Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

Kathryn Wasserman Davis died at 106 on April 23, 2013. No cause for her demise was reported although it was reported that she was a strong supporter of environmental causes.

Kathryn Davis came from a line of women’s rights activists and internationalists. Among her earliest memories were those of her suffragette mother demonstrating in downtown Philadelphia for the women’s right to vote. True, I read that in her Wikipedia biography but Mrs. Davis also told me the story herself and if my memory serves, she proudly showed me a black and white photo of her mother’s political activism in action.

Had Mrs. Davis been of my generation, I have to wonder if she would have retained her Republican identification: her viewpoint and that of today’s Republican Party seem so antithetical.

Swiss interlude

From 1969-1975 Katheryn Davis’ husband Shelby Cullom Davis was US Ambassador to Switzerland, a country where the couple had first met as university students. He made his fortune in the financial insurance business on Wall Street turning a considerable sum of money from his wife’s family into considerably more. Presumably he bought the Ambassadorship through donations to the Nixon for President Campaign. That’s how those positions happen. The Davis’s knew the right people and well, money would have likely quietly changed hands moving from their considerable assets to the campaign’s seemingly effortlessly.

I never had the impression, however, that Ambassador Davis was simply after the title or that he wanted to run things at Jubeläiumstrasse 93. More likely both he and his wife had a long standing love affair with the country, wanted access to the people who mattered and simply liked the upper class Swiss life style. He had a strong career deputy named Richard Vine who later returned as Ambassador. Davis left the running of the embassy to Vine as well as dealing with the Swiss on substantive issues (the main one being banking secrecy – my how things don’t change).

From one Canton to the next

So the Ambassador and Mrs. Davis traveled the country – from one canton to another – showing the stars and stripes as the Viet Nam War wound down and meeting and greeting local officials, members of the general citizenry as well as patting the heads of the farmers’ well kept cows.

When in Bern, the Davises were gracious and generous hosts and kind to Embassy staff.

I wonder had Mrs. Davis been born just two or three decades later whether she would have pursued her own career – either as a career diplomat (she had the background – including a stint at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and a PhD in international relations from the University of Geneva – and the intelligence to do so) or in the private sector – not just as helpmate to and source of investment capital for her husband. At least, she would have had the choice.

Showing the flag off the beaten cow path

How productive the Davises five years in Bern was in narrow foreign policy GIPRA terms of today is questionable but they did get the official limousine to places off the beaten cow path and ski trail and made an attractive, well-bred couple of the internationalist school of Republicanism – representing a viewpoint now sadly disappearing as quickly as the setting sun over the Pacific Ocean – as curtains dropped on the Nixon administration.

The Davis’ were never an embarrassment to the US Mission, the government, or taxpayers – as certain other Ambassadors have been, are and will be in similar positions. Yet I never had the feeling that their presence made much of a difference in the long term scheme of things – it was more like frill on a cocktail dress or frosting on a tea cake.

But the fact that the Davis’ five years spent in Switzerland paid for by the US government was not even mentioned in Mrs. Davis’ obituaries suggests it was not a highlight from her or her offsprings’ standpoints either. Or maybe her life was so long and her personal engagement in numerous philanthropic projects thereafter so much more worthy of mention those five years became an after thought.

Feather-bedding in the State Department

In an April 12, 2013 Washington
Op Ed,
Susan Johnson – outgoing president of the American Foreign
Service Association – and former Ambassadors Ronald Neumann and Thomas
Pickering bemoaned the increase of political appointees in the State Department
and the consequent lessening size and influence of the career Foreign Service
on US
foreign policy formation and implementation.

They have a point.  Statistics
show that the Department has become top-heavy with too many unqualified chiefs with
conflated titles affixed to their security passes and likely too few Indians to
do the quality work.  This seems to be
particularly true in the bureaus of public diplomacy and public affairs – at
least that’s where the loudest howls to that opinion piece originated.  

The two public diplomacy bureaus – when they were still part
of the United States Information Agency before Madeleine Albright and Jesse Helms destroyed it in the 1990s –
contained only a tiny sprinkling of political appointees.  The bureaus actually functioned rather smoothly
perhaps as a result – run collectively in a sometimes uneasy alliance by the
professional Foreign and Civil Services who often worked around the few politicals to get things

I can only think of
one phrase for what has happened since then: 
creeping, unproductive feather-bedding especially in Washington for electoral purposes at the
taxpayers’ expense.

Nevertheless, if there’s a single lesson to be taken away
from the Davis’ five year tenure in the bucolic medieval city of Bern is that the best thing  political
appointees can do is to leave the substantive heavy lifting to the pros and support
them as best possible.  I think the Davis’ smartly succeeded with
this task and the American people were better for it. It’s indeed unfortunate that their five year stint in Bern was not mentioned in Kathryn Davis’