Ambassador Robert McCallum: A Dignified Diplomatic Career
Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, the seeds for Ambassador McCallum’s future careers as both a lawyer and a diplomat were sewn at Yale University. One of his first days at Yale, he would meet future President George W. Bush and connected over the “funny accents” that they both shared, and they “have remained friends since then.” This would certainly not be the last future political player that Ambassador McCallum would befriend. During his time as associate attorney general at the Justice Department, his principal deputy was the current Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. Ambassador McCallum conveyed only glowing remarks about his former colleague, saying “there could not be a finer nomination for a Supreme Court Justice.”
While at Yale, Ambassador McCallum was always preparing to be a future lawyer, and would eventually attend Yale Law School. Before that, though, he was the proud recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship, which allowed him to spend two years at Christ Church at Oxford University in the UK. Academics were always his priority, but in the six-week vacations that were between each school term, he used his time “to travel all through Europe,” since “part of the education you get [when studying abroad] is traveling around” and gaining “exposure to particular cultures” that are different from your own.
The globetrotter side of Ambassador McCallum would eventually, but temporarily, give way to his lawyer side. After graduating Yale Law School, he moved to Atlanta, a city he described as “a mecca for Southern boys all over the Southeast to come.” He began working for Alston, Miller, and Gains (now Alston & Bird) as a litigator. Much like his career in a broader sense, as a lawyer, he worked “in the courtroom regularly on multiple different types of areas” and “did not allow [himself] to get buttonholed.” He would work on anything from commercial real estate, to appellate practice, or even medical malpractice, and described that one of his great honors was being able “to work on the Fulton-DeKalb hospital authority (i.e. Grady Hospital) defense team.”
After almost 30 years at Alston & Bird, Ambassador McCallum would make a dive into, in his words, “the world’s largest litigation law firm” — the U.S. Department of Justice. He eventually would hold the second- and third-highest positions in the department, and enjoyed his time at all three positions he held.
Five years into his career at the Department of Justice, Ambassador McCallum “got a call out of the blue saying ‘the President would like you to consider being Ambassador to Australia.’” After conferring with his wife, she said, “if George wants it, we’ll do it.” Suddenly, Ambassador McCallum found himself seeped into the world of internationalism once more.
While “people think what an ambassador does is go to cocktail parties and play golf,” it is much more than that. Ambassador McCallum’s “average day began at 5:00 a.m.”, so that he could call back to the U.S. and not be stifled by the large time difference. This was almost always followed by the real crux of his position, which was developing relationships not just with the national government in Australia, but with each of the state’s governments, the political parties, foreign governments, the intelligence services, the military services, economic groups and businesses.”
Relationship-building would continue through the evening, where Ambassador McCallum would regularly entertain guests at his residence in Canberra. He would then “collapse in bed, wake up at 5:00 a.m., and do it all again.”
Once President Bush’s second term came to a close, Ambassador McCallum resigned from his ambassadorship after three years and subsequently would go on to work for a law firm called Fulbright & Jaworski, where he focused on “energy issues” and the Asia-Pacific region.
After two years, Ambassador McCallum retired. While he regularly attends World Affairs Council of Atlanta events, because he has a strong interest in international arbitration and appreciates the “vibrancy and diversity to the sorts of programs” put on by the council, he really only has two priorities now — traveling with his wife across the U.S. and being a grandparent to his two grandsons.
Ambassador McCallum has undoubtedly led a storied career that has allowed him to travel across the globe and back again. In my conversation with him, it was evident that he was not only a modern day renaissance man, but a humble one at that. While he is more than willing to converse about his own accolades and achievements, he seemed most content to speak about the friends he had gained throughout his career. Ambassador McCallum’s knack for relationship-building is truly admirable, and is one of the reasons why he is one of the most valued members at the World Affairs Council of Atlanta to date.