Wednesday, December 16th 2015
Evelyn S. Lieberman, the first Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs from 1999 to 2001, passed away December 12 in Washington D.C.
Several things impressed me from the start about Evelyn Lieberman. Like many people successful in politics, she was a quick, accurate judge of character. Despite coming to State directly from that insular environment at 1600 Pennsylvania, she quickly built rapport with FSO’s and Civil Service staffers. She brought people into her confidence and listened to their ideas. An effective leader, she understood how sharing information and insight empowers and strengthens your own staff. She often returned from intimate late afternoon discussions down the hall in S to share with us the Secretary’s interests, actions and goals.
My own relationship with Evelyn (for that’s what she insisted we all call her) began the day I was called up to meet with her. Until then I was the USIA area director for Europe who had come over to State in the merger as the director of public diplomacy for Europe. EUR Assistant Secretary Marc Grossman genuinely appreciated what public diplomacy brought to the Department’s work. He and his DASes (deputy assistant secretaries) treated me as an equal, welcomed my staff, and made us all feel part of the EUR team.
So it was with some mixed emotions that I went up to the seventh floor that afternoon. Marc told me she wanted me to join her staff, and he would not stand in the way. He even confided that he thought it a good idea, because “she needs help.”
What I did not expect was the honesty and candor with which Evelyn Lieberman made her case. There wasn’t a lot of preliminary “getting to know you” conversation. Pretty quickly, she cut to the chase – she had a strong staff of trusted people she had brought from the White House and one excellent USIA employee, Rick Ruth, upon whom she relied. But, she recognized that she did not have an ear for the Foreign Service’s issues. Nor did she have entrée into the Department’s storied “old boy” network – the ties among senior officers who knew one another, had served together, and who made things happen (or not happen) in Main State. Most importantly, she explained that she needed help understanding and speaking the language of Ambassadors, PAO’s, IO’s, CAO’s , the capabilities and uses of embassies, the whole foreign policy network. I agreed to try to help.
Evelyn Lieberman was new to all this. Yes, she had been deputy chief of staff at the White House, an intimate friend of the President and the First Lady, a press spokesman for Joe Biden, and a confidant of all the power people in the West Wing. She was already a personal friend of the Secretary of State and well known to her inner circle. Better credentials than those are on C Street.
As Rick Ruth says of Evelyn, “she was the toughest-minded, fairest person I ever knew. She was funny and irreverent, but had a temper. She was formal and meticulous, and also deeply caring.”
She especially cared about getting the USIA-State merger right, and I soon learned that Evelyn Lieberman was a fighter. There were many aspects of the USIA merger into State that were undecided and needed negotiation. What would happen to USIA’s buildings and real estate including PAO residences? Where would discretionary program monies go? Who would get USIA’s decision-making authority? What would happen to personal and bureaucratic rank? Where to put research and training capabilities? She won a lot of battles through sheer tenacity and good arguments.
One she lost, unfortunately, was the struggle to convert USIA’s Area Directors into Deputy Assistant Secretaries of the regional bureaus at State. It would have been logical in terms of pre-existing rank and responsibilities. At State, however, L and M argued that Congress had placed a numerical limit on the Department’s DAS positions, and they were loath to re-allocate any of those precious DAS-slots to the USIA merger. Evelyn went back repeatedly, even directly to the Secretary, to make the case. She argued it that would cost the Department dearly to decapitate the public diplomacy cone -- just when the expertise and skills of those senior USIA officers was needed most. That one, she lost.
But other battles she won. As Rick Ruth reminds me, “Evelyn focused intently on the possible and realistic.” He recalls that, having been sworn in as Under Secretary in October 1999 near the end of President Clinton's second term, she would say to audiences with startling candor and phrasing: "I have 15 months before I die." Therefore she focused most on the managerial and personnel aspects of the merger--making sure everyone from USIA had a job at State, getting PD authorities clearly established, ensuring that the new PD Under Secretary was seen and respected as an equal on Mahogany Row.
As the Clinton Administration drew to a close, Evelyn Lieberman proposed the idea of a White House Conference on “Culture and Diplomacy” as a way to lay down some lasting markers about public diplomacy and traditional diplomacy. The idea was to engage the Secretary of State as well as the White House and some significant foreign personalities in a forthright discussion of America’s engagement abroad. Even with Secretary Albright’s backing, it took no small amount of persuasion at the White House staff level to sell the concept. Even then, the President’s chief of staff vowed that “the President would not talk about culture in public until after the election.” Under Secretary Lieberman, like a tenacious bulldog, didn’t let go until they agreed.
The conference was set for November 28, 2000 in the East Room at the White House, with the President, Mrs. Clinton, Vice President and Mrs. Gore, a bevy of international Nobel laureates like Wole Soyinka, Medal of Freedom winners, and about 300 distinguished Americans including Yo Yo Ma and Rita Dove. (At the last moment, I was asked to pick up Meryl Streep from National Airport and escort her to the pre-conference dinner on the 8th floor at State. I’d come to work by Metro and didn’t have a car. The Oscar-winning actress was, I assure you, perfectly nonplussed to be driven through the streets of Foggy Bottom and waved into the Department’ basement parking lot in a friend’s big white Chevrolet pickup truck.)
At the conference, participants debated the importance of art and culture in diplomacy, and how it affects globalization. The President, Mrs. Clinton and Secretary Albright alternated playing the roles of facilitators. The President, obviously enjoying himself in the midst of this assemblage of stellar intellectuals, creatives, artists, and thinkers, pushed the discussion toward the role of the Internet in exchanging culture, how exposure to other cultures enriches America, how culture spurs economic development, and the lasting impact of academic and cultural exchanges. The President candidly described the formative impact his own 1968 Rhodes scholarship made on his own political awareness and intellectual development.
As the guests departed (more left in limousines than in pick up trucks) and the White House staff stacked the chairs to restore the East Room’s normal order, it occurred to me that, for someone who had barely heard of public diplomacy a year before, Evelyn Lieberman had figured it out darned well.