Early in 1983, an attractive young woman I did not know grabbed my sleeve as I was leaving a meeting on Central America in the White House Cabinet Room. She stuck her card in my hand. It read, “Ambassador Faith Ryan Whittlesey, Assistant to the President for Public Liaison.” On the back she had penned, “Call me! You need my help.”
I showed the note to my boss, Judge William P. Clark, President Reagan’s national security adviser. His orders were explicit: “Call her. She will be invaluable building public support for the Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters. Do not divulge anything about the ‘other things’ you do.”
From that day forward, until May 1985, when she returned to Switzerland as U.S. ambassador, Faith Ryan Whittlesey became the Reagan administration’s most tenacious advocate for the president’s anti-communist policy in Central America.
She organized the White House Outreach Working Group on Central America and pressed for declassification and public dissemination of information about Soviet and Cuban intervention in the region. She supported formation of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America. And as it was being organized, she insisted on including Lane Kirkland, head of the AFL-CIO, as a commissioner because “Communists hate unions they can’t control!”
Though she likely learned some about what I was covertly doing for President Reagan on behalf of the “Contras,” she never inquired. She did, however, offer plenty of advice: “This draft State Department Human Rights Report has nothing about atrocities perpetrated by the Sandinistas against the Miskito Indians … . Who do I need to call about this travesty?” After Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, she called to insist, “The American people need to know about the gigantic stores of Soviet-bloc weapons — more than enough to arm every man, woman and child on the island. Keeping this classified is ridiculous!” She got her way.
In 1987 during the congressional Iran-Contra hearings, Ambassador Whittlesey was summoned and questioned under oath about “numerous contacts with Lt. Col. Oliver North.” She truthfully testified, “I had no knowledge of the Iran-Contra connection. I had no involvement in it nor was I asked to be part of it.” That honest, straightforward statement did not prevent those who prepared the committee report from including a totally false allegation I had asked her to obtain a visa or passport for a person who claimed to have information on the location of U.S. hostages kidnapped in Lebanon.
Ambassador Whittlesey truly was one of President Reagan’s “Happy Conservative Warriors.” My fondest recollections of her are the times when she would call and ask questions like, “Do I have to call Director [William] Casey in order to meet with Adolfo Calero when he’s in town next week or can you take care of that?” I never asked how she even knew the leader of the Nicaraguan resistance was expected in Washington.
And then there were the late-night phone calls to my office when she would start with, “Why can’t you get your work done in a normal workday like everyone else?” And then wait to hear her laugh out loud at my response: “I’ve been sitting here waiting for your call, Madam Ambassador.”
Her laughter really was contagious. Her smile was real. She had a quick wit and an insatiable appetite for promoting, and when necessary, defending, President Reagan’s policies. She insisted on using the word “we” in every discourse, whether she was explaining the Strategic Defense Initiative or President Reagan’s pro-life opposition to taxpayer-funded abortions. Her agenda was Ronald Reagan’s.
In 1988, after a total of five years as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, she returned to the U.S. But Faith Ryan Whittlesey didn’t fade quietly into the night as the left likely hoped. Instead, she used her extraordinary gifts as a prolific writer and speaker, penning scores of books and articles and making innumerable speeches — articulating in readily understandable language — conservative values on contemporary issues.
President George W. Bush recalled Faith Whittlesey to diplomatic service in 2001 as a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in all its Aspects” (“only the U.N. could devise an 18-word title for an anti-American Committee” — her words, not mine). In the midst of the debate on the U.N.’s globalist assault on our Second Amendment, she called me, as “a dear old friend on the National Rifle Association’s Board.” She wanted my comments on a letter she was drafting to the editors of The New York Times:
“The highest priority of freedom-loving people is liberty, even more than peace. The small arms you demonize often protect men, women and children from tyranny, brutality and even the genocide too frequently perpetrated by governments and police forces.
“The world’s numerous dictators would be delighted to stem the flow of small arms to indigenous freedom fighters and civilians alike to minimize any resistance.
“Contrary to your [New York Times] suggestion, the address by John R. Bolton, an undersecretary of state, was not an American retreat but a courageous reaffirmation by the Bush administration of a longstanding American tradition.
“The right of individual self-defense in the face of criminal intimidation and government aggression is a deeply held belief of the American people, dating back to 1776, when small arms in the hands of private individuals were the means used to secure liberty and independence.”
She signed it, simply, “Faith Ryan Whittlesey.” No title. No ego. No self-promotion. Just a patriot, writing truth about the history of a nation she loved and well served.
The Faith Ryan Whittlesey I know endured the loss of her husband and a son. She persevered until the end in a decades-long battle with cancer. She never complained. She “fought the good fight.” She “finished the race.” She “kept the faith.”
We shall miss her — but I am confident of seeing her again.
Semper Fidelis, dear friend of freedom.
• Oliver North is president-elect of the National Rifle Association of America.