A Doyenne of the Old School

President's Views


Let the public service be a proud and lively career. And let every man and woman who works in any area of our national government be able to say with pride and with honor in future years: ‘I served the United States Government in that hour of our nation’s need.’

—President John F. Kennedy,
State of the Union Address, Jan. 30, 1961

Baby boomers may recall a certain leadership style prevalent in the State Department when we came in that doesn’t really exist any longer—a brutally honest, results-oriented approach that is also focused on self-sacrifice and the collective good.

I hold no nostalgia for the “good old days.” The Foreign Service I entered in 1989 was reeling from the class action law suits of women and African-Americans who had been systematically discriminated against in assignments and promotions.

The Foreign Service of today, while far from perfect, is more inclusive and meritocratic. Still, this background should not prevent us from admiring and retaining many good features of “old school” leadership. Let’s recall the career of one of its exemplars, Mary Ryan.

Mary entered the Foreign Service in 1966, swept into the government like so many of her generation by the words of President Kennedy. An administrative officer, she served in Italy, Honduras and Mexico.

From 1973 to 1975, she and a young Pat Kennedy were rovers in the Africa Bureau, covering at small posts for those on home leave or transfer.

She became assistant secretary for consular affairs in 1993, after Elizabeth Tamposi, a political appointee, left in disgrace for opening the passport files of then presidential candidate Bill Clinton (seeking nonexistent evidence that he had renounced his citizenship).

Mary served the next nine years as assistant secretary for CA. Among her achievements was mentoring a series of leaders, including her three successors, who together have elevated CA to the best-managed bureau in the State Department, one that truly engages in career development and long-term strategic planning.

Her first challenge after taking over CA was the World Trade Center bombing of 1993. The person who inspired and helped plan this attack, Omar Abdel Rahman, had been issued a visa in Khartoum, though information was known about him in his home country of Egypt. Mary led the interagency to undertake two reforms.

First, she directed visa fees to be used to automate the worldwide lookout system (replacing the cumbersome microfiche readers). Second, she worked with the intelligence and law enforcement agencies to create the Visas Viper program, to provide a mechanism for sharing information with consular sections.

Eight years later, a second attack on the World Trade Center gave Mary her ultimate challenge. Once again the visa function came under intense public scrutiny. All of the 9/11 hijackers had received tourist visas. In congressional hearings, Mary defended these issuances as straightforward cases. The problem was that the CIA and FBI had not shared information on these individuals.

“Every name of every one of those 19 terrorists was run through the classified lookout system. And we had no information on any of them,” she later recalled. Mary became the public defender for keeping the consular function at State, as Congress moved customs and border protection into the new Homeland Security Department.

Mary knew her truth-telling was career-ending. She took a beating from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. She didn’t want her consular troops to think she was abandoning them, so she did not resign and, as the highest-ranking Foreign Service officer, continued to advocate for them. But she realized Secretary Colin L. Powell might have to ask her to step down—as he did, in September 2002.

Here is the most remarkable thing about Mary Ryan: She moved on to new challenges in retirement and had no time for resentments, despite the scapegoating she endured. I never knew her, but in talking with her protegés I believe it was a deep religious faith that sustained her and pushed her to become a Foreign Service hero.

Be well, stay safe and keep in touch,


Robert J. Silverman is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.