A Year in Luxembourg
We pay a visit to Orlando’s Robert Mandell, homebuilder turned ambassador to one of the world’s tiniest countries.
Robert Mandell remembers well the day he began his new job as U.S. ambassador to to the small country of Luxembourg.
Well, at least parts of it. The Orlando native was required to present his credentials to Grand Duke Henri, the tiny European country’s head of state, last November.
“It was surreal. I was nervous,’’ the ambassador recalls. “I relive the entire moment again and again in my mind but can’t remember a thing we talked about.’’
Those nerves are now gone as Mandell seeks to maintain America’s close ties to a country that, although smaller than Rhode Island, is the second wealthiest nation in the world. Mandell, a big contributor to and fundraiser for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, was appointed by the president to the post last October after former Ambassador Cynthia Stroum resigned due to complaints about her confrontational management style.
In contrast, Mandell exhibits an easygoing social approach. With his salt-and-pepper hair and wire-rimmed glasses, the 64-year-old ambassador has an almost grandfatherly air. During an invitation-only Fourth of July party in the capital of Luxembourg City, government ministers, mayors, businessmen and the chief of police waited in a receiving line for up to an hour to meet Mandell and his wife, Julie.
“He is interested in listening and speaking to people like me and exchanging ideas. He is my favorite colleague,” said Jean-François Terral, French ambassador to Luxembourg.
Mandell developed his friendly networking style while working as chairman and CEO of The Greater Construction Corp., one of Central Florida’s biggest homebuilding companies. A University of Florida-trained attorney, Mandell also served on numerous local boards, including the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority and the state Environmental Regulation Commission. Before landing the ambassadorship, he served two years on the President’s Export Council, a group that advises Obama on international trade.
One of Mandell's goals is to educate the young people of Luxembourg about the United States. During his confirmation hearing, he told senators that he planned “to reach out to a new European generation that has grown up since the end of the Cold War.’’ Mandell intends to speak with students at every high school in the capital city; and out of the 48 high schools, he has already visited more than half.
However, his community outreach extends beyond the schools. A prolific artist, Mandell opened the ambassador’s residence to children from a local orphanage so they could paint in the sunroom, providing them with materials and lunch. When Mandell gives a tour of the mansion—which the Nazis used as a headquarters during World War II—he doesn’t describe the rooms, but rather the artworks that are displayed on the walls. Some are by Central Florida artists, some by internationally known artists like Christo. Other paintings bear Mandell’s signature, “RAM.’’ Still others bear signatures, “Emily,’’ reflecting the work of the younger artists who visit.
It’s a busy house. This past summer, Mandell hosted a barbecue for a group of Wounded Warrior veterans riding bicycles through Luxembourg. Close friend Mel Martinez, the former U.S. senator from Orlando who was instrumental in connecting Obama with Mandell, visited in July. And retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor visited for a week, laying the groundwork for a conference between the entire Supreme Court and the European Court of Justice, tentatively scheduled for next February.
The conference was Mandell’s idea, and he hopes to be there to welcome the justices. But as a president’s fortunes go, so do those of his appointees. Even though Mandell knows the job may end in January if a new president is chosen, he has no doubt that the past year he has played “the most important role I have ever had.”