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Leaders like Ed Whitacre Jr. don’t ever retire, they just pause between great challenges. If boredom doesn’t get them first, a call to duty will. With reports last week from Washington, D.C., and Mexico City that the Trump administration intends to name Whitacre the next U.S. ambassador to Mexico, longtime associates of the former CEO and chairman of AT&T and General Motors are watching with keen interest, but not much surprise.
“This is going to be interesting, assuming it actually happens,” one longtime Whitacre watcher remarked in an off-the-record interview Friday morning. “Ed has always had an affection for Mexico, and he’s the person our country needs down there right now to restore some consistency and common sense to the bilateral relationship.”
Several prominent Texans and Mexicans I spoke to for this column shared similar expressions of anticipation and relief.
“I am excited,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico and cross-border specialist Antonio “Tony” Garza, noting that he, like everyone, was reacting to unconfirmed reports. “I first met Ed Whitacre in the late ’80s and have got to tell you – everything about him says iconic Texan. He’s plain-spoken, has got tons of integrity, and can get things done. That, and he knows Mexico like few others – the history, culture, people, and business. A really great choice.”
“I am biting my tongue not to say anything about Trump,” said one pro-free trade Texas businessman and Republican Party donor. “Let’s just say Ed might be the one guy who can stand up to the president, who will follow the facts and speak his mind.”
One Mexican diplomat put it another way: “We don’t know whose idea this was, perhaps Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson, but Ed Whitacre is deeply respected down here. This will be the first time President Trump shows our country any respect if he names a person of this rank as ambassador.”
All we have at present are unofficial reports. In the current chaos that passes for national politics, several sources noted, we could be one tweet away from a different reality. Thursday’s strange storm of news out of Mexico City and Washington is further evidence of the politics of contradiction at play.
On the same day that Trump surprised his own inner circle at the White House and announced plans to slap 25 percent tariffs on imported steel (Mexico is a significant exporter to the United States), one of the State Department’s most respected Latin American diplomats, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta S. Jacobson, announced to embassy staffers that she was resigning. The New York Times and Washington Post reported that Jacobson was departing after constantly having to account for Trump’s populist anti-immigration and anti-NAFTA sentiments, and his pledge to build a wall between the two countries. The latter issue reportedly led to yet another telephone eruption between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto last week.
Whitacre, Texans and Mexicans believe, can calm these roiled waters.
For those new to San Antonio, Whitacre is the Texas native who decided in 1992 to move Southwestern Bell from St. Louis to San Antonio. Over the next 12 years, he engineered the recreation of telecommunications giant AT&T in the emerging internet age, reuniting five Baby Bells into a Fortune 10 colossus. It was San Antonio’s brief fling with corporate greatness before Whitacre’s successor, Randall Stephenson, moved the headquarters to Dallas in 2008, one year after taking control.
Two years after his retirement from AT&T, Whitacre answered President Barack Obama’s call to rescue a failing General Motors. By 2010 he had stepped down as CEO and chairman of the auto giant and returned to his San Antonio base to quietly run the Whitacre Family Foundation with wife Linda, enjoy life on his ranch, and give retirement another try. If there is any surprise to last week’s news, first reported Thursday morning by Reforma in Mexico City and then in San Antonio by the Rivard Report, it’s that Whitacre has been idling for so long.
Whitacre tells his story in the book American Turnaround, a folksy account of his time transforming Southwestern Bell into AT&T, and then his move to Detroit to bring General Motors back from the brink.
What some might not know is that Whitacre’s experience in Mexico dates at least to 1990, when Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim and others partnered with Southwestern Bell to buy Telmex, the government telecommunications monopoly. The sale was the centerpiece of efforts by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a Harvard-trained technocrat from Nuevo León, to privatize the Mexican economy and open Mexican markets to competition. NAFTA, initialed by Salinas, President George H.W. Bush, and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in San Antonio in 1992, went into effect in 1993.
It was a transformative time in Mexico and in San Antonio, which that same year welcomed Whitacre and his corporate team here from St. Louis. I knew Salinas as a candidate and later as president. One morning I waited in his private residence at Los Pinos in Mexico City to meet with the president. He soon emerged from breakfast in jogging gear with Slim at his side, whom he introduced to me.
“San Antonio? Do you know my good friend Ed Whitacre?” Slim asked as we shook hands.
“I do,” I replied, anticipating some small talk about two of the most powerful business personalities in the hemisphere.
“Then it’s very nice to meet you. I will tell him we met,” said Slim, walking away. Slim and Whitacre share an aversion to reporters.
Whitacre is a known quantity in Mexico City, and so is San Antonio. Mayor Ron Nirenberg, returning from a Sister Cities visit to Guadalajara last month, recently told a luncheon audience of the San Antonio Bar Association how respected San Antonio is in Mexico, where the city is regarded as the most welcoming destination north of the border.
What is less clear is whether Trump can find a way to make the most of Whitacre, who abhors grandstanding and media attention. Can the real estate tycoon and reality television personality behind The Art of the Deal, whose slogan is “Make America Great Again,” learn from the man behind American Turnaround, whose genuine accomplishments require no hype?