April 10, I had the pleasure of attending a late-morning Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG)- organized reception in honor of Tara Sonenshine, the new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the State Department.
Having had, in the past, the "third degree" inspection by security staff at the Voice of America's Cohen Building (where the reception was held), I was most surprised -- and immensely relieved -- to have been met by a polite VOA staff member at the entrance of this building who, when I mentioned that I was going to the Sonenshine reception, directly led me, after politely asking for my ID (which, given the gentle tone of the person asking me for it, I had no qualms in providing) to the VOA Briefing Room where it was held.
At a welcoming table outside the Briefing Room, guests were provided with a name tag and materials on BBG's latest initiatives. All very professionally and, most important, kindly, done.
I was at the reception for some 45 minutes, and had a chance to exchange words for a few moments with the most articulate and refreshingly unpretentious VOA Director and, as well, the Director of VOA's Pashtun Service, also open to discussion. I then spoke with a most knowledgeable senior member of RFE/RL about the challenge/opportunities of the new social media to US International Broadcasting.
To spice things up, I was not-so-gently castigated by a senior, enormously intelligent, BBG executive for the contents of my Blog, "John Brown's Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review," which regularly contains items (not my own) critical of the BBG. My ironic response, which did not fully satisfy him, was that I, in compiling this Internet labor of love (love of labor?) was, essentially, that of "a medieval monk writing about the plague years." I was glad to notice, however, a smile on his face.
In the very informal, friendly setting of the reception, I had a chance to meet Ms. Sonenshine, who was kind enough to exchange a few words with me. Frankly, at a loss of what to say to her (at the risk of sounding obsequious, she is a very impressive lady, both in mind and presence), I shared, in the hope of being humorous, a slightly embellished anecdote with her and those around her.
"When I was serving as a Foreign Service Officer in Serbia [officially then as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, unrecognized by the USG], in the mid-1990s," I noted, "I had a talk with a Serbian cab driver as we drove to my requested destination. I uttered words in my broken Serbian for some ten minutes, after which he said, in a perfect Oxford accent, 'You don't speak Serbian badly for a Russian.'"
Ms. Sonenshine laughed.
The BBG has been under immense criticism in recent years. I may be a sucker for people-to-people encounters but this modest one-hour event -- coffee and pastry were available, and no official speeches were given, at least when I was there, all of which cost the US taxpayer little -- showed the human face of the BBG, at least to me.