Eulogy for Peter W. Rodman
October 10, 2008
A kind Providence caused Peter’s life and mine to intersect over four decades ago. Peter was assigned to me as tutee in 1965 at Harvard. He was part of my life ever since. It will be an emptier and less joyful world without him.
Peter wrote a brilliant undergraduate thesis. I was so impressed with him that, even as he decided to go to law school, I offered him a position as research assistant should he decide against practicing law. As it turned out, I had become President Nixon’s National Security Advisor by the time Peter took up the offer.
Peter started work as my personal assistant. In a short time, his duties developed to supervising the assembly of documents and information relevant to the many negotiations taking place simultaneously, to see to it that an accurate record of these meetings existed and to distill them together with his colleagues – mostly in their twenties – into recommendations for the next phase. He also helped me write speeches.
No one worked more closely with me than Peter. He sat at my side during every negotiation and was part of the team designing their tactics and strategy.
Public service was Peter’s vocation. From the moment he joined my staff and for nearly four decades afterwards, five Presidents, from Richard Nixon through George W. Bush, benefited from his understated wisdom, his unselfish dedication and his wry wit, as Director of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department, as Presidential Assistant and as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. His principal weakness was a passionate attachment to the Boston Red Sox – incomprehensible for a Yankee fan.
Peter grew up during a time when America’s exceptionalism had turned on itself. It was inevitable that America would learn that there were limits even to the “shining city on the hill”. But the process was painful. Throughout our history, every problem recognized as a problem had proved soluble. Vietnam proved obdurate.
The so-called greatest generation – that saw us through the confrontation with Fascism and Japan – had been sustained by a moral consensus and unambiguous objectives. Hence Peter had to work on policies that were challenged not so much for their prudence as for their motive. In the 1960s and 1970s, the intellectual community, mourning the assassination of a President with whom it had identified, and perplexed by an impasse to which its own theories had contributed, interpreted its frustrations as a moral failure of the American system and experience. Dialogue evaporated and eventually turned into a kind of intellectual civil war.
Peter transcended the passions of a turbulent time. He did so by his integrity, his special kind of innocence, which caused even his intellectual adversaries to feel that they learned from him, even when they could not bring themselves to share his conclusions.
In an increasingly narcissistic age, while many of his contemporaries analyzed themselves and their motives with rapt fascination, Peter helped sustain the nation by unobtrusive commitment to the cause of freedom fought in the trenches of the bureaucracy and the battlefields of diplomacy. Peter sought fulfillment, not glory. He served to do, not to be.
Not for Peter was the debate between idealism and realism. He had seen that the key governmental decisions were close, 49.5 to 50.5 percent, and that serious people were seeking to solve them. A grasp of circumstances was essential. Yet, by themselves, experts of circumstance inspire paralysis, not direction. Events cannot be shaped, nor challenges overcome, without faith in fundamental values. The highest task of a public servant is to take his or her society from where it is to where it has never been. This implies the courage to face complexity, the character to act when the outcome is still ambiguous. For Peter, the issue of courage did not arise because he perceived no alternative to pursuing his duty. And character was inherent, requiring no affirmation.
Peter was much too modest to have put his role into words as these. The fact remains that the nation has lost one of its sentinels, all the more indispensable for never having made that claim for himself.
It would not serve Peter’s memory to leave him as an abstract figure on a pedestal. It was the good fortune of Peter’s associates that he was as warm a human being as he was selfless. Excessive deference was not his defining trait. At diplomatic lunches, Peter did not let note-taking interfere with his voracious appetite, eating with his left hand while scribbling with his right. On one occasion, an ambassador noticed that Peter stopped taking notes, though not eating, while I attempted a humorous point. “Don’t you record the Secretary’s jokes?,” the diplomat wanted to know. “Yes,” Peter replied, “the first time.”
Peter had a wicked sense of humor. He would dream up research projects to illustrate the foibles of human nature, for example, for how long we could achieve the support of The New York Times by accepting its editorial positions. He concluded that it shrank from a few weeks at the beginning of the Nixon administration to a few days at its end.
One of his specialties was to produce spoofs of option papers. One such effort concerned John Downey, who had been imprisoned in China since the early 1950s. After Nixon’s opening to Beijing, I asked Chou En-lai to release Downey on compassionate grounds so that he could see his mother one last time. When Ford became President, Peter concocted a spoof option paper with the following theme:
Chou En-lai had released Downey based on our representation that his mother was dying. The mother did not die, generating a credibility problem for the United States. The President, according to Peter, therefore had the following options, in ascending order of severity: (a) He could apologize for Mrs. Downey’s survival and offer unspecified compensation; (b) He could send Downey back to China; (c) He could turn the whole matter over to the CIA.
Shortly after Ford had succeeded Nixon, I slipped Peter’s memorandum into a number of genuine option papers Ford was considering in my presence. When Ford came to Peter’s paper, I noticed he grew red in the face, saying “no” with increasing vehemence until it was nearly a shout at the last option.
Another masterpiece of Peter’s, concocted in collaboration with Bill Hyland and Winston Lord, was an apocryphal memorandum based on a standard form developed by Bob Haldeman preparing Nixon for an encounter with the Almighty.
Beyond all the national projects on which we worked together and the books and articles on which he helped me as researcher and editor, I feel the loss of a surrogate son. I loved Peter, above all, for his values, his loyalty and his utter decency. Peter treasured his parents; he adored his wife Véronique, whom he met while he helped with my memoirs; he was proud of his two children; and he was devoted to his husky who, though a female, was called “George”. It is always unnatural when what we expect to be the succession of generations is reversed in this manner. And Peter still had so much left to do.
As we part from Peter, he takes with him part of our lives. He leaves us the pride of having shared part of the way with a genuinely moving personality who, in the process, gives us a deeper perspective on what it all meant. We are assembled here – whatever our previous or continuing differences – united by our affection for Peter and our gratitude for what he contributed to the intellectual and moral content and, above all, the nobility of our life.