Nat Howell: Ambassador in disaster

There's one question W. Nathaniel Howell is always asked: "What's going to happen in Iraq?" Howell, who was ambassador to Kuwait when Iraq invaded in 1990, has plenty of personal experience in that part of the world.

For instance, he has the experience of being stuck in the U.S. Embassy for nearly four months after the invasion. Even as Iraq threatened the embassy's diplomatic status, "Our policy was to let any American in," says Howell, noting that as many as 75 took refuge there.

The worst physical hardship from being trapped in the embassy with no electricity or running water? "The heat," he says without hesitation. "It was 140 degrees and 100 percent humidity. We couldn't do much during the day, and we camped around the swimming pool."

How did a lad from Portsmouth end up under siege in Kuwait? (Siege is also the name of Howell's book about the experience.)

"I decided I was going into the Foreign Service when I was 10 years old," replies Howell. "I even chose to use my initial and Nathaniel because that sounded more ambassadorial."

Upon retirement, Howell returned to Charlottesville, where he'd met his future wife, and where the couple used to make sure another Portsmouth native, young John Casteen, occasionally got a home-cooked meal.

Howell runs UVA's Institute for Global Policy Research and can't really complain about the heat or humidity in town– although he does wish there were more options for Middle Eastern dining.

As for what's going to happen in Iraq, Howell wonders that himself. "I can't believe," he says, "they didn't plan for this occupation any better."

Age: 64

What brought you here? I first came in 1957 to attend the university and met my future wife, Margie. We were married in University Chapel, and our two sons were born here. I received my PhD in 1965 and joined the Foreign Service. When our sons entered UVA, we bought a house in the early '80s. We are both native Virginians, but Albemarle County is home for us now.

What's worst about living here? Traffic. The increased traffic is still using the same road network we had in simpler times. And I'm intrigued about why so many local drivers at stoplights hit the brake when the light turns green.

Favorite hangout? Our home at Crofton Hill near Proffit.

Most overrated virtue? It's probably impossible for genuine virtues to be overrated, but I think there are some unfortunate attitudes that masquerade as virtues. Some people won't make judgments about anythingthat's a copout.

What would people be surprised to know about you? I'm a lot more soft-hearted than I appear.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I have a drive toward perfectionism in myself and others. I'm working on being more relaxed.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? Maintaining my personal and intellectual integrity

What do people find most annoying about you? I'll have to let you ask others about that.

Whom do you admire? A high school English teacher who gave me the confidence to become a public speaker; university mentors who nourished my curiosity and ambition; an assistant secretary of state who gave me an opportunity to show what I could do and taught me the importance of developing subordinates

Favorite book? Most of my serious reading is in the social sciences. For fun, I like sea stories from the Napoleonic period and Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series.

What subject causes you to rant? Willful ignorance!

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? Instant communications and access to information

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? That many minds are as closed today as they were in the Middle Ages

What do you drive? A 1994 Chevrolet S-10 pickup

What's in your car CD player right now? I've recently discovered the wonders of XM radio and generally leave it tuned to the Broadway show channel.

What's your next journey? My next scheduled trip to the Middle East is February.

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? Probably being Ambassador in Kuwait when Saddam Hussein invaded that country

What do you regret? Oh, many things, but the only one that really bothers me is the loss of our younger son, Edward, in 1996.

Favorite comfort food? Peanuts in all forms; Virginia country ham

What's always in your refrigerator? Cheeses

Must-see TV? None, really. I follow the news reports on cable, and watch the History Channel for recreation.

Favorite cartoon? My favorites are the old, hand-drawn classics like Bambi and Snow White.

Describe a perfect day. Any day when I finish the tasks I have set and can look from the rear of my home at the sunset over the Blue Ridge with a pipe and our faithful Doberwoman, Ameera.

Walter Mitty fantasy? I grew up in the big-band era and played alto sax in several dance orchestras through high school and beyond. There are few things I ever experienced that are more exhilarating that being in a good sax section with a driving beat behind you. I used to dream of doing that for a living, but I wasn't at the professional level.

Who'd play you in the movie? When we were surrounded by the Iraqi army in 1990, some of the embassy staff began casting the film they were sure would be made. The slot opposite the ambassador remained blank for some time. One day I noticed that it had been filled in and took a look. Someone had written in Charlton Heston's name. I was flattered and when I found the young officer who had done it, I asked him what it was about me that made him think of Heston. He replied that Heston had played Moses in a film and Moses "got his people out safely." I guess I could live with that.

Most embarrassing moment? If others don't remember it, I'm certainly not going to remind them.

Best advice you ever got? Be true to yourself.

Favorite bumper sticker? "If you can read this, you're too d–– close."

He put the W. in W. Nathaniel Howell