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Profile: Norwich Native Jon Finer Is ‘Never Off the Clock’ at the State Department

Monday, March 14, 2016
As 2015 drew to a close, Norwich native Jon Finer gave a year-end gift to colleagues and staff in his Washington, D.C., office. In his job, he could have picked up something in Vienna or Uzbekistan; Sharm el-Sheikh or Kenya; Jerusalem or Cuba. But in the end, like many a Vermonter, he chose something from home.

It cannot have been easy for Finer, the chief of staff for Secretary of State John F. Kerry, to find time for presents. In addition to extensive travel, overseeing speechwriting and communications, developing policy and managing 70,000 employees with a $50 billion budget, he has in-depth knowledge about most every issue confronting the nation’s diplomatic missions.

In a given day, he may need to speak and write — generally and in granular detail — about the formation of a transitional government in South Sudan; U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 on Syria; the sovereignty of Ukraine; India’s relationship with Pakistan; the Zika virus; and the economy in Laos. Put it this way: Finer, who estimates he has visited close to 100 countries, does not confuse Paraguay with Uruguay.

In December, I met up with Finer in Paris during the U.N. Climate Change Conference. Around 11 p.m., his work day beginning to wind down (he had just finished a fiery discussion with a reporter), he invited me to tag along with the secretary and a group of staff on a walk through the streets of Paris.

In the world of politics, one can spot two types of people immediately. First, there are those who believe proximity to power makes them powerful, as if authority can be gained by osmosis. Second, there are people who have a quiet confidence, who know why they are there. Finer is in the second group. He introduced me to people by praising their expertise, not his own. It was obvious that his colleagues like and trust him. The people around him were energetic, more young than old, and clearly excited about the landmark achievement in their grasp (the final climate agreement would be signed the following day). People were comfortable enough to joke with Finer, even poking some fun at him. He was relaxed, engaged and funny, suggesting the group “take another lap” even though it was passing midnight and the team had been at it since the early morning. As people posed for pictures with Kerry in front of a Christmas tree in the Place Vendôme, Finer hung around the edges, always out of the shot.

While one would never have guessed that he was the senior staffer in the group, it was clear who had the final say when he and his communications team labored for 10 minutes over a single word in an official statement.

I emailed Finer later that night to thank him for his time. At 2:30 a.m., he wrote back, “was fun.” He was still working.

He confesses that “sleep is often the first casualty of these jobs . . . you grab it where you can. You’re never totally off the clock, which is just part of the deal, but it is something I look forward to.”

Secretary Kerry says of his chief of staff, “Jon Finer has been my go-to policy adviser since the day he started working for me in September 2013. He’s been at my side at every critical moment — from his first trip, where we secured the deal to eliminate Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile; to the nuclear negotiations with Iran; to reopening our embassy in Havana; to the historic climate agreement reached in Paris last year. Jon not only has excellent judgment and a tireless work ethic; he also brings a sharp wit and a deep sense of humility to everything he does. He has my full trust and the respect of all those who know and work with him.”

Typically, when in Washington, Finer arrives at the office around 7:30 or 8 a.m. and usually sees the secretary right away “to talk about whatever happened overnight and what the plan is for the day.” After morning staff meetings, he spends a lot of his day prepping the secretary for diplomatic or White House discussions. He confessed that the “very rigid schedule” never really gets adhered to. The day with the secretary generally winds down around 7 p.m., when he can finally turn to his other work: personnel issues, reading briefings and emails, catching up on world events. He leans on his “awesome team” for many of the day-to-day requirements of the job.

Norwich Childhood

Growing up in Norwich, his life was simpler. (Disclosure: My childhood home is a few hundred yards from Finer’s house; we have known each other for more than 30 years.) The family farmhouse, where his parents still live, was a welcoming place, always cheerful and never quiet. Between Jon and his three younger siblings, there were kids everywhere. His mother, Susan, made sure there was always something to eat: cakes, soups, bagels, sandwiches, brownies. His father, Chad, was usually outside, stacking wood, cutting the grass or working in the garden. It was a New England home, where adults and children dropped by unannounced and encountered friendship and kindness. It is easy to understand why Finer, who recently turned 40, says, “I definitely still think of Norwich as home.”

Roots in Sports

Finer devoted much of his boyhood to playing sports. In the New England winters, he and his friends hoisted phantom Stanley Cups on the small frozen pond across the dirt road from his house. There were H-O-R-S-E battles around the hoop in the driveway. When it rained, children played anything you could with a ball in the barn. Steve Shirreffs, of Norwich, who spent a lot of time at the Finers’ house, says, “He is a terrific friend — fun to be around . . . I don’t think he has changed since childhood.” Though low-key, Finer liked to win, and often did. In high school, he played varsity tennis, soccer and ice hockey, winning multiple state championships in different sports along the way. Hanover High School hockey coach Dick Dodds said Finer was “very skilled and . . . always the hardest worker on the ice.”

His mother, an educator, and his father, a doctor, made it clear that schoolwork took priority over the score sheet. Finer was an excellent student, but he was also quiet about his intellect. His peers knew he was smart (many have speculated that he has a photographic memory), but it was almost more of an impression than a fact; he never advertised academic success.

He was popular and comfortable with teachers, bus drivers, peers, younger kids and the many colorful personalities that make up the Upper Valley. Today, he clearly appreciates the wealth of perspectives in the region, describing the area as a “small place population-wise,” but one that is “full of well-informed people who care deeply about what happens in the world. My family and the broader Upper Valley community offered great preparation for the work I’m doing now.”

Between Vermont and Washington, Finer racked up impeccable academic credentials: Marion Cross Elementary (then-principal Milton Frye says of Finer’s current role: “I’m just glad we have individuals like him doing this work on behalf of all of us.”); Frances C. Richmond School (it felt awkward to ask the principal during Finer’s time at the school for a comment; she is his mother.); Hanover High (“He could have majored in anything he wanted to,” says Warren Demont, his tennis coach and physics teacher.); Harvard College (Finer’s thesis adviser, James Alt, the Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government, remembers Finer as “very bright and something of a free spirit, happy to go off knocking around the globe out of college, trying different things instead of rushing off to law school.”); Rhodes Scholar and master of philosophy degree holder from Oxford (Mark Turco, of Norwich, a childhood friend, says, “Of all his accomplishments, he strangely seems most proud of his scoring records for the Oxford University hockey team.”); and Yale Law School, where he designed and taught an undergraduate course while completing his J.D. degree.

Journalism

In the early 2000s, Finer dived into a career as a foreign and national correspondent for The Washington Post. In 2004, he covered the presidential campaign and the World Series. After Finer’s favorite team won — readers of this newspaper need no reminder of which team that is — he wrote on the front page of one of the nation’s most important broadsheets, “It was a night when children across New England stayed up past their bedtimes to see something rarer than a glimpse of Halley’s comet.”

Internationally, he was on the ground in the Middle East as war approached, and embedded with U.S Marine infantry in Iraq during the 2003 invasion. He eventually oversaw the Baghdad bureau and reported on conflicts in Lebanon, Gaza and Georgia. In all, he wrote more than 100 front-page stories for the paper.

David E. Hoffman, his editor at the Post, praised Finer’s “gumption and fearlessness,” describing his willingness to drive through the war-torn Iraqi night to cover a conflict in Kurdish territory. He recounted how Finer once spent 20 hours navigating the various checkpoints and border crossings of the Gaza Strip to go one hour as the crow flies so he could get the facts about civilian casualties during the 2009 Gaza War. “His work was just outstanding; he was immediately on the front page,” said Hoffman.

Journalism was catnip for the curious Finer, a chance to get past official statements and talking points to learn how people on the ground were experiencing current events. He sees similarities between his government work and journalism. “The same basic skills are useful in both fields — reading and writing, obviously, but also being able to take in large amounts of information and distill it down to what is important.” Of his time in journalism, Finer says, “I love that work and miss it every day,” adding, “The thing I miss the most . . . is being able to get outside the bubble and interact with people in an unofficial setting. That is nearly impossible in my current role, though we try.”

It was only a matter of time before Finer left the world of covering how policy decisions affect people and dipped his toe into the policy-making side of things. In 2009, he was named a White House Fellow, and eventually moved to the Vice President’s Office, drafting Vice President Biden’s foreign policy remarks and advising him during the Arab Spring. Before moving to the State Department, he was a senior adviser in the Office of the National Security Advisor.

The Future

As he looks toward the future, knowing he will probably have a major career change when a new president is sworn in next January, Finer says, “I hope that, at least around the margins, I’ve been able to make a contribution.” His friends admit to speculating about what is next, but there is no consensus. Secretary Kerry says, “I know Jon will continue to contribute in extraordinary ways in the years to come.” Finer says that, apart from catching up on his sleep, “I really don’t know . . . In another year, I’ll have to move on to something else.”

His options are essentially limitless. Though Finer may be loathe to acknowledge it, the list of people who can skate backwards, write front-page newspaper stories, teach at an Ivy League college, practice law, help negotiate nuclear treaties and cease fires, and watch the 2013 Red Sox playoffs in a Bali hotel room with the secretary of state is exceedingly short.

And yet he is the same boy who grew up along the Vermont/New Hampshire border, where too much bragging is frowned upon. Daniel Peraza, of Hanover, who has known Jon for more than 30 years says, “He never boasts and always seems more interested in other people’s activities than his own.” He keeps his resume to a single page, somehow finding room for “J.V. soccer captain.” When he is on the road, he admits to watching “an embarrassingly large amount of Red Sox, Bruins and Patriots games” on his computer. Turco says that his friend “never talks about work . . . although he did say he and Kerry occasionally toss a football around post transatlantic flights to get the juices flowing.” Finer says he finds time for “reading intelligence” the same way other people say they find time for “doing the dishes”: It’s just part of his day-to-day routine.

When asked how people from the Upper Valley treat him now, his answer was immediate: “Without exception, no differently from how they treated me before, which is both appropriate and not unexpected.” And then he added something that so many residents of the region know to be true: People in the Upper Valley, he said, “are much more concerned with how people are doing than what they are doing.”

It seems that no matter how far he travels, Jon Finer has no real desire to escape the land of his youth. So, when it came time for presents, it is no surprise that this man, who has seen more of the world than most anyone could hope to get to in a lifetime, gave his team bottles of maple syrup. From trees tapped by his father, Chad. On their property in the hills of Norwich.

In other words, something from home.



Mark Lilienthal writes about his life in Burgundy, France at frenchorbit.blogspot.com. He can be reached at mlilient@gmail.com.






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