Memorial Remarks for Robert Lloyd Funseth
December 4, 2015
Robert Funseth officially became State Department Spokesman in 1975, after having carried out its responsibilities as Deputy since the year prior. Bob was my fifth Spokesman, but when he began, Larry Eagleburger—the Undersecretary for Administration—predicted that he would be both the last and the very best. History would prove Larry right. Bob possessed a keen intellect and a calm demeanor, indispensable to what the State Department continues to describe as its “most thankless job.” Officials and reporters alike trusted him; he was straightforward, authentic, and composed.
Bob came into my orbit having already represented the United States all over the world. First in Tabriz, Iran; then in Beirut, Bordeaux, Ottawa, and countless positions in Washington. Having come into foreign affairs almost accidentally—his first love having been journalism—Bob thought the Foreign Service would prove a satisfying “middle road” between media and the subjects that had fascinated him in academia: English, political science, sociology and, later, international relations. So it was with a unique perspective—indeed, a unique respect—for the craft of journalism that Bob approached the position of Spokesman. Never one for drama, he simply told the press the truth. He strove for their respect, not their affection. He wanted most of all to do the best job he could—for the Secretary, for the Department, for the country.
The role of Spokesman demands a profound capacity to consume, synthesize, and summarize the flow of information produced by the cable machine that is the State Department. Bob came into his own by fire, even learning to enjoy his daily give-and-take with the press pool. Being Spokesman has never been easy, but managing relations between the press and the Department from 1974 to 1977 was a particularly spectacular feat. The Ford Administration was at that time juggling the end of the Vietnam War, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, various African civil wars, Cuba, Latin America, majority rule for Rhodesia and Namibia, and our longer-term efforts to bring peace and stability to the Middle East, as well as to broaden and deepen fledgling U.S.-China relations. And we were by necessity making every decision with respect to the response it would elicit in our Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union. In his years as Spokesman, Bob traveled more than 500,000 miles on shuttles with me. By the time he moved onto his next position in 1977, Bob had become an integral and reliable member of a trusted team because of a thoughtful understanding of policy and a commitment to articulating it clearly. Bob aimed his words for impact, not abundance.
Beyond the geopolitical, there was another unique challenge before Bob: I was his Secretary. But he was willing to stand up to me when he thought I was wrong and was always able to articulate why. In the process, Bob frustrated my proverbial impatience, which was impossible to practice with a man who personified serenity.
Bob received three Presidential Foreign Service Honor Awards, the Distinguished Honor Award and, upon his retirement from the Foreign Service in 1991, the Wilbur Carr Distinguished Service Award. Like so many in his generation, Bob served his country in uniform when he was a very young man. It was by his choice that the rest of his career became a testament to the richness of a lifetime spent representing our country to the world.
Bob concluded his public service in the position of Senior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Refugee Programs, where his job was to negotiate an accord that helped Vietnamese political prisoners to emigrate to the U.S. I am proud of that effort. America owed an unfulfillable debt to the people of South Vietnam who, in reliance on American promises, threw in their lot with us only to become the ultimate victims of our domestic discord. Bob summed up this sense of obligation in a story he told in a speech to the Families of Vietnamese Political Prisoners Association in 1990:
The story is about two soldiers in World War I. One was critically wounded in the “no-man’s land” between the trenches of the opposing armies. His best friend asked their lieutenant for permission to rescue him. The officer denied the request, convinced that such a rescue attempt might prove fatal. However, when the officer’s back was turned, the young man climbed out of the trench into no-man’s land and reached his wounded friend despite heavy gunfire. Painfully crawling, he pulled his friend back to their own trench and fell into it, only to realize that his friend had died. His exasperated officer invoked the infallible second thought: “I told you not to go; your friend is dead; it wasn’t worth it.” But the young soldier whispered: “But it was, sir. He was still alive when I got there, and he said to me, ‘Jim, I knew you would come.’ ”
All of us who served with Bob were lifted by knowing that when things got tough, Bob would come. I want to thank the Funseth family for permitting me to pay tribute today to a truly gallant public servant.