Echoes of Madison at the State Department

Family ties, immigration issues, good will diplomacy, a national briefing all circles back to Madison

Neil Heinen

Neil Heinen

During the afternoon break of a full day of meetings at the U.S. Department of State in late April, Gene Policinski, the senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center approached editor Brennan Nardi and me and asked, “What is it with Madison and the State Department? Everybody seems to know everybody.”

Sure, it was an exaggeration to make a point, but it was a little uncanny that two of our speakers had made mention of Madison connections. The event was the annual Foreign Affairs Briefing at the Department of State for members of the Association of Opinion Journalists, formerly the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Brennan and I are both members of AOJ and since we were both in Washington, D.C., that April Monday we decided to attend. Department officials prepare a day of briefings from eight to ten deputy secretaries, undersecretaries and assistant secretaries. The secretary, Hillary Clinton, was unable to attend this year, but topic areas included the Middle East, North Korea and Japan and Counterterrorism. And, it turns out, Madison.

Madison’s own Hannah Rosenthal now serves as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and her regular emails home detailing her work never fail to mention Madison connections she finds all over the world. Hannah’s name came up during a discussion with Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Deborah Graze from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Special Envoy Rosenthal’s work is highly regarded in the department, but after about ten minutes of talking about it one editorial writer asked, “Who is Hannah?” To which Milwaukee writer and public television commentator Rick Horowitz replied, “She married us.” Sure enough, Rabbi Rosenthal was not just a Madison connection but one of the clergy at the Horowitz-Ryon wedding some years back. Meanwhile, one of the morning speakers was Office of Global Women’s Issues Ambassador Melanne Verveer, the mother of Madison City Council member Mike Verveer. Madison pleasantries were again exchanged.

But it was more than just the personal connections that made me think of home. So many of the issues we talked about had ties to Madison. Secretary Clinton’s State Department defines diplomacy as “smart power,” moving beyond relationships with other governments alone to engagement with groups of citizens. It made me think of former Governor (and Secretary of Health and Human Services) Tommy Thompson’s efforts to promote good will toward the U.S. through medical diplomacy, sending U.S. doctors and nurses with equipment and supplies aboard American ships to provide medical care to people around the world who really need it. I still don’t understand why that idea never caught on.

Other sessions focused on Cuba, a country in which Madison has always had a significant interest including that of our current mayor, and Haiti, where so many members of Madison faith communities have volunteered. Discussions of the global economy, and technology and foreign policy, implicated the UW for its role in developing research and manufacturing companies as well as talent. And of course any mention of the role of the Peace Corps, in this case described as part of the “transition” in Tunisia, reminds us of the UW’s leadership position in grooming Peace Corps volunteers. Even the discussion of immigration reform was a reminder that Madison, like so many other aspiring global cities, is dependent on immigrant contributions of culture and labor.

Madison connections aside, it was hard not to be impressed with priorities of this Department of State. Human rights and women’s issues in particular are not just goals but means to the end of a more just and civil world, and certainly a more democratic world. And as the day went on I found myself thinking more and more, Hillary would be a heck of a president.    


Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.

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