A day in the life of US Ambassador and lifelong summer resident, Rufus Gifford.
“My favorite thing about this job is that there is no average day,” says US Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford, answering the front door of the palatial ambassadorial residence in Copenhagen. It’s 7:30 on a Monday morning and he is accompanied by his yellow Labrador retriever, Argos. A lifelong summer resident of Nantucket, the forty-year-old political appointee entered politics in 2004, working for fellow Nantucketer John Kerry. But it wasn’t until the last election, when he served as chief of President Obama’s fundraising operation, that Gifford’s diplomatic future was sealed as the US Ambassador to Denmark.
“I’m here as the president’s representative,” Gifford says, “but on a broader level, I think we’ve lost the hearts and minds of a generation of Europeans. I feel that my mission here is to remind them that the US has led the world in liberation, from the Marshall Plan to the Civil Rights movement, to women’s liberation, to LGBT equality.” Unabashedly patriotic, Gifford remarks, “I will never say the US is perfect. We’re massively imperfect. But being able to acknowledge that and learn from it are what make us an example for the rest of the world.”
Rufus Gifford is the son of prominent Boston banker and civic leader Chad Gifford and his wife, Anne. After graduating from Brown University, Gifford began his career in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, before entering politics. Even though he’s out of show business today, Gifford still finds himself in the limelight as the star of his own Scandinavian reality show called “Jeg er ambassadøren fra Amerika, (roughly “I’m the ambassador from America”.) The show has proved wildly popular and has been renewed for a second season. It traces Gifford’s day-to-day life in the Danish capital with his husband-to-be, 55-year-old veterinarian Dr. Stephen DeVincent.
DeVincent, who is heading back to the US later that day for work, joins him for coffee in a long gallery overlooking the lush gardens. The ambassadorial residence known as Rydhave, located in the tony neighborhood of Charlottenlund, was appropriated by the Nazis in 1943 and served as their headquarters during their occupation of Denmark under Werner Best. Where a swastika once flapped in the wind, the American flag now proudly waves. DeVincent points out an antique desk that once displayed a photograph of Hitler but now holds a silver-framed image of Gifford with Obama.
At the end of the reception gallery, the iconic Shepard Fairey image of the president hangs on the wall. Gifford and DeVincent have developed relationships with some of Copenhagen’s top gallery owners, who have lent them the impressive array of contemporary art that adorns the walls. The couple is currently in the process of redecorating the residence and will be married there in October. It’s perhaps not coincidental that Denmark was the first country in the world to legally recognize same-sex marriage. Days earlier, Gifford and DeVincent had marched in the Gay Pride parade in Aarhus.
Shortly before 9 a.m., a black Cadillac, followed closely by a black Range Rover for his security detail, arrives to transport Gifford to the embassy in downtown Copenhagen. First on his docket is a regular morning briefing, during which Gifford and his staff review Danish, American and international headlines. Despite the occasional observation that “we’re running two minutes over,” there’s no lack of jokes about bad photographs of the ambassador in the press and humorous speculation about the upcoming Danish parliamentary elections.
The broad range of topics covered includes the G-7 summit, Turkish leader Recep Erdogan, climate change, “Schnitzelgate,” Beau Biden’s funeral, the prison break in upstate New York, immigration policy, tax cuts, a non-binding resolution before the European parliament, reports that 8 percent of Denmark’s farms are failing, the news that industrial production is back to pre-2008 levels, and the whale hunt in the Faroe Islands (Denmark’s sovereign territory includes these islands and Greenland). Following the briefing, Gifford’s day, which his press secretary had earlier described as uneventful, consists of back-to-back meetings to discuss things like a recent trip to Stuttgart to meet with two other European ambassadors, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, and four US generals. In between meetings, Gifford manages to see DeVincent off at the airport.
“I have to be constantly ‘on,’ which is exhausting,” he says, “but also exhilarating. Whatever the issue — the military and NATO, trade, climate change — it keeps me on my toes.” In addition to his official duties, Gifford is surprisingly conscientious about personally answering the flood of emails he receives from Danish citizens, and his social media presence is impressive.
By 4 p.m., Gifford, or “Ambo” as some staffers call him, is in the car on his way back to Rydhave where he will host a reception for former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau. As guests arrive, he greets them jovially and encourages them to enjoy the uncharacteristically sunny garden. The crowd includes representatives of various Danish companies, a celebrity chef, and the producer of Gifford’s TV show. This sort of entertaining is central to his role.
“My job is to provide a more nuanced image of the US,” he says. “I like to smash the stereotype that Americans have with the Danes, and a lot of that is PR.” To date, his biggest challenge was responding to the terrorist shooting spree last Valentine’s Day that left two people dead, including one at Copenhagen’s Great Synagogue. The situation required a three-part response: assuring the public that no Americans were involved, providing on-the-ground intelligence to Washington, and striking a tone of compassion and cooperation with the Danish government and people. “Denmark is a small country, but its contributions to the world are outsized,” Gifford says. “It’s an overused cliché, but they punch above their weight.”
This summer, he’ll return to Nantucket for some much needed R&R (not to mention anonymity). “Nantucket is my home. It’s where my blood pressure plummets. As soon as I land and smell that air, there’s a sense of ease and calm.” So if you spot a Scandinavian film crew following an improbably handsome couple down Main Street, stop and say hello to our man in Denmark, and congratulate him on a job well done.