- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

Patrons, trustees and friends of Meridian International Center stood patiently in a receiving line that stretched out to the street to bid farewell to retiring Meridian President Walter L. Cutler and welcome his successor, Stuart Holliday, as head of the prestigious international organization, whose mission is to expand understanding through outreach, exchange, arts and cultural programs.

Many had multiple commitments Tuesday night (including a Heritage Foundation dinner for Margaret Thatcher, Esther Coopersmith’s welcome barbecue for Thai Ambassador Aumaporn Futrakul, and Washington Life magazine’s 15th-anniversary bash) but that didn’t keep Justice Anthony Kennedy, Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence Small and a dozen or more ambassadors (Sweden, Jordan, Egypt, New Zealand and Morocco among them) from paying their respects before drinks, hors d’oeuvres and a stroll in the garden courtyard on a pleasantly balmy late summer’s day.

Guests noted the changing of the guard after 17 years with much praise for the departing director’s improvement of the center’s financial backing and dramatic increase in its involvement with world leaders and the diplomatic corps through public lectures, seminars and art exhibits.

“The Cold War ended on my watch, and there was a period when people were questioning if we still needed to have these exchanges,” Mr. Cutler noted after he and his wife, Didi, were honored in a brief ceremony. “Soon enough, however, we learned that the world is still a complex and dangerous place.”

There was plenty of buzz about the new director as well, much of it centering on his relative youth, which was seen more as a plus than a minus despite the fact that his predecessors have been retired senior diplomats.

“He’s already done a lot, and he is only in his early 40s,” said Evelyn DiBona, who headed the nine-member search committee that unanimously selected Mr. Holliday from a pool of “over 50 really good applicants.”

“He showed leadership, enthusiasm and energy and has a track record promoting international understanding,” fellow committee member Larry Burton noted while mentioning Mr. Holliday’s State Department career as deputy assistant secretary for public affairs and ambassador for special political affairs at the United Nations under the current Bush administration.

“I played the ‘good cop’ at the U.N.,” Mr. Holliday noted reassuringly with a chuckle and whippersnapperish grin as he greeted well-wishers in the marble foyer with his attractive wife, Gwen.

The top of his to-do list includes launching a multimillion-dollar campaign to increase the center’s endowment and pay for a much-needed exterior renovation of Meridian House and the adjacent White-Meyer House. Another goal is to increase contacts between Embassy Row and the U.S. Congress.

“Foreign relations are not just the purview of the executive branch. Congressional action is important as well,” Mr. Holliday reasoned. “We need to build a bipartisan bridge so that the diplomats know what constituencies outside the Beltway are thinking.”

Kevin Chaffee

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