Willamette University

Nancy Bearg ’69, 40 years in Washington, and the American political puzzle

By Andrew Faught

Partisan bitterness and handwringing might be the order of the day in the nation’s capital, but Nancy Bearg ‘69 can still see past it. She needonly step onto the balcony of her 12th-floor Washington, D.C. apartment to find equal measures of consolation and inspiration.

Sprawled before her Foggy Bottom neighborhood is a living postcard: to the east, the White House and the Capitol; to the south, sweeping views of the Lincoln Memorial and the Potomac River.

“Despite the horrible politics and the changes in Washington since I came, I continue to be inspired by it. Physically, anyway,” says Bearg, who began crafting a political identity two years after she left Willamette. That’s when she became the first female professional staff member for the Senate Committee on Armed Services, working with the Senate and House Foreign Affairs and Appropriations committees on issues related to NATO and weapons procurement.

Recall that this was right in the middle of the Cold War arms race, before things had begun to wind down. Some political careers were made — but many were soured — by the tensions of the time.

By 1981, Bearg had been named Vice President George H.W. Bush’s assistant for national security affairs, the first woman to hold that position. It was quite a change of path for a Willamette English major who initially had designs on university teaching.

“I honestly do feel like I’ve made a difference in many people’s lives,” she says, taking the long view of these experiences. “I’ve been very privileged.”

More than three decades later, Bearg has positioned herself as a national expert in conflict prevention and post-conflict peacebuilding by authoring and editing five books on the subjects, including three volumes on global poverty. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank that considers U.S. foreign policy and international affairs. She is active with Women in International Security and mentors women from around the globe who believe in a future built on peace, not hostilities.

In roles that have been historically male-dominated, Bearg has also challenged people to reevaluate gender. Women, Bearg says, can bring an important perspective to peace negotiations that are fragile by nature. “They can sometimes understand the big picture differently than men — of peace and reconciliation for families and future generations,” she says. “Many men I’ve worked with view things more politically, as a fight. My hope is to have more women at the table negotiating peace for their own countries.”

East from Willamette

Like plenty of other Willamette alumni, Bearg jumped into politics almost immediately after her graduation, scuttling her teaching plans after getting a clerical internship with the State Department. Joining her on the journey to Washington, D.C. was classmate and friend Kim (Foskett) Duncan ’69, a political science major who had landed a staff position with then-Sen. Mark Hatfield.

Bearg, Duncan says with a chuckle, was something of a political naïf early on. “When we got to D.C., she asked me the difference between the White House and the Capitol building. That’s one of my classic Nancy stories.”

But the Idaho-bred Bearg immediately took to her new setting, moving on to a secretarial job at the National Security Council at the White House. Her boss, R. James Woolsey (who would later become director of the CIA during the Clinton administration) was so impressed with her work ethic that he took Bearg with him when he was named general counsel for the Senate Committee on Armed Services. Bearg initially was a research assistant, but she was a global thinker, and gradually she took a wider role on policy and program research; soon she became the first female professional staff member on that committee.

Woolsey says Bearg was self-deprecating and humble about her role, but that she wasn’t to be underestimated as the lone woman attending committee meetings. Her impact in the room was palpable.

“She’d work 24/7 and get up to speed more than anybody else,” Woolsey says. “And then, in her quiet, smiling way, she’d say, ‘We might try it this way.’” Her polite demeanor tended not to mask the fact that she usually knew “at least as much, if not more, than anybody else in the room.”

After the Wall Fell

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marking the end of the Cold War, the government’s attention — and, consequently, Bearg’s — found the focus that continues to dominate her professional life.

“The problems we had [after the Wall fell] were no longer about how to get enough ballistic missile submarines built in order to make sure we’d have a deterrent against the Soviet Union,” Woolsey explains, “but [how to address] things like starvation in Somalia, ethnic clashes and genocide in Rwanda, and chaos and civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans. The emphasis for the U.S. government shifted so that we asked ourselves, How do we keep these messes from getting bigger? And how do we get people fed?

“Nancy was present at the creation of these conversations.”

One of Bearg’s first duties in this new world order, as director for international programs and public diplomacy with the National Security Council from 1989–93, was helping to get humanitarian assistance to Kurdish refugees and move them back home following the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The ethnic minority, long persecuted by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, had fled to the mountains near Turkey after the war.

The experience strengthened Bearg’s resolve and her successes propelled her further. From 1995–2001, she served as the director of the International Peace, Security and Prosperity Program for the Washington-based Aspen Institute, a prominent international nonprofit dedicated to “fostering enlightened leadership, the appreciation of timeless ideas and values, and openminded dialogue on contemporary issues.” There, she directed high-level roundtables on conflict management, conflict prevention, global poverty and the Balkans.

Luncheon Image

Paris, June 1981: Luncheon at the Elysee Palace. From left: George H.W. Bush, U.S. vice president; Charles Hernu, French defense minister; Nancy Bearg ‘69, assistant to the vice president for national security affairs; Pierre Beregovoy, general secretary of the Elysee Palace; Arthur Hartman, U.S. ambassador to France; and Francois Mitterrand, French president.


Bearg attributes her public-service inspiration to her parents. Her mother was a teacher who served in Washington, D.C. as a codebreaker during World War II; her father was an accountant whose wartime stint in the Army involved guarding the Panama Canal. Pragmatism guides her politically: She grew up Republican, but now considers herself an independent; she supports President Barack Obama and describes her views on domestic policy as “quite liberal.”

Her view of the world was shaped in no small part by her coming of age during the Vietnam War. Bearg and Duncan both opposed the war and attended anti-war demonstrations in Washington, they recall. “This wasn’t the smartest thing do when working in the government at those levels,” Bearg says. “But I felt very strongly that I must do that, and I had to ask my boss’s permission when I was working at the White House. He said, ‘Go, but don’t get in trouble.’” The longtime friends, who had met as freshmen in Lausanne Hall, found themselves in the thick of it and had to flee tear gas on one particularly tricky occasion.

Just months earlier, Bearg and her Willamette classmates had spoken ambivalently of the violence unfolding in Southeast Asia. Dean Buzz Yocom, Bearg recalls, considered the class of 1969 different from those preceding it since Vietnam became a hot issue.

“I think he called it an obsession,” she says. “We mostly did not support the war and were a little bewildered by it and why it was going on,” she adds. “I and many of the other girls felt a little guilty that only the men were exposed to the draft and what that meant to their lives. The women were free to plan their lives, and it didn’t seem right that we had that freedom.”

That critical eye is the same force that drives Bearg today, Duncan says.

“Nancy is motivated by the intellectual challenge of the international security field, and by trying to bring about foreign-policy action to deliver peaceful outcomes,” she says. She doesn’t envision her friend’s ardor waning anytime soon, either. “She’s got too much energy.”

Bearg says Willamette, as well as Harvard, where she earned a master’s degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, helped her “learn how to extract learning from something, how to take apart a problem and tackle it, and how to consult other people on it and bring viewpoints together. That’s the way you begin to solve problems and get a better idea of what you’re up against.”

She calls Willamette the perfect undergraduate experience, even though she enrolled sight-unseen on the suggestion of a neighbor in Boise who attended the university. “Those were the days when you often didn’t go visit a college beforehand because you didn’t have the money,” Bearg says, noting that she was swayed by two factors in particular. “I loved the size of it and that it was a liberal arts school.

“Having a liberal arts experience, you live life on a larger canvas. You’re more educated in art, history, and the way things fit together. I just think you’re more sensitive to the world.”

Bearg is imparting her sensibilities on the current generation of college students by teaching a graduate-level course at George Washington University called Leadership Vision and Strategy. The best leaders, she notes, are those who “have a vision, know what they want to accomplish, want to bring others along with them and know how to do it in a sincere way.”

She says she would like to work in a post-conflict role with countries affected by civil war after the Arab Spring uprisings that started in 2010. “I’m talking to people in the governments now,” she says, noting there are plenty of contemporary opportunities for peacebuilding. “It’s very much a matter of the countries doing it themselves, but outsiders can still be helpful.”

Other Ventures

Bearg has plenty of other irons in the fire. Today she is collaborating with three friends to write a book that will help baby boomers find purpose in their retirement years. “It’s about living a balanced life and being a little more in charge of it,” she says. The quartet already authored “Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life By Taking a Break,” published in 2011 (see rebootbreak.com). The book urges readers to take “personal sabbaticals” in order to reflect, pursue dreams and identify their potential. Nancy and company also give workshops on these topics.

Co-author Rita Foley met Bearg at a women’s leadership conference in Vieques, Puerto Rico seven years ago and was immediately struck by her presence. “When she introduced herself, I thought ‘Whoa, look at this woman I’m next to. She’s so unbelievably accomplished, but so very modest.’”

At 66, Bearg clearly hasn’t strayed from the approach that has served her so well over the years. Alongside everything else, she recently took up photography. After all, she’s got a balcony with a million-dollar view and unrestrained enthusiasm for the city that’s given her so much purpose and so many challenges to face. “Every morning,” she says, “I just can’t wait to get up and see what it looks like.”

Andrew Faught is a freelance writer living in central California. He has written widely on issues and ideas of higher education.

Alexandria, Egypt, Sept. 1978

Alexandria, Egypt, Sept. 1978: Bearg with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at the presidential palace. Egyptian Vice President Hosni Mubarek is in the background.

Nancy Bearg

“She’d work 24/7 and get up to speed more than anybody else...then, in her quiet, smiling way, she’d say, ‘We might try it this way.’”