When he was about 10 years old, John Tefft and his little sisters, Sheila and Pat, were bundled off by their parents to UW-Madison’s Saturday language classes in hopes they would acquire some culture.
Sheila took French. Pat took Spanish.
John took Russian.
“He went around the house saying ‘dasvidania’ all the time,” said Sheila Tefft of her brother, who has been tapped by President Barack Obama to come out of retirement to become the next ambassador to Russia.
Sheila Tefft, a senior lecturer in journalism at Emory University and longtime foreign correspondent, talked about her brother in an interview Friday with the Wisconsin State Journal.
The five children of Floyd and Mary Tefft grew up in Madison, where their father was a lawyer for the state and both parents encouraged risk-taking and
cultural immersion. They all went to Our Lady Queen of Peace School and Edgewood High School, Sheila Tefft said.
Should he be confirmed by the Senate, Tefft will bring years of international experience serving around the globe, including in Moscow, Kiev, Budapest, Rome and Jerusalem.
Depending on the fortunes of the Green Bay Packers, he may also bring his Cheesehead, said his sister. He broke out the yellow triangular headgear at one diplomatic post following a notable Packers victory, she noted.
Her brother would return to diplomatic service only a year after retiring, most recently as ambassador to Ukraine.
“I was not surprised,” she said. “I think he just loves his work and he just felt this is a great opportunity. These are difficult times in U.S.-Russian relations, and he brings a lot of experience and skills to that situation.”
She said her brother is “very personable, and he has been described as low-key. That is true; throughout his career he has been recognized as a very talented diplomat.”
Sheila Tefft, who worked as a reporter and bureau chief for national publications throughout Asia before starting at Emory University in 1999, said her brother, the oldest of three brothers and two sisters, was pointed toward the foreign service immediately after graduating in 1971 from Marquette University in history.
(As a high school senior, and student council president, at Edgewood in 1967, he won a savings bond in an essay competition for his paper “Should the United States Have Universal Military Training?”)
“We all had international interests. Our parents traveled a lot and conveyed the message that it is OK to take risks and try new things,” said Sheila Tefft.
John Tefft’s first assignment in the 1970s was to the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, she said, where Henry Kissinger in 1974 set up something that came to be known as “shuttle diplomacy.”
He was also liaison between the State Department and the UN mission during the Carter administration, working with then-ambassador Andrew Young.
Sheila Tefft said the family — now far-flung, with one brother working for the UN in Ghana as an agricultural economist — gathered a few months ago in Washington, D.C., for a wedding.
Tefft stopped in Madison in 1985 to visit his family (both parents and a sister have since died) and talked about the Geneva summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a meeting for which Tefft prepared issue papers and policy statements. He was in the Office of Soviet Affairs then and later rose to No. 2 in the Moscow embassy.
He told the State Journal that he was first assigned to the Moscow desk in 1983 not because he was a Kremlinologist but because he had some background in three regions where, at the time, Soviet power is exerted: the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa.
“If you spend your whole career in Moscow, you don’t necessarily get a breadth of feeling about how Soviet policy is playing in other regions,” he said then.
A Senate confirmation would cap that career.
Obama’s announcement that he is tapping Tefft for the high-profile diplomatic post comes amid a crucial period in U.S.-Russia relations, which have been severely tested over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, among other issues. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has been without an ambassador since February.
Tefft would bring his decades of experience in Eastern European affairs to the post, having served most recently as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in Obama’s first term. Immediately before that, Tefft was the U.S. ambassador to Georgia during the administration of George W. Bush.
Since 2013, he has been executive director of the RAND Business Leaders Forum at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit that analyzes public policy.
The U.S. ambassador’s post in Russia has been vacant since Michael McFaul stepped down after a turbulent two years in the Russian capital.
McFaul is a Stanford University professor and the architect of Obama’s effort to reset relations with Russia. But Obama’s relationship with Putin has been anything but smooth.
The U.S. and its European allies each have sanctioned Russian businesses and individuals, including some members of Putin’s inner circle, after Russia occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine earlier this year.
The U.S. and the European Union have condemned Putin’s act as an illegal land grab and have refused to recognize it.
The U.S. and its allies continue to call on Russia to work with the new government in Ukraine to ease tensions between the two countries, and for Russia to end its support for pro-Russia separatists who are blamed for destabilizing eastern Ukraine. They have threatened to slap additional sanctions on Russia if Putin does not take steps to help restore order to eastern Ukraine.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.