Sam Fox relinquished his titles as chairman and CEO of Harbour Group Ltd., a privately held firm that acquires and builds companies, when he accepted the ambassadorship appointment from President George W. Bush in 2007. At that time Fox’s son, Jeffrey, became CEO and interim chairman; he is now officially both. Sam Fox’s current title is “founder” of the Clayton-based business, which he began in 1976.

He still maintains an office there and on this typical Wednesday, he is apologizing for running late, explaining he must finish an email. No worries. I’m engrossed in a conversation with his wife as we sit in the office lobby. She mentions that her husband has a big — big as in the big 8-0 — birthday later in the month and all five of their children and 13 of their 14 grandchildren will be celebrating with him. Their granddaughter in the Israeli Army will not be able to make it.

Frankly, Sam Fox looks like a poster child for 80 being the new 60 and Marilyn, whose is seventysomething (when I asked her publicist, he said she was 39) also looks years younger than her real age.

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Fifteen minutes later, Sam is ushering Marilyn and me into his office, where we sit for nearly two hours discussing everything from the ambassadorship to politics to the state of Israel to charitable giving to both the European and St. Louis Jewish communities.

Jewish Light: What were some of the reactions within the Brussels Jewish community regarding the change of administrations in Washington?

Sam Fox: Very similar to those in America. The Jewish community is liberal in both America and in Europe — I would say around the world. So they were very delighted that (Barack) Obama became the president and I would suspect if most of them could have voted most of them would have voted for Obama, just as was true in America.

JL: Was there great interest in Belgium, and for that matter in Europe, about the American elections?

SF: I was amazed that Europeans, particularly Belgians, were as up-to-date on current events about our election and campaigning as Americans were. Marilyn and I received the American newspapers on a daily basis and watched CNN and BBC International. There wasn’t anything we knew that wasn’t known as well by our friends and acquaintances in Belgium. There was tremendous focus on this election. The Jewish community and the Gentile community both were very much in favor of Obama.

JL: Did that surprise you?

SF: No, the Belgian community and Europeans in general are very liberal. Belgium is very socialistic as are large parts of Europe. So they would normally feel more comfortable with a Democrat who was liberal.

JL: Speaking of President Obama, he recently marked 100 days since taking office. How do you assess the job he is doing so far?

SF: On the positive side, I think he is a very straightforward president who does a lot of communicating with his constituency and that is very important. He does a wonderful job at that. I give him very high marks in the diplomatic area in dealing with other nations around the world. He has shown no concern about stepping out and saying let’s be friends, let’s talk and that’s something America has done very little of lately. So it’s refreshing and right on.

The thing that concerns me is that he is very liberal and he is spending an awful lot of money and I don’t know where the money is coming from. If you take a look at where (Democratic) projections are in terms of money that has been spent and will be spent over the next four years, you’ll see we have to borrow 6 trillion dollars on top of 10.8 trillion. It’s got to be inflationary. I don’t know how you extract yourself from that that has been done. I like social programs, I just think you have to take a look at where we are spending and wasting money. A tremendous effort should be placed on doing things more efficiently, eliminating what is unnecessary and using those dollars for better causes, like social programs. But it has to be done within the context of a balanced budget.

JL: What are your perceptions of the Israeli elections and how they will affect negotiations regarding a lasting agreement with the Palestinians and Middle East nations?

SF: I don’t have a crystal ball. (Benjamin) Netanyahu is far more to the right than what we’ve previously had with (Ehud) Olmert. By the same token, the will of the country is to get this matter resolved if it can be resolved while maintaining security for Israel. That is the key. The other wild card here is the position of the American government. What demands will the American government put upon the Israeli government and what kind of pressure could (the Americans) bring to bear on some leading Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt?

I think (Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton is very capable. She’s a real friend to Israel, that’s been demonstrated. Still, you don’t know what kind of pressure is going to be brought. The point I’m making is that Netanyahu left on his own might be one thing, but he has to contend with a number of things, including the American government and the reality of the situation.

JL: How do you see Israel changing and evolving as a nation, and other than creating a lasting peace with its neighbors, what do you see as Israel’s greatest challenges to enable its survival and prosperity?

SF: Israel’s future is bright. We (he and Marilyn) first saw Israel in an in-depth manner in 1976 and then again in 1979, both on Federation trips. If you take a look at what has happened to Israel in 30 years, it’s incredible. I can attribute this to the Jewish people in that they are smart and well-motivated and well-educated. A country is its people. The quality of a country is directly proportionate to the quality of its people. The quality of the people and their capabilities in Israel is outstanding. I’m not worried about Israel’s future save any problems in the neighborhood, so to speak.

JL: What were your high points/greatest achievements during your tenure as U.S. Ambassador and Mrs. Ambassador?

Marilyn Fox: My greatest achievement was developing relationships with people there. Even if they might not agree with what is gong on with the government of the United States, you can build relationships with people. Building those relationships gives them a much more pos- itive feeling, which is diplomacy at work. Relationship building is what an ambassador does.

SF: I’d agree, building better relationships between our people. And you heard about this film we put together?

JL: Tell me about that, how did it get started?

SF: The creation of the film was inspired by two events that took place shortly after I arrived in Belgium. The first was Memorial Day 2007. You may have seen an editorial I wrote in the Post-Dispatch concerning that experience. What I observed there was that Belgians have a deep and lasting love for America. The second was a dialogue I had over dinner with 20 couples at the leading Flemish Club in Belgium. This was in June 2007. I was grilled for three hours about America and the Bush Administration. They had strong feelings about Guantanamo, the Iraqi War, climate change and what we weren’t doing about it, but they were very polite. I came away from that experience realizing that near-term there were significant and substantial differences of opinion. I wondered if I could find a way to refocus the Belgians on our rich long-term friendship rather than the short-term differences that divide us.

JL: So you decided to create a film?

SF: Yes, commemorating the 175th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Belgium. It emphasized our long-term relationship and how rich it was.

JL: What was the reaction from Belgians to the film?

SF: The film premiered on April 8, 2008 at the palace Academy to 280 of Belgium’s leading citizens. The audience was completely mesmerized by this 18-minute film. I spent a fair amount of time in Belgium showing this film all around the country. It’s presently on permanent display at the Brussels Convention center. It received tremendous media coverage. The president of the Senate called a Joint Session of the Senate and the Chamber (their Parliament) specifically for showing our film from the Senate floor. Belgians came away from the film with strong patriotic feelings about their country. And they also must come away with good feelings about the United States as well.

JL: How is the Belgian Jewish community similar to and different from other European Jewish communities?

SF: I don’t think we’ve had enough experience to comment on that. But it’s not much different than the Jewish community in the States. Reform Jews there are much more like Conservative Jews here.

JL: What was a typical day like for you in Belgium?

MF: There was no typical day. You make your own schedule. I went every place with Sam that was appropriate for us to go together. Both of us thought it was very important for the two of us to appear where we were needed. Plus, I enjoyed it. I gave luncheons and receptions, because I liked the people and I wanted to build relationships.

SF: She did something I don’t know any other ambassador’s wife has done – she had teas every week for the spouses of employees at the Embassy, plus NATO and the European Union, too. The Embassy has 600 employees.

JL: How did those go?

MF: As ambassador, you are part of an embassy, it’s really important for you to show an interest in the spouses of the people who work there. I tried — as often as I could — to have coffee in the morning to meet the spouses. I’d have six to 12 people at a time. It turned out to be a terrific thing to do because one-third of the embassy moves every year, so 200 or so new people are coming in every year. I’d explain to them that I invited you because I want you to know about the ambassador and me and we want to get to know you, too, and we want all of you to get to know one another and your families. Everyone would talk and they would find they have interests in common.

JL: Who were your friends over there?

SF: Most of our friends were Belgians. We met thousands of people. We really do have a lot of friends. We plan to spend much of October and November this year visiting.

MF: Take away all the titles and all the physical things they have. People are people. If you are genuine and true and down to earth, a relationship can be formed. Almost all of the people we met were really nice people, level-headed and down-to-earth, their lifestyle might have been different but it didn’t matter.

JL: What do you think are the keys to a healthy and vibrant Jewish community in St. Louis, and do you think we’re doing everything we can as a community to realize that goal?

SF: What would be true in St. Louis is what is true in any community. The more things the community can do to involve its constituents, the Jewish population, the better and stronger the community will be. That way it’s pulling everyone together, particularly around independent causes. We do have a good deal of interaction in St. Louis. Could there be more? Well, there always could be more. But St. Louis is a great, great place.

JL: What organizations do you plan to devote the most time and attention to now that you’re back? What makes those organizations most special to you?

MF: St. Louis has these wonderful organizations and you have to pick and choose. I’m very active in Variety, the Children’s Charity; the Jewish Community Center always has been very special to our whole family; Webster University; the Botanical Gardens; the Missouri History Museum; Women of Achievement.

SF: Washington University, which is my alma mater and I’ve been active with it for years and years, I’ve been a board member for years; the Sam Fox School; Boys Scouts; Saint Louis Art Museum and the Republican Jewish Coalition.

JL: Sam, your wife let it slip that you are celebrating an 80th birthday. Are there any career changes ahead?

SF: I was talking to my good friend Dr. Bill Peck (of the Washington University Center for Health Policy) about me going back to medical school and becoming a brain surgeon. But I’m not sure once I got done how many years I would have left to practice.

WHAT: Sam Fox will speak to Congregation Temple Israel members and their guests only about “American-European Relations: The Belgian Connection”

WHEN/WHERE: When: 6 p.m. June 7 at Congregation Temple Israel

HOW MUCH: Talk is free, dinner featuring Belgian cuisine, which follows the talk, is $25

MORE INFO: Reservations must be made by Friday, June 5 by calling Jessica Farber at 314-432-8050