Conservatives from across America and overseas gathered in Washington, D.C., last Wednesday to say goodbye to Ambassador Faith Ryan Whittlesey — a stalwart of the right, loyal aide to President Reagan, and influential diplomat. Family, friends, and loved ones of the devout convert to Catholicism bade her farewell at the St. Thomas Apostle Catholic Church in the Woodley Park neighborhood.
Whittlesey’s illustrious 79 years began in Jersey City, N.J. She was the daughter of a railroad billing clerk and, as World War II erupted, a Rosie-the-Riveter-type aircraft-factory worker. Whittlesey graduated from Wells College and the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School. She soon served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, under Arlen Specter, the author of the Warren Commission’s Magic Bullet Theory and, later, the Keystone State’s U.S. senator.
Whittlesey and her late husband, Roger, became active in Pennsylvania’s GOP. She served two terms in Harrisburg as a Republican state representative from 1972 to 1975, and then won a seat on the Delaware County Council.
Whittlesey backed Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 1976, as well as his winning campaign in 1980. President Reagan named her U.S. envoy to Switzerland in 1981. She flew back to the White House in 1983 to helm the Office of Public Liaison. She then served a second tour at America’s embassy in Bern from 1985 to 1988.
“Your sacrifice and exemplary performance in the White House helped to create the enormous public support we received for a second term and for many of the policies I asked you to advocate,” President Reagan wrote Whittlesey in 1987. “I have missed you since your return to Switzerland.”
Reverend Christopher Pollard, who attended to Whittlesey’s spiritual needs, especially late in her illness, said at her funeral: “Ambassadors think twice before saying nothing.”
Whittlesey must have missed that proverb.
In his eulogy, her friend and aide, Robert R. Reilly, described “what must’ve been the largest formal dinner she hosted in the embassy residence. She rose from her chair and, without any notes, in an extraordinary mnemonic feat, acknowledged each of her 100 guests by name and said something special about them. The Swiss noticed.”
Veteran Reagan adviser Ed Meese noted that Whittlesey “arranged a visit for me with the Swiss government, where, as attorney general, I met with top law-enforcement officials to discuss cooperation on criminal justice, economic crime, and drug-control issues.” Meese, now a Heritage Foundation legal scholar, added:
She was an outstanding member of the Reagan team, noted for her effective leadership and commitment to Reagan policies and the conservative movement. She was particularly persuasive in communicating those principles and objectives, both in the United States and overseas. She combined a keen intellect with personal charm and graciousness. Her dedication and accomplishment brought her widespread recognition as “the keeper of the flame” of Reaganism and conservatism. Faith leaves a legacy of distinguished public service and strong advocacy for the causes she served, as well as the memory of a remarkable lady of dignity and friendliness.
“Faith and I hit it off well,” recalled Morton Blackwell. The president of the Leadership Institute worked back then for Whittlesey in the White House. “Both of us were full-spectrum Reaganites, conservative regarding free enterprise, limited government, strong national defense, and traditional moral values. Natural allies, we became good friends — a friendship that lasted the rest of her life.” Blackwell believes that Whittlesey “will be remembered by movement conservatives as a shining example of a principled conservative who rose by her own efforts to have a major impact on the public-policy process.”
Whittlesey is particularly appreciated for managing the White House Outreach Working Group on Central America, which is where I was fortunate to meet this splendid patriot. She organized and inspired conservatives to fight Communism as it metastasized in the western hemisphere, arranging innumerable briefings on the Sandinistas and other Marxist movements. Young Americans for Freedom and College Republicans were welcome at these meetings. My rightist Georgetown University schoolmates and I reveled in trips to the White House, where we learned the latest atrocities of Nicaragua’s Ortega regime and the alternative offered by the anti-Communist Contras. We took this news back to campus and shared it with our classmates and professors. (Back then, this happened without triggering riots or triggering triggering.)
Mark Klugmann, one of Whittlesey’s assistants in shielding Central America from totalitarianism, flew in from his home in Honduras to honor a woman he considered “courageous, strategic, loyal.” He added: “She set a standard of principled political leadership. She brought numerous people into the movement. She forged permanent human ties between the U.S. and Switzerland.”
Beyond Whittlesey’s diplomatic assignments, her main vehicle for linking our two countries was the American-Swiss Foundation, which she chaired for nearly 20 years, before becoming its chairman emeritus in 2008. I proudly worked with her as a member of the foundation’s Young Leader Program. Since 1990, it has convened some 1,200 civic-minded American and Swiss men and women in Switzerland. Each year’s gathering invites participants to savor the beauty of Basel, Geneva, Lucerne, and other locales while discussing public affairs and building friendships that help bind our two nations. Whittlesey led all 28 of these week-long seminars.
“I first met Faith in November 2014 in Zurich, as one of her Young Leaders,” recalled Amy Holmes, a conservative activist and co-host of PBS’s In Principle. “Faith became the nana I always wished I had.” Back home, Holmes remembered Whittlesey taking her to an Irish folk-music show in Times Square. “I had no idea it was the hottest ticket in town — the theater filled to the rafters with hundreds of boisterous fans clapping and stomping, including a delighted Faith.” Holmes added: “Even more than her devotion to politics and the conservative cause, Faith inspired me with her strength, warmth, and resilience.”
Whittlesey displayed such resilience as she stood with the Swiss through happy times and those less so, not least the controversy over the role of Switzerland’s banks in World War II. She always called for fairness for the Swiss and urged that America’s disagreements with the Alpine powerhouse be addressed without swamping the countless things our two republics have in common.
“R.I.P Ambassador Faith Whittlesey,” Swiss envoy to Washington Martin Dahinden said via Twitter. “I will never forget your friendship and your outstanding commitment to American-Swiss amity.”
Whittlesey was always elegant, humorous, and surprisingly humble, given the commanding heights that she reached as a public servant, diplomat, and leader in trans-Atlantic affairs.
“The conservative movement is notorious for shooting its wounded. Faith did the opposite,” Robert R. Reilly, director of the Westminster Institute, said from the church’s pulpit. “She policed the battlefield, picked up the wounded, nursed them back to health, gave them new marching orders, and sent them on their way in better armor and with more ammunition.”
“Faith became known to us as the Joan of Arc of the conservative movement,” Reilly continued. “She rallied us to battle. She inspired. She led. We followed. . . . She bore the pain for the greater causes for which she was working,” Reilly said.
“Faith under fire was grace under fire.”