By Betsy Rothstein - 03/12/07 06:29 PM EDT
It’s not easy being Greg Keeley. Imagine being the only Aussie in a room and having heads whip around to stare every time you speak. And forget about calling for takeout. Pizza places don’t understand him; neither do the order-takers at Hunan Dynasty. Verizon and Comcast are futile phone calls as well.
“I might as well be speaking Swahili,” he said.
As far as he knows, Keeley is the only Australian press secretary on Capitol Hill. The 38-year-old Perth native is an aide to Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.).
Last Wednesday we met on a leather bench outside the House Chamber for what he called a “spot of fun.” In Australian-speak, this means a good time.
His colleagues in Royce’s office are still getting used to the expressions that make him appealingly exotic but hard to understand. They’ve had nine months to adjust, he said, but they’re not quite there yet. Before taking his current position, Keeley was communications director for Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) on the Joint Economic Committee.
Keeley is more serious than he initially seems. He joined the Australian Navy just after college. He also was once the communications adviser for the chairman of the Joint Committee on Defense, Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Australian Parliament.
In 2003 he served in Iraq as a communications officer (he couldn’t tell me how long he stayed there). After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the military called again and asked him to report to the Australian Embassy in Washington to be a military public-affairs officer to the Pentagon, working primarily with Assistant Secretary Tory Clark. Usually, he said, officers are sent to such dreary places as East Timor or Solomon Island.
In a week and a half he rented out his house and put his business on hold.
While in Washington, he met his wife, Katie, a congressional liaison specialist for the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The couple went to Australia for a year, during which the Australian Federal Police (the American equivalent of the FBI) called and ordered him to Papua New Guinea for six months to help maintain law and order. Shortly thereafter, the couple returned to the United States — for good.
By the end of this year Keeley will be an American citizen, provided he passes the citizenship test. “I’m pretty confident I can pass it,” he said. “My boss would have something to say to me if I couldn’t.” After that, he wants to join the U.S. Navy Reserves.
Becoming an American citizen, he said, “will be a little weird, but I’m looking forward to it.” But by no means does he plan to develop an American accent. “I’m certainly not Hillary in Selma when she took on a Southern accent,” he quipped.
Being an Australian in America has its perks. He’s always invited to G’Day L.A.’s awards ceremony, in which Australians are honored. This year the award went posthumously to Steve Irwin, who died last year during a diving accident in which a stingray barbed him. At the dinner, held in Los Angeles last month, he sat with Qantas Airlines Global Ambassador John Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston, and Olivia Newton John. “She was lovely,” he said of the “Grease” star.
For the time being, Keeley is a non-active reservist for the Royal Australian Navy. “I like military service,” he said. “It’s all very well for me to sit here and write talking points but it’s about stepping up and doing something about it.” His father served in the Army and nearly “went apoplectic” when Keeley joined the Navy.
Working on Capitol Hill has been a good experience for Keeley. Of the differences between Australian and American politics, he observed, “What amazes me in the Westminster [parliamentary] system is if you’re a member of a party you vote along party lines,” he said. “There’s a lot less need for lobbying.”
Before he got the job with Royce, Keeley contemplated a defense contracting position in Dulles, Va. He took a test drive out there — literally — and got stuck in a two-and-a-half-hour traffic snarl. That was the end of the idea. The closest he’s getting to a Department of Defense job these days involves his shelter cat, named Rummy after former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who he believes got an unfair rap.
Upon his first meeting with Royce, he knew he wanted the job. “I rolled up at his office and chatted to him for a couple of hours,” he recalled.
Keeley, the oldest of two boys, grew up in Perth, a remote part of Australia full of beaches and surf. “It’s got the best beaches in the world,” he marveled. “You play cricket in the front yard. You play Australian football. For you guys it’s a cross between football, soccer and rugby. There are no pads and it’s full-contact.”
He wouldn’t live there permanently, though, because “it’s the most isolated city in the world. Your options are fairly limited career-wise.”
And Capitol Hill? “This is the biggest show in town,” he declared.
Of course, Keeley’s distinct accent is hard for some to handle. One day he went to the Navy clothing store at the Pentagon for a winter shirt. He said, “Mate, I’ll have a Navy winter shirt.” The clerk replied, “What’s NIGH-VEE?”
Keeley took it in stride. “Australians have a pretty laid-back attitude,” he said. “We don’t get offended.”
Some questions that Aussie Greg Keeley is routinely asked (and his answers)
• Do you have a pet kangaroo? No, he doesn’t have a pet kangaroo, but has seen them often. He says they are the equivalent to deer here in America. He did have a pet galah, an Australian bird named Sam that spoke, and two chickens, Blacky and Whitey.
• Are you ruled by the Queen? No.
• Did you know the Crocodile Hunter?
Yes, he met the late Steve Irwin.
• Do you ever play that crazy football?
He has played cricket and Australian football. He has no talent whatsoever, however, for softball.