WELLINGTON, New Zealand — “Oh ho ko mo no,” Scott Brown says, sitting on a gray couch in his office.
His teacher looks on approvingly. Brown speeds up, enunciating carefully.
“U hu ku mu nu pu ru tu wu ngu whu,” he says, completing a monotone rendition of the alphabet song in Te Reo Maori, the native language of New Zealand.
It is his seventh lesson. Brown garbles some practice sentences, but he persists until he has them down.
He is trying really hard.
Of the waves that followed from Donald Trump’s 2016 tsunami, Brown’s ascension from the everyman-with-a-pickup who lost two US Senate races in two years in two states to US ambassador to New Zealand ranks among the most unlikely. And, for him, the most fortunate.
The island nation is a paradisiacal land of jade hills dotted with grazing sheep, golden-sand beaches surrounded by Jurassic Park-like jungles, snow-capped peaks that rise steeply from azure fjords, and pastoral villages serving gourmet meals and world-class wine.
Brown spends his days as if he is campaigning across this terrain. He gladhands mayors and their constituents, bearing patriotic gifts: US-New Zealand flag pins, and military challenge coins imprinted with Brown’s signature. He introduces himself to chambers of commerce, noting that he, too, was once a business owner. And he connects with Kiwis over rock music and rugby, trying to parry their considerable concerns about President Trump.
In the evening, Brown and his wife, Gail Huff, might dine at another diplomat’s house. Or they might stay at the ambassadorial residence, Camperdown, a palatial estate with a sweeping front lawn and a chef who prepares meals for the couple and their guests. The official soirées sometimes stretch past midnight. It stays warm late. Summer in New Zealand is just a few weeks away.
The pay is $155,000 per year. The benefits are priceless.
While other Trump appointees are lawyering up in fear of special counsel Robert Mueller or fretting about being undermined by an early-morning presidential tweet, Brown is happy, fit, and free — 8,800 miles from Washington, D.C.
There have been bumps. But to be the top emissary of the world’s superpower to an allied, democratic, prosperous, English-speaking nation full of good-humored people and great biking trails — that’s hard to beat.
Or, as Brown puts it, “Best job I ever had.”
Wrentham to Wellington
Brown took a long and winding road to the bottom of the world.
Ten years ago, he was a small-town lawyer conducting real estate closings in Wrentham. As a Republican state senator, he was part of tiny minority and did little heavy-duty policymaking.
Five years ago, Brown was a US senator whose vote had proved key on major pieces of legislation — opposing Obamacare, eventually supporting the Dodd-Frank overhaul of financial regulations, allowing gay men and women to serve openly in the military — but who had just been ousted by Elizabeth Warren in one of the most expensive Senate races in history.
Three years ago, he had just failed to unseat New Hampshire US Senator Jeanne Shaheen; Brown and Huff had moved from Massachusetts to their longtime vacation home in coastal Rye.
Two years ago, he was hosting backyard barbecues with the GOP candidates running for president. He was particularly impressed by Trump, whom he would endorse a week before the 2016 New Hampshire primary.
Last year, Brown was in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York after meeting with the president-elect. He told reporters he thought he was the “best person” to be Trump’s secretary of veterans affairs, but the president picked someone else.
And in June, Brown was confirmed by the Senate as US ambassador to New Zealand and the Independent State of Samoa. The vote was 94 to 4.
Samoa visit caused stir
About Samoa, that small South Pacific island nation, which has about as many residents as Worcester: Scott Brown caused a stir with his visit there in July to present his credentials to the head of state.
What happened, exactly, remains unclear.
Last month, Brown said he was advised by the State Department to be more culturally sensitive after he called Peace Corps volunteers in Samoa “beautiful” and told servers at another function that they could make good money in the food service industry.
“Everyone really was dressed to the nines,” he said in a video posted on a New Zealand news website in October. “They all looked great. Gail looked great. You know, I was dressed up. And Gail and I both walked in and we said, ‘Boy, you guys look beautiful,’ ‘You look really handsome, sir,’ you know, ‘You guys are great!’ And, apparently, somebody took offense to that.”
He also told Stuff.co.nz that during a ceremony, there were people serving the meal. “And when someone came over and served food, I said, ‘You know what, you could make hundreds of dollars in the services industry, you know? Waitress, bartenders, sales. You guys are doing a great job.’ And somebody took offense to that as well,” he said in the video.
A State Department official told the Globe its Office of Inspector General “has conducted an independent review of the allegations and reported its findings to the department,” but the official did not specify what the allegations or findings were.
Brown was “counseled on standards of conduct for government employees,” the official said.
This month, Brown declined to speak further about what transpired in Samoa, noting that he had already given the on-camera interview.
But in the embassy in Wellington, a few steps from his photo framed on the wall next to those of Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Brown did offer this: “Bottom line is it was a good wake-up call that I can’t be Scott Brown from Rye anymore, or Wrentham. I have to be more aware.”
‘Find that common ground’
Scott Brown likes Donald Trump and most of his policies. It seems many people in New Zealand do not. This causes some tension.
“Some people just really don’t like him and I go into a hostile room and there’s no — I’m just hanging on for dear life,” he said in one of several interviews with the Globe. “Other people, they’re kind of like, ‘Well, tell us about your guy. Why do you like him? What is he doing right? What is he doing wrong? Where do you think he can improve?’ ”
Many times, he said, the encounters end with people saying, “I appreciate the explanation. I don’t necessarily like him but I like you, like Gail, like your dog. Let’s go for a run. Let’s go for a mountain bike ride. And we find that common ground.”
One recent morning the ambassador was asked a tough question about the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.
In rapid-fire sentences, he unfurled a comprehensive answer. In the United States, over the last decade or so, CO2 emissions have dropped even as the economy continues to grow. The country leads on renewable power and the technology that drives it, he asserted, pointing to Tesla Inc. as an example.
States can make their own regional emissions agreements, he emphasized; so, too, can the United States work with other nations, country-to-country, to reduce greenhouse gases. And, oh by the way, he added, New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions have actually gone up in recent years.
“He could sell ice cream to Eskimos,” an elderly man muttered a bit later, begrudgingly in awe of Brown’s rhetorical polish, if not his policy position.
Brown bristles at the idea that his new work — making the rounds, wrangling visa issues, talking trade, learning the indigenous language, dining with diplomats — might be less important than his time as a politician stateside. Or that his posting 18 time zones away from Washington amounts to a kind of political exile.
“Some people think, ‘Oh well, the president got rid of Scott.’ It’s like so completely opposite of that,” he said.
Late one afternoon, the ambassador, his wife, and a minivan worth of embassy staff were in Marton, a small agrarian community on the North Island, where verdant pastures hug the road and the smell of manure often perfumes the air.
After speaking to an electrician with a thick Kiwi accent and an innovative new device, Brown was asked unexpectedly to cut the ribbon at a new Paper Plus branch, a chain that sells books, stationery, and gifts. It wasn’t on his schedule and he wasn’t dressed for an official event, but he gamely accepted, thrilling the store’s owners.
Kathryn and Philson Marsh were novices at such pomp, so Brown, a seasoned pro, instructed them on logistics: They should face the street so the store is in the background of the photo.
Scissors poised — “One, two, three!” — Brown cut the ribbon. Then, in slow motion, he raised his hands in a joyful gesture.
Brown and Huff, who serves as something of a co-ambassador, lingered, making small talk with the employees. A cheer went up when the credit card machine processed Brown’s purchase. The US ambassador was the shop’s first customer.
“What a thrill for us,” Kathryn said, giggling.
Does it feel like small ball for Brown to be opening the new branch of Paper Plus in a town of 4,500 people?
“You mean ‘small ball’ being the president’s representative in a country 10,000 miles away? Absolutely not. And I think, quite honestly, this is a much bigger job than being a senator. I think there’s more at stake,” Brown replied.
“You’re dealing in things that are happening . . . on a world scale,” he continued. “You’re talking about what’s happening with North Korea, what’s happening with China, what’s happening with ISIS.”
He emphasized that New Zealand is a partner in Five Eyes, a longstanding intelligence-sharing agreement between the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.
“See, people don’t understand what that Five Eyes relationship is. And, if they understood, they’d be like, ‘Oh my goodness, wow! He’s in a Five Eyes country? Oh, OK, I just thought he was, like, you know, hanging out doing triathlons.’ And that’s the furthest thing in the world.”
(Asked what more Brown can say about the secretive alliance, he replied: “Not much.” He was more forthcoming about his next triathlon: It’s on Nov. 25.)
Brown returned to his starring role in the opening of the Paper Plus.
“Cutting a ribbon — for those people, it was the biggest thing,” he said. “This is my job. My job is to portray our country in a positive light.”
Music as an equalizer
The sprawling Camperdown estate, just north of Wellington, has been the US ambassador’s official residence for about 50 years. It has a lawn large enough for Brown to hold a big symposium of mountain bikers, ambassadorial living quarters, several guest bedrooms, and space for formal entertaining. It is surrounded by trees filled with exotic birds, whose unique songs remind Americans they’re a long way from home.
One recent evening, Brown was hosting a barbecue for Camperdown’s outgoing chef, Thomas Maathuis, whom Brown affectionately, if a little incongruously, calls Thomas Aurelius, presumably after the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. As guests arrived, Brown was giving tours of the house — especially his favorite part of the house.
He dubs it: The Rock Legends of America Pavilion.
There is the drum set on loan from KISS, surrounded by framed memorabilia from the rock band; the band’s cofounder Gene Simmons is an acquaintance. Guitars signed by blues great Buddy Guy and Massachusetts’ own Dropkick Murphys hang on the walls. There is something of a shrine to Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band Cheap Trick, with photos of lead guitarist Rick Nielsen and Brown playing on stage together.
During his ambassadorial training in Washington, Brown said he thought a lot about what he could do to put people at ease in his new home. After all, the United States is a superpower, he said, and “then obviously you have our state of politics in America, so there’s some tension.”
He settled on music.
“It’s the great equalizer,” Brown said. “People kind of relax and let their guard down and then you can start to talk about: So tell me about your president.”
As guests grazed on grilled chicken, Brown regaled them with his tale of taking up the guitar in early 2013 and playing on stage with Cheap Trick only a few months later.
“They came to the Hampton Beach Casino and as I’m walking out I go: ‘Hey Rick!’ ” Brown, sporting a US flag-themed shirt, was invited up.
It’s a good story, well told — one that Brown recounts with unadulterated joy at least three times that evening. He draws smiles from his Kiwi interlocutors on each occasion.
‘I don’t want any regrets’
Scott Brown was sitting on a couch in the home of the local mayor in a small town, not far from sheep pastures and fields of leeks and other greens. The smell of chicken pot pie cooked by the mayor’s wife hung in the air.
He was tired, after racing from one event to another since 8 a.m., and his day of schmoozing with tech startups, municipal officials, high school kids, and farmers would continue late into the night.
The fatigue elicited a rare moment of public self-reflection. He looked back on the strange journey of his 58 years (“I feel like I’m probably, like, 40, you know, physically.”) that brought him here.
“If, God forbid, something happens on the way home, I want to be able to say, ‘You know what, I did everything in the world.’ I don’t want any regrets. And I’m going to make mistakes. I’ve said this long before this job. And I’ve always tried to learn from those mistakes and be a better person, you know? And not be a jerk.”
He thought back to his battle with Warren in 2012. As he described it, the fight was much of the political world against him and his “band of brothers” — his political advisers, his wife, and their two daughters.
“We were getting the crap kicked out of us every day. I mean: relentlessly, every day,” he said.
And the combat between him and Warren continued even after the election.
“She would jab at me. I would jab at her. She would jab at me,” he recalled.
Then he saw a June 2016 opinion column in the Globe comparing him and Warren to two scorpions in a bottle.
He read it and thought to himself: “Who is this guy? It’s not me.”
A true reconciliation followed, Brown said, an evolution he’s proud of.
“We had one of the most high-profile, intense, crazy, expensive elections in our country’s history,” he recalled. “And I can pick up the phone right now and call her and know she wants to take my call and will call me back immediately. And that we’ll have a good conversation. And we’ll get something done. How cool is that?”
Ambassador and the guitar
Scott Brown was very impressed.
He was getting a tour of the still-under-construction School of Music and Creative Media Production at Massey University in Wellington.
“Some soundboards in here — woooow!” he exulted to head of school Andre Ktori, stunned by the $14 million buildout.
“So how do you get funding?” Brown asked, followed by an awkward pause. “Sorry to ask the tough questions,” he added, as the administrators laugh and explain.
In a nearby rehearsal room, Brown was handed a white electric guitar and sat down. As he strummed, the ambassador and the head of school fiddled with the distortion pedal to get the sound just right.
“See if you know this song,” Brown said as he began playing.
“It’s Cheap Trick!” someone yelled, and Brown nods in affirmation, looking blissful as he rendered the opening chords of “Surrender.”
Eventually, Brown put down the guitar. Then he picked it up again.
The school administrators and embassy staff filed out of the practice space and put on hard hats and reflective vests, ready for the next part of the tour.
They waited for the ambassador. And waited.
Caught up in the music, Brown remained, strumming a familiar tune in a faraway land.Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.