Sandy Berger: Tribute to a Strong Servant to the Nation

My longtime friend Sandy Berger came out of the politics of upper New York State. His writing talent took him to the campaign headquarters of Senator George McGovern. That campaign, though I was not involved in any significant way, brought me a number of friends. Most of them moved from the left to the center right and in that shift, I lost a few pals. But not Sandy, he liked whom he liked and that was that. He shifted on issues but not on friendship.

With the help of Sam Brown, of Senator Eugene McCarthy's campaign, and the man who ran ACTION (the domestic volunteer service agency which has now morphed into AmeriCorps) for President Carter, I was appointed to the position of Peace Corps Director to Lesotho, a post for which I had lobbied. Sandy called me and was overjoyed to hear of my posting, and we got together to celebrate at Nancy and Miles Rubin's place with Don Green, who had engineered my posting within the Peace Corps.

Later Miles and Nancy visited me on their trip to South Africa, as did Sandy. He was now the Deputy Director of the State Department's Policy Planning division. At my request, Sandy came to Lesotho as an extension of his visit to South Africa. We shared a common interest in the anti-apartheid movement. As an officer of the United States Government, I knew he could not visit with the African National Congress (ANC) members who were all over Lesotho, some hiding and some resting and recovering from prison terms in South Africa. Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa and thus it became a refuge for many leaving the Republic for one reason or another. Knowing the limitation of who we could meet with, I set up a meeting for Sandy and the people accompanying him to meet with Kalechi Sello, a great lawyer in Lesotho who was wanted for murder in South Africa. A half dozen other former victims of torture, members of the ANC, joined us. Sandy quietly listened to their pleas for help with their movement. He absorbed it all. The testimonies of what had happened to these young anti-apartheid workers emotionally shook us all. He thanked me for the meeting as we left Kalechi's home.

At this time, Lesotho was also the home of the great Chris Hani and the magnificent Phyllis Naidoo, two of the most famous and effective people in the struggle with South Africa. We talked it over but decided that that a face-to-face meeting with them would be considered an official meeting and against the rules of the State Department. So Sandy did not get to meet them.

During my second tour in Lesotho, I applied for and was hired as the director of Amnesty International. Sandy was one of the people who advocated for me to get the position. Because of our friendship and knowing what I wanted to do with this new job, I let one New York law firm go, and hired Harston and Hogan, where Sandy was working. I knew he would look out for Amnesty International and take special care of us in in his firm. And Sandy did exactly that.

We stayed in touch. I lobbied Sandy at the NYC Democratic convention nomination of then Governor Bill Clinton, to speak on human rights. He came downstairs to say hello in the middle of a moment of chaos to ask of my health and my latest projects. He took time in the middle of a very busy schedule to see if he could help.

Sandy had me speak at his daughter's school, and he came along to listen to my talk. Later, he said, "I was about to cry from your stories." He tried to get me named as Peace Corps Director, but Clinton had appropriately promised that position would only be given to a former Peace Corps volunteer. We had no problem with that interest.

Sandy got me two meetings with the staff of the National Security Council to discuss ups and downs in Burma. Sandy also got me a hearing by Eric Schwartz in the human rights division so I could ask if the US government would print Eleanor Roosevelt's Universal Declaration of Human Rights in all American passports. The administration passed on that request.

During the peace process of Northern Ireland when things were still in doubt, I wrote a column in the Washington Post that went around the world because I called on the Irish Diaspora to stop funding the IRA. It helped the process, though I got a lot of heat that day. Sandy again took time to call and thank me.

I will miss this friend. In Washington DC, there is an old adage that one does not hang with those with whom you disagree. Sandy Berger did not accept that. He had an inner quality of decency that never left him. I trusted him and loved him. We did not agree most of the time, but that made the friendship fun and positive for the two of us. I will miss him and I thank Sandy and his family for his service to our nation.