In 1997, the first trade mission that I was involved with was to China. Our previous model was to have full trade offices to support in maybe just 3cities in the world like London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, which is very expensive to rent space and hiring somebody with the necessary expertise and contacts. We hadn’t been doing too well on international business development with that model, so the model had been switched over during the early years of the Leavitt administration to having part time representatives in maybe ten to fifteen different countries who would be available on call, and they were high-level people that had a lot of connections in the government.
The representative we had for China was a guy named Shawn Hu. He was only about 30 years old and had been at Weber State University so he was a friend of Utah. This young guy was just absolutely unafraid of doing anything in terms of getting in to see high-level persons. We got over to China on the trade mission and Beijing was the first stop. Shawn had it set up so that Leavitt had to leave right away from the airport and go to be interviewed on Chinese National Television with an estimated audience of 400 – 500 million people. They were interviewing him about things that Shawn Hu had sold to the top levels of Chinese government that Utah previously had been a backwater in the Western United States that didn’t have much of an economy, but the brilliant Governor Leavitt had come in and made it a technology center and really got the economy going. So in the days afterwards, we met with these high-level officials and we got into the inner sanctum next to the Forbidden City which is where the top party people are and we got in to meet with the number three guy in the whole government. He said to Mike, “We’re especially grateful that you’re here, Governor, because we’re now at the point in our economic development where we have developed the coastal cities, and China is a lot like the United States. The East Coast is developed and our interior West isn’t as developed, and yours wasn’t either a long time ago. At first it was in the east, the Industrial Revolution, and then it went to the west. And we’re moving to the West, too, and your itinerary has you going out to Xian , the ancient capital.”
We went to the University of Xian and they gave Leavitt an honorary doctorate degree and he made a speech that was great. Whenever he’d make a speech to students at a university on our trade missions, they were just entranced, he was so great. The Communists would give a speech by some big-time guy coming in, sitting down and reading his speech, and then when he finishes everybody stands up and he leaves. Leavitt was walking around with a mobile mike, making eye contact, asking them questions, and throwing the whole thing open for questions after twenty minutes or so. And they just think this guy’s the greatest thing they’ve ever seen, which he is, this phenomenal leader who interacts with the people.
They held a state banquet for us in the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square, which is quite rarely done. We’re in the middle of this banquet, and this Chinese guy gets up and he gives a toast, and so this other Chinese guy comes over to me and says, now when this Chinese toast is over, you’ve got to be the one to respond, because that’s the number two Chinese person here and you’re the number two Utah person, so the Governor can’t respond, you’re going to have to respond. I said, tell me, when Chinese make a toast, what’s their equivalent for Cheers or Salud or something like that. He said, it’s “goom bay”. So I tried to remember goom bay, but then I looked and I got a little rattled, because the only beverage in front of me was a glass of orange juice. And I thought this has got to be the first time that a state banquet in the Great Hall of the People has ever had a toast given in orange juice. Then I get up to do the toast and so I said a few nice words and then I was going to say goom bay, but instead I said gomb boo. All these Chinese guys that were at the table were so darn nice, they stood up and they go goob boo! And the Utah guys didn’t know the difference. I got away with what could have been the most embarrassing moment of my whole life.
The Chinese had us busy every minute, and Mike wanted to interact with the common people and feel their culture. So he would get up very early in the morning and walk around the cities talking with the people.
We went on a trade mission about every second year. They were really good for establishing our reputation and we’d always have a number of private industry leaders coming along that our guys would set up appointments for, because they couldn’t really afford or didn’t know how to startup a business abroad. So the business people would be off during the daytime doing their appointments when Leavitt would be meeting with officials and I would be kind of tagging along, trying to make sure everything went well.
We went to South America in 2002 spending some time in Sao Paolo Brazil, and we got an appointment to go up to Brasilia and met with the Vice President of the country. Then we went down to Argentina and everywhere along the way we were received well. The President of Argentina at that time was Carlos Menem, and he was a controversial guy from one of their western provinces who was very flashy. Their economy was going pretty well right then, and they had been making quite a few improvements. We had a meeting with him in the palace, and right near his office was the balcony where Evita and Juan Peron would make their speeches. It was really fun being in there with him. Near the end of the conversation, there were a few remarks about golf. It turns out Menem really likes to play golf and Leavitt says, I do, too. And Menem says to Leavitt, what’s you handicap? And Leavitt says, it’s about a 10, but I don’t usually play to that. I don’t get to play very often. And I piped up right there and I said, don’t believe that, he’s a really good golfer. Menem said, what are you doing tomorrow morning? And we were scheduled to fly out to Santiago, Chile, the next morning, and we had a major function at the US Ambassador’s residence that evening where Leavitt, of course, was going to be the main attraction.
Menem said, you can come out to my country club, I have a cabinet meeting at my home in the morning, I will make sure it is over at about 10 o’clock and then we can golf. Leavitt was a little bit reluctant, but he finally said, I’m supposed to be in Santiago, but I just can’t pass up the opportunity to play golf with the President of Argentina. So Menem says, we will take my helicopter from my home to the golf course, then after golf, I will have my helicopter take you to the airport, so you should get to Santiago on time. We’ll have a foursome; I’ll get a couple other guys to play. So Leavitt goes over to Menem’s home at the end of the cabinet meeting and they go to the golf course, they might have even helicoptered to the golf course, I don’t remember that for sure. It turns out, when they get there to play golf and they’re going to have teams and Menem sides up with a professional and gives Leavitt his chief of staff who’s about a 20 handicapper to be on his team. So they have this little competitive bout and had a lot of fun, although of course Menem and his partner win. Meanwhile, I had to fly over to Santiago to hold the fort in case he got there late, and he didn’t get there until about an hour after the reception had started.
Menem was only about a year away from having to resign for various reasons. A couple of years later at about age 70 Menem married this young Miss World from Chile. He’s a very mercurial, colorful person in South American politics.