Editorial: Beers exits D.C., miracles undone

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Washington is a tough town, even for Charlotte Beers, who enjoyed remarkable success in another tough place, the ad business, where she led both J. Walter Thompson Co. and Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. She came to the State Department as undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs 17 months ago to inject new ideas about how the U.S. can tell its story overseas. New ideas Washington got. But in the post-Sept. 11, 2001 whirlwind, Washington wanted miracles from her. It didn't get them.

So now she is leaving, for health reasons, and, despite public praise, it seems some in Washington can't wait to slam the door behind her. A CNN dispatch on her resignation quoted an unnamed U.S. official who described her as a "failing" appointee eased out because she "didn't do anything that worked." It was only the latest roughing up she took from Washington press and political circles, where her past prowess in the ad world provoked, at best, skepticism and, at worst, derision. Chalk that up as another sour dividend of decades of public distrust and misunderstanding of Madison Avenue.

Other Washington observers, less harsh, say she did, indeed, bring new thinking to public diplomacy, but never mastered "the territory." In Washington, promising ideas, no matter your job title, need outside champions-in your department, in the White House, on Capitol Hill. Or they die in some in-basket.

Of course, "advertising" is no solution, by itself, to the problems the U.S. faces overseas. If that was all Ms. Beers contributed, taxpayers will not have gotten their money's worth. But the government benefited from the kind of attention she brought to research, to analysis of media and communications techniques and strategies and to a focus on message. Perhaps she can now share, more frankly, what's she's learned and what she feels must be done to make the U.S. a better communicator. We hope she does.

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