Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Fun Visit "Home"

When I finally moved to Washington in 1977, (that’s when I moved out of my car and stopped driving between Boston and DC every weekend) we would drive around the monuments and Marthena would always exclaim, “How fortunate we are to live in such a beautiful place.” And she was right. Whatever you may think of the government and all the elected officials, it is a physically beautiful place to live. If you are lucky enough to be part of whatever Administration gets into power, you also find that it is not only gorgeous, it can be a great deal of “heady fun.” (OK, that may have been mostly in the past, but if it wasn’t some fun, no one would live there.) We don’t live there anymore, but there are delightful memories that I keep alive not only by telling, and retelling them, but by having friends in an Administration who are kind enough to celebrate special events with me.
with Tara, Heidi, Kerry, and Nadine Last Tuesday, Tara D. Sonenshine was sworn in as the Under Secretary for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy at the United States Department of State. And yes, the job is even more important than the size of the title. There have been any number of people who have held this position, mostly when it what was The Director of the United States Information Agency (which was integrated into the State Department and no longer exists as one of 92 independent government agencies.) Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy have nothing to do with Public Relations. Unfortunately, preceeding Tara’s appointment, most of the Undersecretary’s never understood this. Most wanted to sell the United States to the rest of the world as if it were a product – toothpaste or perhaps a brightening detergent. This job oversees all the Exchanges programs, from Nannys to the Fulbright scholars. She is responsible for all the media operations, (libraries and electronic) cultural and educational programs in the embassies throughout the world, as well as the People to People programs operating in the U.S. This may be too much information, but for the first time in years, this Undersecretary knows that the US is not a product. Additionally, it’s as important to listen to what the rest of the world is telling us, as it is to tell our story. The Information, Public Affairs, and Press officers who serve Tara, understand how important this is. And having a leader who respects the importance of what they do because she understands how important Public diplomacy (people to people) – which differs from Political diplomacy (government to government) -- can be, means a great deal, especially during these chaotic years.
Without presenting her resumé, when the Secretary of State administered the Oath of Office — which still moves me to tears — she knew that those programs were in most competent and loving (her family is as important as any job) hands. In or out of government, being invited to that event was still great fun.
Last night was the White House Correspondents dinner (otherwise known as the “prom” of media dinners). It was the public event I loved most of all when we were in DC. The first of these dinners to which I was invited in 1977, my dinner partner was Henry Kissinger. That was only the beginning. For the first four years, I was invited by a news organization (who invite potential “newsmakers” to their tables. At the table there were always celebrities, politicians, and an assortment of reknown characters. After the dinner, there were always parties (also invited) but I was never turned away. When the Administration ended, I no longer got invites from news organizations. (You just don’t if you are one of the great unwashed.) But I still attended because my wonderful friend, Steve Daley (with the Chicago Trib) invited me to go with him. He did not invite me as a source or to make an impression. He invited me because he didn’t have to babysit for me. We worked the room separately – but always enjoyed when we would happen upon one another conversing with some colorful character. I wore the same dress every year (my Mother’s head to toe, white sequin gown.) And he was dressed smartly in a handsome tuxedo. It was always an amazing evening, where you got to see everyone in DC that you knew, and to meet everyone at the dinner who you wanted to know. Steve passed away this year. The loss of my friend was such that going to the “Prom” was simply not as important to me. In fact, if I wasn’t going with Steve, I didn’t want to go. When you live in Washington, there are those events which position you as a player. This was one of them. I just didn’t want to play without my excellent playmate. We’re just sayin’…. Iris

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