Ambassador Rich Williamson died suddenly of a stroke two days ago. His death came as a shock to all of us who knew him. He was 64 years old.
I got to know Ambassador Williamson fairly recently, when we both were senior advisors to Mitt Romney. Rich was also a top adviser to John McCain in 2008. I know how much both men valued Rich, and I believe that had either won, Rich would have been asked to serve in a very senior foreign-policy job in the administration.
He would certainly have deserved it, and been qualified for it. Rich was a rare bird in foreign policy: a person with extensive formal experience in various State Department jobs who seemed unaffected by the culture of the foreign-policy establishment. He had all the credentials one would expect from a man who had served three presidents over the course of 30 years: assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, ambassador to the United Nations for special political affairs, special envoy to Sudan, vice chairman of the International Republican Institute, senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a trustee of Freedom House and the McCain Institute for International Leadership.
Rich knew all the details — the foreign history, names and places that people with his credentials typically know — but he also had an understanding of strategic context and human nature that made him highly unusual. He was a natural communicator (he served as a press surrogate for both McCain and Romney) and a very tough negotiator — two skills which, though normally associated with diplomacy, diplomats often do not have. An American exceptionalist to his core, Rich knew evil when he saw it and, like his hero Ronald Reagan, had the refreshing tendency to call it for what it was.
Being in politics myself, I like to think that part of what made Rich so effective in his field was that he was also an experienced political actor. He ran for the Senate in 1992 and was the Republican Committeeman from Illinois. It helps a diplomat to know how politicians think; after all, most of the people (foreign and domestic) whom diplomats ultimately try to influence are politicians. Despite his partisan background, of which he was quite proud, Rich was well liked and respected by Democrats. This from Madeleine Albright on his death: “As the years go by, it is harder and harder to make new friends. It is even more difficult to lose one of Rich’s caliber. I will miss him.”
That’s how all of us feel. When Rich came on board the Romney campaign, he was vetted, of course. Most people who have a lot of experience in foreign policy also have a lot of enemies. We ran Rich’s name by many people from many different camps. No one said a bad word about him.
Rich Williamson was a man of firm conviction, honorable conduct, and great heart. There are others like him, but not many, and certainly not so many that America can afford to lose him. My sympathies go out to his wife Jane and the rest of his family. He loved only them, and his Maker, more than he loved his country.