Back Issues of PDAA Today

Back issues of PDAA Today, PDAA’s quarterly print newsletter are now online and available for download.

Recent Public Diplomacy Programs

PDAA, the Public Diplomacy Council, and the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy have recently hosted the following programs that are available for watching; all programs were provided via Zoom.

Michael McCarry, Kate Eltrich, and Michele Wymer

March 1, 2021 – Public Diplomacy in the New Congress

Kate Eltrich and Michele Wymer, with Michael McCarry

To watch a replay of this program, click here.





Joel Fischman, President of PDAA; Ambassador Stuart Holiday, CEO of Meridian International Center; and Mark Rebstock, Vice President of Meridian.

Feb. 1, 2021 – Global Leadership and the Future of Diplomacy

Ambassador Stuart Holliday, CEO, Meridian International Center

To watch a replay of this program, click here.




Jan. 19, 2021 – How President-Elect Biden Is Viewed from Abroad

Richard Wilke, Pew Research Center

To watch a replay of this program, click here.



Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, Ambassador of Singapore

Dec. 15, 2020 – How the US Election Is Explained to the World

Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, Ambassador of Singapore

To watch a replay of this program, click here.



PDAA sponsored its traditional post-election program on November 16, 2020. This year’s program was held via Zoom and cosponsored by PDC and USC. The event was moderated by former PDAA President Michael Schneider and featured comments by Michael Gerson and Michael McCurry.

Nov. 16, 2020 – Understanding the 2020 Presidential Election: Implications for U.S. Public Diplomacy

Michael McCurry, “Of Counsel” at Public Strategies Washington, Inc., Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center for Public Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary
Michael Gerson, columnist for The Washington Post, Visiting Fellow, Center for Public Justice, and Policy Fellow, One Campaign

To watch a replay of the program, go to the PDAA Vimeo channel by clicking here.



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Memorandum for President-Elect Biden – Public Diplomacy: Re-engaging the World

November 29, 2020

PDAA logo

While international faith in America’s global leadership is much diminished, there is residual affinity around the world for our values, goals, and democratic heritage.  On that foundation, we must rebuild our credibility as a world leader and as a society worthy of emulation.

The Biden-Harris Administration faces many global challenges and will need to reinvent and revitalize the instruments of American statecraft.  Increasingly in this connected age, the public dimension of U.S. global leadership will be decisive, because publics abroad are indispensable players in policy.  Leaders ignore public opinion at their peril.

As it restores America’s global relationships, the Biden-Harris Administration should emphatically embrace U.S. public diplomacy.  Through purposeful interactions with foreign publics, public diplomacy conveys American values and helps our leaders understand the range and roots of global opinions.  Public diplomacy provides tools and platforms to rebuild critical relationships through effective programs and dialogues that build trust.

As associations of accomplished public diplomacy practitioners, we believe that the United States needs to engage international publics and project more effectively its policies and values.

We respectfully recommend that the Biden-Harris administration invest considerable thought, resources, and effort to reinvigorate U.S. public diplomacy.


There is a vital need to strengthen public diplomacy within the Department of State, led by a dynamic Under Secretary with enhanced authority to work not only within the Department but with other agencies to support a “whole of government” approach. We recommend that this effort include the following elements:

  • Build consistent leadership – Appoint a respected Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs who (1) understands both foreign policy and communication, (2) can navigate the Department and the interagency environment, (3) enjoys the evident confidence of the President and the Secretary of State, and (4) intends to stay in the job. After the Secretary, this is the second most important appointment in the State Department.
  • Open doors – Eliminate recently erected barriers to international education and exchange, notably the proposed federal rulemaking on “duration of status” that would have an enormous negative impact on U.S. higher education, and the June 22 White House proclamation halting issuance of several categories of nonimmigrant visas. America’s academic and business communities will be vocal allies for the Administration on these issues.
  • Coordinate International Communication– Strengthen Department of State strategic public diplomacy planning and support for major Administration global policy initiatives (e.g., managing the pandemic, climate change).  The Bureau of Global Public Affairs (GPA) is best positioned to manage substantive development of international public communication of global issues in liaison with regional and functional bureaus within the State Department and relevant interagency representatives.
  • Engage the American public – The American people, and especially our youth, are the President’s finest diplomats – capable of making friends and allies in every corner of the globe. Devise programs on compelling topics (e.g., climate, race, public health, the arts) that involve both travel and an ongoing virtual component. Long-term U.S. interests will be served by encouraging more young Americans to engage with the world.
  • Restore broadcasting – Restore protections for U.S.-funded international broadcasting against politicization, enabling it to perform its true function: to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. 
  • Expand counter-disinformation efforts – Take hold and focus the USG effort to counter the growing wave of disinformation. Attacked by propaganda on steroids, America has fought back with aspirin.  There is a pressing need to:  coordinate the Global Engagement Center and PD’s social media work with the intelligence community and DOD’s information operations; fully document hostile disinformation efforts mounted by foreign governments; assist NGOs and the private sector to conduct prevention efforts to inoculate susceptible groups and individuals against the appeals of national adversaries and violent extremists.
  • Enhance professional culture – Reinvigorate and update public diplomacy staff training, including opportunities to pursue advanced degrees and “excursion tours” in the private sector. More public diplomacy training should be provided to all Department officers. These expanded opportunities will attract talented officers and, over time, build a cohort of accomplished public diplomats who will compete for ambassadorships and senior domestic assignments.
  • Augment resources – To fuel this process of more effectively engaging with the world, reenergizing the PD function, and attracting top talent, substantially increase resources for all elements of public diplomacy, and reinforce the “firewall” that protects exchange funding. Part of this effort should be a review of PD staffing abroad that assesses the potential need for expanded presence.



Sherry Lee Mueller, Ph.D., President, Public Diplomacy Council



Joel Anthony Fischman, President, Public Diplomacy Association of America


Media Contacts:

Ambassador Brian E. Carlson (ret.), Vice President, PDC, PDAA member

Michael McCarry, PDC Board member, PDAA member

The Public Diplomacy Association of America is a nonprofit, voluntary association for public diplomacy professionals, with some 400 members. PDAA members have worked in or with the information, education, and cultural programs, which the U.S. Government incorporates into the conduct of its diplomacy abroad.

The Public Diplomacy Council is a U.S.-based, 501(c)3 nonprofit organization founded in 1988. Its members are committed to promoting excellence in professional practice, academic study and advocacy for public diplomacy.


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Peace Corps: A Public Diplomacy Incubator

By Bill Wanlund

As Peace Corps celebrates its 60th anniversary, it is President John Kennedy who usually gets the credit for its conception. But if JFK is considered the father of the Peace Corps, Hubert Humphrey might be its grandfather, for it was he who first floated the idea in 1957 Senate legislation. It gathered little enthusiasm, in part because of opposition by career FSOs horrified at the idea of a ragtag band of largely unsupervised young Americans spread around the world.

But on October 14, 1960, candidate Kennedy brought the idea back to life when he sketched out his notion of a Peace Corps in extemporaneous 2:00 a.m. campaign remarks at the University of Michigan. Kennedy asked whether his audience of 10,000 students would be willing to “contribute part of [their] life to this country.” And, with the United States deeply in the Cold War, JFK couched his idea in competitive rhetoric, saying it would help show the world that “a free society can compete.” This time the idea took hold.

From its inception, the Peace Corps has been an element of America’s “soft power.” The agency’s enabling legislation—introduced in the Senate by Humphrey in 1961 at by then-President JFK’s request—specified that the new agency was not only to provide grass-roots development assistance, but also to “help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served.”

That sounds like public diplomacy, and indeed, a number of former Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) found they liked that dimension of the job. Peace Corps does not keep records of where PCVs go after their service, but PDAA boasts a few members who were inspired to continue their work overseas.

One is Mike Anderson, a PCV in Malaysia 1968-71. He and another future PD officer, Charles Silver, were in the same Peace Corps group. Mike tells of “the substantial impact of the PC as a training ground for future FSOs, including PD officers.” He credits the Peace Corps with giving him “a life-defining, career-enhancing experience.” With roots in Minnesota, Mike had never traveled abroad except to nearby Canada until he was selected as a Peace Corps Volunteer to Malaysia. The opportunity to serve overseas and learn about diverse Asian cultures opened his mind and eventually got him interested in the Foreign Service. (Click here for Mike’s story)

Like Mike, Charles Silver also rates his time in PC as “a life-changing experience.” It led him to abandon one career track—in physics – for the Foreign Service. Charles, who’d had no experience outside of the U.S. before his stint as a PC teacher, found a new definition of “foreign.” He writes that he “learned a lot about myself and America from seeing how other people put their lives together.” And, as it happened, he and Mike weren’t the only ones from those Malaysia years who found a career with USIS: On a Southeast Asia Desk Officer visit to the Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, “Mr. Charles” ran into one of his former students—by then, 26 years later, a senior USIS FSN. (Click here for Charles’s story)

Joe O’Donnell heard Kennedy’s 1961 “Ask not…” Inaugural Address in person and was inspired. Six years later, he was headed for a Peace Corps assignment in the mountains of Colombia. His two-plus years there saw “a few modest successes leavened by some predictable setbacks,” including a city boy’s real-life lesson in agronomics.  And, he gained a lovely wife and a new way of looking at America and the world. Still, he admits to “a guilty feeling that I had gotten more out of my experience than I put into it” – a not-uncommon sentiment among RPCVs. (Click here for Joe’s story)

Bob Schmidt also took JFK’s words to heart and, in October 1963, five months after graduating from college, began training in Hawaii for a Peace Corps assignment teaching in North Borneo (now Sabah, Malaysia). A budding historian who’d had an eye toward Europe, Bob found that the Peace Corps “punted me towards Asia for most of the rest of my life.” After teaching stints that included Laos, South Vietnam, and Taiwan, he joined USIA in 1985, where assignments included postings in South America and East and South Asia – but not Europe. (Click here for Bob’s story)

Dave Miller was a PCV in South Korea in the 1970s and says then-Ambassador Philip Habib and other Embassy staffers “encouraged Volunteers to take the Foreign Service exam.” Dave thinks that, “eventually over a dozen of us joined the Department of State and USIA, including Ambassadors Kathleen Stephens and Joseph Donovan.” His first two tours were in, yes, Korea, 1976-80, giving him “over seven very eventful years” in the hermit kingdom. His subsequent overseas assignments were all in East Asia — Hong Kong, Taipei, Phnom Penh, and Shanghai. (Click here for Dave’s story)

Tom Hull is another who traces his Foreign Service career directly to his Peace Corps experiences, in his case as a teacher in Gbinti, Sierra Leone, in 1968-70. More than three decades later, he returned – this time as the U.S. Ambassador. Tom says his Embassy was able to promote peace, democracy, and human rights thanks to his PC service, which afforded him exceptional credibility and cultural context. After retirement, he was instrumental in getting the Peace Corps to return to Sierra Leone, where operations had been suspended during the civil war of the 1990s. “At that point,” he says, “my Peace Corps and diplomatic service came full circle. My debt to those villagers after 40 years was finally repaid.” (Click here for Tom’s story)

Joan McKniff was a PCV in Colombia during a turbulent time in America, beginning in 1963 “when President Kennedy was alive, and [coming] home to Johnson and Vietnam in ’65.” And, she found, her gender was an obstacle to finding employment: In response to Joan’s application to work overseas with CARE, a representative of the organization called and explained that “they did not hire women for those jobs.” Joan pursued other opportunities; it would be another 20 years before she would join USIA. (Click here for Joan’s story)

Michael Boyle graduated from Stanford without a clear idea of what to do next, so in 1967 he followed a friend into the Peace Corps (it also seemed like a good alternative to being drafted). He went to teach English in Leyte Province, the Philippines, where no phones and iffy infrastructure were the order of the day. It was a “seminal experience,” Michael writes, one that inspired his decision to join USIA – after, perhaps inevitably, being drafted after all upon return from the Philippines. Peace Corps “was a huge turning point in my life, and something I have been proud of doing ever since,” he writes. (Click here for Michael’s story)

John Dickson’s Peace Corps tour was as an English teacher in Gabon, 1976-79. His first exposure to the work USIS did was at the American Cultural Center in Libreville, whose resources he drew upon for teaching materials (and baseball scores). John says, “You can draw a direct link from Peace Corps to my interest in working in public diplomacy.” (Click here for John’s story)

Steve Telkins went to Ghana in 1962, which makes him practically part of Peace Corps’ origin story: His was the second group to go to Ghana (the first country to receive PCVs), during a time of turmoil and change — and hope — in Africa. Steve’s Ghana experience led directly to his subsequent career at USIA, VOA, and elsewhere. His account of the conditions, frustrations, and rewards of his time in Ghana is a textbook look at Peace Corps’ early years. (Click here for Steve’s story)

As for me – Bill Wanlund – I’d embarked on an uninspiring career and was taken by the idea of the Peace Corps. I was sent to teach English in Morocco, and it was there that I came to understand that the image most Americans had of their own country – the one I had accepted growing up – wasn’t necessarily shared by the rest of the world. But America had a story to tell, and I wanted to try to help tell it. (Click here for Bill’s story)

Bill Wanlund is a member of the Board of Directors of the Public Diplomacy Association of America.

What’s your Peace Corps story? We would be pleased to add it to our collection on our PDAA website. Send your story to


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Understanding the 2020 Presidential Election: Implications for U.S. Public Diplomacy

PDAA sponsored its traditional post-election program on November 16, 2020. This year’s program was held via Zoom and cosponsored by PDC and USC. The event was moderated by former PDAA President Michael Schneider and featured comments by Michael Gerson and Michael McCurry.

To watch a replay of the program, go to the PDAA Vimeo channel by clicking here.

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A Tribute to Paul Blackburn

by Michael Schneider

Paul Blackburn’s JOT class, held in connection with the DOS junior officers. USIA officers are in capital letters. FIRST ROW: Dwight Mason; JOEL ROCHOW; Bruce Hirshorn; Edward Richards; Frederick Ashley; Gordon Streeb; Keith Smith; Joseph Lake; Arnold Nachmanoff; LEONARD BALDYGA; James Ragan.
SECOND ROW: Chester Beaman; Linda Irick; JOAN DICKIE; Lauren Jackson; MARY FATTU; Lois Matteson; MARY ANN RANEY; MARJORIE MARILLEY RANSOM; ANNE HENEHAN OMAN; Joan Thielbar; Sandra Gransow; Thomas Duffield.
THIRD ROW: BARRY BALLOW; Bruce Kinsey; John Kelley; Laurence Anderson; Godfrey Harris; CHARLES COURTNEY; LEON LEDERER; Robert Coe; Edward Kreuser; John Boritas.
FOURTH ROW: Arthur Plaxton; Robert W. Smith; ALBERT BALL; Wilfred Declercq; PAUL BLACKBURN; Harry Gilmore; Martin Rosenberg; Alexander Sleght; Arthur Klampert; DALE MORRISON; Leroy Debold; ROBERT MCLAUGHLIN; Robert Kohn; Thomas Rohlen; PETER WOLCOTT.
FIFTH ROW: KENNETH WIMMEL; William Humphrey; William Weingarten; Townsend Friedman; FRANK STARBUCK; John D. Coffman; Ralph Oman; HAROLD RADDAY; Duane Butcher; Lewis Macfarlane; Robert Morley; Richard Greene; TALBOTT HUEY; James Newcomer; ROBERT GEIS.

In almost 60 years since we met as JOTs, I never saw Paul Blackburn miss an opportunity to encounter new ideas, engage others in a discussion, or take on a creative project. He always looked forward through mastery of the traditions and languages of other cultures.

We met in October of ’62. Our class was sworn on the day JFK announced our military embargo on Cuba. Russian ships steamed toward Havana; the world held its breath in a nuclear standoff; and we all wondered what we had signed up for.

Paul and I both went to our first posts at about the same time; he to Bangkok and I to Calcutta. We next worked together in DC in 1968 when he was Special Assistant for Dan Oleksiw, Assistant Director for East Asia and the Pacific. I doubled up as media coordinator for the Vietnam Working Group and special projects officer for the region. Times were fraught – the Tet offensive fundamentally changed the winning-losing calculus in the eyes of publics.

“Big Dan” was a demanding boss and could be blunt, but he also valued and cared for his very talented staff in IAF – Policy officer Mort Smith, then Dave Hitchcock and Ike Izenberg, desk officers Jodie Lewinsohn, Stanton Jue, Len Robuck, Ted Liu, Sandy Marlow, and Otis Hays, Jim Richardson, David Hakim, Patsy Redding, Delores Brabham, and others such as Sandy Bruckner, who started her career in IAF. Paul helped smooth the way for Dan and for the rest of us. He had a whimsical sense of humor and an uncanny capacity to preclude conflict in that pressure cooker office.

There was rebellion across the nation over Vietnam; many in the foreign affairs community also protested an antiquated and rigid bureaucracy. State created the dissent channel; USIA Director Frank Shakespeare created a Young Officers’ Policy Panel in which Paul played a leading role. He always asked why – or why not – depending on the issue. In one instance, he persuaded the Agency leadership to allow us to review a $300,000 contract with Arthur D. Little (in FY ’70 dollars) to examine and propose the reorganization of USIA. Paul’s analysis led to the cancellation of the contract, which we thought would be a waste of precious funds.

We shared academic experience in the Ph.D. program at American University. Paul had a penchant for concepts and a wonderful ability to write quickly and effectively. I saw this skill daily as his colleague in the Agency’s office of policy guidance in the late 70s.

Paul spent most of his 40-year career in four East Asian posts – Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, and China. Bea Camp remembers a time in Paul’s tour as PAO Bangkok (1984-88):

Paul practically bounced into a room. He was outgoing, caring, knowledgeable; he embodied public diplomacy. When I worked for him in Bangkok, USIS Thailand was actively involved in issues ranging from narcotics to refugees, economic development, POW/MIAs, American studies, education, and cultural programs. Paul oversaw it all with verve; working with him was fun.

For all the big diplomatic events we were part of, it’s the off-beat ones that stick with me:

Paul was enthusiastic about USIA’s new WorldNet television channel; we put up a huge TVRO (television receive-only) dish on the USIS compound in Bangkok, with monks coming to bless the installation, and plunged into programs. The one that drew the most attention was a semi-finalist for Miss Universe, a Thai woman living in Los Angeles. Paul describes in his ADST history how this WorldNet program, which was viewed skeptically in Washington for its fluffy content, dominated all the Thai channels that night and the print media the next day, a public affairs coup. I mainly remember how we managed to disguise Miss Pui’s weak Thai language skills via an off-camera interpreter who helped her understand and respond to the questions. Thai audiences reacted very positively to this young woman who movingly described how she missed her homeland while expressing her love and appreciation for the United States.

On another occasion, we arranged a reception on the Chao Phraya River, realizing only after all the guests had boarded and the boat left the dock that there was no liquor on board. Quickly dubbed “the cruise without booze,” the evening was saved from disaster as Paul marshalled the staff to repair the situation. In less than 30 minutes, a fleet of small boats were pulling up to our craft delivering Johnny Walker and other necessities for a diplomatic reception in Thailand. He made things happen.

Long after our time in Bangkok, Paul and I remained connected, sharing an affinity for Thailand. One year, at a Loy Krathong party we hosted at our house in Arlington, Paul and another guest somehow discovered they had met five decades earlier when he was a young USIS officer and she a Thai high school student headed for an AFS year in Alabama. She remembered nervously asking him to show her on the map the small town where she was headed, and her consternation when he couldn’t find it. She later became a State Department interpreter while Paul went on to a long and distinguished diplomatic career.”

One of Paul’s initiatives as PAO in Japan from ’92 to ’96 had regional impact. According to Don Bishop, Paul’s Deputy in Beijing: “…. the Seminar on East Asian Security (SEAS, with a SNEAS sub-initiative) — lasted probably two decades, bringing together leading thinkers on national security from around the region, giving them an opportunity to visit neighboring countries. As the group traveled, visits to US forces in, say, Hawaii, Japan, and Korea, were combined with meetings with regional government people. While I was in Beijing, SEAS and SNEAS came to China, which in earlier years of the Seminar had been omitted from the schedule.”

Paul became Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs in Beijing from 1997 to 2000, three critical years in US-China bilateral relations. Among other challenges, he had to deal with the errant U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. He recalled in his oral history:

“….As the demonstration got under way that afternoon, I rode my bike to a street corner by the Embassy where I could watch what was going on – all the while trying to look like a harmless senior-citizen foreigner….” Weaving throughout the demonstrators, the city near the embassy a powder keg, Paul was able to gain a sense of the crowd for Embassy reports.

Don Bishop recalls,

After the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was bombed by a ‘NATO’ aircraft (a B-2 from Missouri) in 1999, there were furious demonstrations in front of the three American Embassy compounds each night for some days. Three ranks of Chinese police with interlocked arms at the chancery gate barely held them back. At the USIS compound, shattered glass filled our offices.

When the danger eased and American and Chinese staff gathered for the first time in our conference room, Paul showed the Chinese copies of the front pages of People’s Daily and the Washington Post, pointing out how different the reporting was. Our local staff, staying at home during the disturbances, were on edge because they had only seen angry Chinese media reports. He told us all that the different coverage showed the distance between nations that we had to bridge with our Public Diplomacy programs. It was effective. That afternoon, he outlined a plan for an immediate series of small conferences with Beijing’s many government, Party, and university institutes, many associated with ministries, all now hesitating over the future of US-China relations. A Foreign Ministry official later told me that it was Paul’s initiative that restored dialog and began easing the tensions.

[Paul believed that] ….working in China was tremendously stimulating. The energy and excitement of the place were palpable. Though it retains many of the unpleasant characteristics of a totalitarian dictatorship, the country is changing so fast and in so many ways that its future directions are one of the great stories of our age, a fact that accounts for the presence of legions of foreign correspondents there. Every day I would wake up expecting – and unusually finding – some mind-blowing and major change occurring right under my nose….

….{I]n USIS, we pushed the envelope in many ways. For instance, with ‘rule of law’ being a priority of the Chinese leadership, our post, our speakers, and Fulbright Lecturers organized conferences on such topics as… legal education in America and the relationship of law and the media….

A recent note from a junior FSO, Chaniqua Nelson, represents Paul’s impact on so many younger professionals:

I had the honor and privilege of working with Dr. Paul Blackburn at the U.S. Department of State in the FOIA office. One thing that was so awesome about Dr. Blackburn was that although he was extremely accomplished, he was so kind, nice, and not pretentious at all. He had a way of making anyone he talked to feel valued, heard, and respected from the interns to the Secretary of State.

During my time in the FOIA office, I would always seek out Dr. Blackburn to be the reviewer in my case because he was such a joy to work with and he always told the best stories. I remember when I found out I was a finalist for the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Graduate Fellowship, he made sure I knew what the dimensions of the Foreign Service were and I went into the interview more confident than I was before our conversation. Although I didn’t receive the fellowship at that time, I applied a couple of years later and was awarded the fellowship. I am so sad that I wasn’t able to tell him that I ultimately received the fellowship and became a Public Diplomacy-coned Foreign Service Officer. Dr. Blackburn will sorely be missed.

Paul pushed the professional envelope wherever he worked. If anyone wants to follow the evolution of a master public diplomat, go online to the ADST Oral Histories and click on Paul’s name. Savor the honest, thoughtful summary of a career well-lived, and consider Paul’s ideas for the future of public diplomacy, still important in 2020. Cherish his delight in working with others and his care for their well-being. And for another dash of whimsy, picture Paul in one of his wardrobe of colorful shirts – a true son of Honolulu.¤

Michael Schneider is former President of PDAA.

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The Ballad of The Lost Agency Ramblers

by Bob Holden

The Lost Agency Ramblers formed in the mid-90s as a vehicle for song parodies at USIA holiday parties. In the flaky days of the reinvented I Bureau, we made up names for each appearance, like “Bob & Barry’s Unnatural Act” and “Dr. Fulton’s Keep Your Day Job Band.”

In 1997, rumors of a merger with the State Department gave us focus – and a new mission. The 1997 I Bureau Holiday party featured the first song I ever wrote from scratch. It opened with this dubious sentiment:

I believe in America and the story that we tell.
And I believe when we merge with State, we’ll manage pretty well.
Yes, I believe it’ll be all right; we serve a common cause.
And I believe in Santa Claus.

More snark ensued over the next year and a half until we realized that “Consolidation” was inevitable. On October 1, 1999, while Madeleine Albright was out in front of USIA Headquarters welcoming us to the Mothership, we were out back on the plaza with a songbook that would literally put us in a history book. The moment was neatly captured by Nicholas J. Cull in his 2013 book, The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency: American Public Diplomacy, 1989-2001. On page 163, he wrote: “Two staffers—Bob Holden and Barry Fitzgerald, who styled themselves ‘The Lost Agency Ramblers’— composed a number of songs satirizing the merger. They adapted Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ into ‘The Day That USIA Died,’ with the chorus:

Why, why must USIA die?
Why did Jesse think it messy to let sleeping dogs lie?
We’ll go down to State and will give it a try,
Before they slice us like American pie…’”

Truth be told, not much changed with start of consolidation. IIP had minor irritants like being called an “office” instead of a bureau, but we stayed in our building and ended up playing for a lot of retirement parties. One of my favorites was a song we did to the tune of “Venus” by Shocking Blue for Howard Cincotta’s send-off:

Cincotta, he’s Howard Cincotta!
A propagandist! Like no other!
He sell your mother!

The frequency of our gatherings changed dramatically in 2001 with the arrival of Air Force veteran and HR officer Bill Goodwin. Bill was a drummer and guitar player who told us that he staged weekly jam sessions with colleagues at bases all over the world. He pitched it as a good way to ease stress and learn to play better. In November 2001, we established a weekly jam session that continued uninterrupted until the pandemic of 2020. We’ve since tried to carry on virtually:

People drifted in and out of the jam over the years. FSOs serving in DC would join and then recommend it to others when they went back to the field. We played songs from memory, switched to loose-leaf binders full of songs, before finally putting the songs online and projecting them onto walls of rooms where we play. The Lost Agency Ramblers has always a pick-up band. Whoever showed up got to play, even if it meant too many guitar players. Large numbers usually showed up for annual holiday parties and picnics for IIP and ECA, and, starting in 2003, for Daniel Pearl World Music Days. Subsets of the group played for special occasions like ECA programs in the Thomas Jefferson Room.

The most amazing run for the group was from 2016 to 2017, when other bureaus discovered us. We played nearly a dozen engagements and printed a t-shirt to commemorate the “tour.” Perhaps the height of our notoriety came in March 2017 when we played at a send-off party for Department Spokesman Mark Toner, who also played with us on occasion. CNN Correspondent Michelle Kosinski tweeted out a picture of the band with the caption: “Turns out the State Dept. has a band – and it’s incredible! Impressed!”

Linked-In congratulated me a few weeks ago for reaching 21 years with the State Department. I served 15 years with USIA. While the agency remains “lost,” the people who gave it heart play on. The band was started by Barry Fitzgerald, Bob Holden, Peggy Hu, and René Soudée. Bill Goodwin’s jam brought in Steve Kaufman, Mark Jacobs, Dave Hawk, and Chas Hausheer. People who joined over the years include Dorothy Mora, Bruce Wharton, Jeremy Curtin, Dan Sreebny, Julianne Paunescu, Lynne Weil, John Alan Connerley, Shai Korman, Rick Taylor, Peter Eisenhauer, Barbara Silberstein, Alicia Pelton, Paul Magadia, Aaron Steers-Smith, Jim Bullock, Shenandoah Sampson, Rebecca Ernest, Nick Geisinger, Yvette St. André, Robert Ogburn, Jason Evans, Carol Brey, and Kate Bentley. I’m sure I’ve missed a few, but I’m also sure that there will be more.¤

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