Shadow Government

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In Memoriam: Samuel “Sandy” R. Berger

Remembering the lessons from a great public servant.

GettyImages-51643217_960
GettyImages-51643217_960

I was saddened to learn of the death of my former boss and friend, Sandy Berger, who passed away on Wednesday after a fight with cancer. Sandy had a long and distinguished career in Democratic politics and foreign policy, culminating as National Security Advisor under President Bill Clinton.

I first met Sandy when I served as a director for defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council (NSC) staff from 1993 to 1994 (while on a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs fellowship). My students often ask me what I miss about policy work, and the answer is the same: the camaraderie that comes from working with extraordinary people on a shared purpose. That is my dominant memory of my time working on the Clinton NSC (and, indeed, my later time working on George W. Bush's NSC).

I vividly remember my first meeting with Sandy, when he was Deputy National Security Advisor (DAPNSA). I had been tasked with preparing an action memo for the president and needed to run it by him for vetting because it was time sensitive. I wish I could also say that it was of great international consequence. Alas, it was not: it was proposing how President Clinton should handle Gen. Colin Powell’s pending retirement (while not an international crisis, it actually was a delicate civil-military/political problem since it was widely believed that Powell would be Clinton’s Republican adversary in the 1996 reelection fight). I was ushered into his impossibly small office — the DAPNSA is undoubtedly the official with the highest importance-to-smallness-of-office ratio in the entire U.S. government — and then he applied his lawyerly critical eye to my professorial (and perhaps a bit rambling) memo-cum-essay. He improved the product and then took me in to run the ideas past National Security Advisor Tony Lake. I remember being humbled by the large gap between us: it was the pinnacle of my professional career up until that point, but barely a blip on his busy calendar for that afternoon. That anecdote ends poorly for me, but in a humorous fashion — a story for another time — and I remember fondly sharing a laugh with Sandy over the rest of the story many years later.

I was saddened to learn of the death of my former boss and friend, Sandy Berger, who passed away on Wednesday after a fight with cancer. Sandy had a long and distinguished career in Democratic politics and foreign policy, culminating as National Security Advisor under President Bill Clinton.

I first met Sandy when I served as a director for defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council (NSC) staff from 1993 to 1994 (while on a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs fellowship). My students often ask me what I miss about policy work, and the answer is the same: the camaraderie that comes from working with extraordinary people on a shared purpose. That is my dominant memory of my time working on the Clinton NSC (and, indeed, my later time working on George W. Bush’s NSC).

I vividly remember my first meeting with Sandy, when he was Deputy National Security Advisor (DAPNSA). I had been tasked with preparing an action memo for the president and needed to run it by him for vetting because it was time sensitive. I wish I could also say that it was of great international consequence. Alas, it was not: it was proposing how President Clinton should handle Gen. Colin Powell’s pending retirement (while not an international crisis, it actually was a delicate civil-military/political problem since it was widely believed that Powell would be Clinton’s Republican adversary in the 1996 reelection fight). I was ushered into his impossibly small office — the DAPNSA is undoubtedly the official with the highest importance-to-smallness-of-office ratio in the entire U.S. government — and then he applied his lawyerly critical eye to my professorial (and perhaps a bit rambling) memo-cum-essay. He improved the product and then took me in to run the ideas past National Security Advisor Tony Lake. I remember being humbled by the large gap between us: it was the pinnacle of my professional career up until that point, but barely a blip on his busy calendar for that afternoon. That anecdote ends poorly for me, but in a humorous fashion — a story for another time — and I remember fondly sharing a laugh with Sandy over the rest of the story many years later.

Indeed, pretty much every memory of Sandy after that point involves some laughter, for he had a sharp wit and especially enjoyed telling a good story or laughing at someone else’s good story. For the past 10 years, we have been members of the Aspen Strategy Group where we have discussed and debated current foreign policy challenges. I have several vivid memories of sharp debates over Iraq a decade ago giving way to greater agreement between us on the best way forward in the region in recent years.

I last saw Sandy this past June, when he rescued a major Duke event I was helping run. I had arranged for a public conversation between Steve Hadley (my boss in the Bush administration) and another senior national security expert who had served in a Democratic administration — but then the other participant had to back out at the last minute to attend a funeral. Sandy stepped in graciously with very short notice and then proceeded to wow the crowd with his candor, insights, and wit. I noticed that he was physically frailer, but he was otherwise sharp and it is a happy last memory.

One of the themes I emphasize with my students is the importance of empathy: that behind every foreign policy stands real human beings who are working hard to figure out what is the best course under difficult circumstances. Those of us on the outside of the policymaking process can sometimes let the zeal of our critique eclipse this fact. When I make that point to my students, I often have Sandy in my mind. I would not defend every foreign policy position or other move he made. For that matter, nor would he — he was actually quite candid in answering the “what would you do differently” type of question. But nor should I join in the beltway sport of demonizing folks on the other side of the aisle. And I want my students (and myself) to develop a similar sensibility — to become fair-minded critics and unblinkered supporters.

That sensibility will have greater meaning for me as I remember the passing of this public servant.

JAMAL A. WILSON/AFP/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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