As a law clerk to judge Abner Mikva 20 years ago, Jeffrey Bleich never imagined that the young man Mikva tried to recruit as a fellow clerk would one day name him ambassador to Australia.
But Bleich is moving his family and surfboard to the American Embassy in Canberra after being unanimously confirmed for the position last week by the Senate. A swearing-in ceremony is set for Friday so Bleich can begin his diplomatic work before making the move Down Under in January.
Bleich has remained a close friend of President Obama’s since they met in Mikva’s chambers, and he boasts an extraordinary résumé, includimg stints as a clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and attorney for the San Francisco Giants centerfielder Willie Mays.
He has led a busy life since moving to the Bay Area to attend UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, from which he graduated in 1989.
The new ambassador was president of the California and San Francisco Bar Associations, was chair of the American Bar Association’s Amicus Curiae Committee, and is currently a member of the Council of Foreign Relations and the California State University Board of Trustees, all while keeping up with his civil litigation practice at the San Francisco–based law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP.
He’s also no stranger to politics. In 1999, President Clinton appointed
Bleich director of the White House Council on Youth Violence. He was heavily involved in Obama’s presidential run, co-chairing his California campaign and raising more than $500,000 for his friend. Obama named him as a special counsel in March, a position in which he served until his nomination as ambassador in September.
Though Bleich sees little of Obama in his current role, the two remain close friends. After their encounter in Mikva’s office, they stayed in touch through a loose network of colleagues and reconnected when Obama decided to run for president. Bleich even flew to Chicago to spend time with Michelle and the Obama daughters during the campaign.
Of all the positions in Obama’s administration, ambassador to Australia may not seem the most obvious choice for a man of Bleich’s background. But Australia, Bleich said in an interview, is America’s key ally in the region, and the relationship between the two nations rests on issues such as national security and environmental protection, which will “define the next few decades.”
And after working in Washington for the past several months, Bleich looks forward to escaping the capital’s grueling work hours in favor a diplomatic post that will at least allow him to share his experience with his wife and three children in a country he described as “fascinating and beautiful.”
“We can serve our country as a family,” he said.
He also said that his background in law will prove useful overseas.
“It gives you the skills required for negotiation, the ability to be discreet, and patience,” he said.
He has met several heads of state and international leaders during his career, easing some of the intimidation he recalls feeling the first time he talked to Hall of Famer Willie Mays. Bleich is briefed regularly by the State Department as well as federal agencies in Australia on issues and happenings overseas to prepare for his assignment.
“The Internet is very helpful,” he said with a laugh.
His reception in Australia has been a welcoming one so far. The Age, a newspaper in Melbourne, referred to Bleich as a “down to earth bloke,” calling him “one of the highest achieving young lawyers in San Francisco.”
Though thrilled about the additional family time his ambassadorship will provide, Bleich said that leaving the Bay Area will be the hardest part of the job. He is confident that the family will return one day, and he is keeping his house in Piedmont.
“I serve at the pleasure of the president and my wife,” Bleich said, when asked how long he anticipated staying in the position. “I’ll let them work it out.”
Bleich is also a fan of Bay Area surfing, but he is a little intimidated about keeping up with his Aussie counterparts.
“I surf like a middle-aged man,” he said.
Bleich is grateful for his years spent in the Bay Area, which he calls a “welcoming, thoughtful, progressive and effective environment.”
“I can’t imagine any environment other than the Bay Area that would have provided me with the experiences and opportunities I’ve had,” Bleich said. “I’m fortunate to call it home.”
The California News Service is a journalism project of the University of California’s Washington Center and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Contact CNS at email@example.com.