Interview: Robert Tuttle

Ask this Californian what he likes about Britain, and he replies: ‘The weather. Everyone asks me about the weather, but I love it. All right, it rains less in Los Angeles, but I like it that bit colder. I play tennis all year. On January mornings, it’s a little cold for the first 10 minutes, but, if you can get through that, it can be lovely.’

Such an answer might hint at a lifetime in the diplomatic world, but no. This is Robert Tuttle’s first diplomatic posting, taken up in 2005. He is, in fact, a car salesman. His father, Holmes Tuttle, set up a car dealership in California in 1946. He sold a car to Ronald Reagan, and a friendship began between the pair. They campaigned together for the Republicans, and Holmes was one of those who urged Reagan to stand for governor of California.

When Reagan ran for President in 1980, Robert Tuttle co-chaired his campaign for California and then went to work for him at the White House, where he advised on presidential appointments. ‘Theodore Roosevelt said that, for every appointment a president makes, he makes 10 enemies. Modern presidents are smarter and delegate the task,’ laughs Mr Tuttle. If the job was ‘very, very difficult’, President Reagan was ‘a joy to work for’ and ‘very supportive. A man secure in his own skin, who liked strong people around him and who understood the art of delegation.’

Mr Tuttle was invited to dinner by George H. Bush, Reagan’s Vice-President, where he met George W. Bush, and they became friends. When George W. Bush stood for office, ‘like all those who run for governor of Texas, he came to California to raise the money to do so’, and Mr Tuttle carried out fundraising for him. In return, he was appointed ambassador to the Court of St James. More than a quarter of the US’ ambassadors are not career diplomats, including, invariably, the one to the UK.

The ambassador would not be drawn on this, but embassy staff were more forthcoming: ‘You know that the ambassador has influence with the president, being his personal envoy, and, because diplomats tend to be conservative, an outsider can bring fresh ideas. But at times it can be like reinventing the wheel.’ With the change of President, Mr Tuttle will be leaving office. ‘That we will have our first African-American president fewer than 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act is amazing, and election night was a great one for our country.

President-Elect Obama is a moving speaker and showed the importance of rhetoric.’ What will he miss most about the UK? ‘The people everyone has been so welcoming to my wife and I.’ He will return to his homes in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. He admits to having occasionally felt homesick ‘but the longer I’ve been here, the more I’ve enjoyed it’ and what he has missed most is his art collection, particularly ‘a huge Francis Bacon, too large to transport’.

He and his wife are collectors ‘we just buy what we like, with a mutual veto policy that sometimes works better than others!’ principally of mmodern and contemporary art. ‘But one of the bonuses is that London, with New York and Los Angeles, is one of the three cities for contemporary art. I’ve been to every special exhibition the RA has put on, and, if I am on the way back from somewhere and have a few minutes to spare, I will run into the RA for 20 minutes it’s my place to relax and revitalise.’ How special is the special relationship? ‘It’s broad, wide and deep. You are our best friend and ally.

Every year, about 15,000 state, federal and local officials come to the UK to visit their British counterparts to learn, and to share information and ideas.’ When he advised on selecting ambassadors, what did he look for? ‘Someone who could represent the President, who had experience of that country.’ The obvious next question: would he have recommended himself? He grins. ‘I hope I fit the criteria. I first came here aged 19, and visited several times since. In the 1970s, my first wife and I collected English furniture, and we spent a month travelling throughout England, staying in out-of-the-way places. That was great it­’s such a beautiful country. Also, I’m a history major with a political science minor, and have always been interested in British history.’ Another obvious question: would one buy a second-hand car from this man? Yes, I would.