Saturday, September 5, 2009

In Memoriam

There has been much sadness in Washington of late for the passing of great men. To leave this life having improved the lives of others is a privilege few allow themselves.

Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International, was one of these decent people. As a journalist, a Defense Department press spokesman, and advocate for the dispossessed he was always a passionate spokesman for the most voiceless people in the world. He died on on August 15th at 63 of melanoma. The memorial service for Ken will be held at 11:00am on Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at the Washington National Cathedral.

He possessed all the qualities that our high school tried to instill in us. We were blessed with strong bodies and extraordinary minds and the dons (teacher does not quite convey the power they had) every day demanded the best from us for the best, they said, was what the world needed. Our talents were not to be focused only on self-improvement or aggrandizement. We were to stick close to the school motto: Non Sibi [not for oneself].

Ken and I were friends. I often found him on the bus to Dupont Circle and we would discuss Japan's contributions to refugee issues. I had know him since the 1980s when I accidently became president of our high school's Washington alumni association.

This was a position that mainly entailed managing the annual dinner, explaining to the executive committee that no we could not hold events at the Cosmos Club because I and other alumnae refused to go in the back door (at the time women could not be members and were restricted to certain rooms), and attending funerals. The latter I would go to with one of my classmates who had a Porsche and who liked to demonstrate its performance capabilities; I always was grateful to return home alive.

My friendship with Ken was cemented when he came to my rescue.

In the late 1980s, I wrote an article for an obscure and now defunct journal on Japanese lobbying in Washington. In it I mentioned the curious history of the Japanese Embassy-sponsored Japan Economic Institute (JEI). The Institute played a particularly interesting role in the textile row in the early 1970s. Their unregistered lobbying persuaded prominent members of Congress like Wilbur Mills, who was considering a run against then President Richard Nixon. Mills apparently cut and announced a deal with Japan on the textile dumping problem. Unfortunately, Nixon was not informed of it. His vengeance is legend and it certainly was in this case. The results were the famous Nixon Shocks and the IRS coming down hard on JEI and Mills.*

Well, the JEI of the late 1980s was a very different place than the 1960s and early 70s. It was an extremely valuable resource and had an excellent library, which I often used. About a month after the article was published, I happened to attend a meeting at JEI. When the meeting ended the new executive director called me into her office and started screaming at me. She was very annoyed with the article of which JEI only took up two paragraphs. I asked if I reported anything wrong or inaccurate. No, she said, it just did not needed to be brought up again. And she ended by declaring that I was banned from ever coming in JEI again.

Needless to say I was in tears (and so was my friend who worked at JEI). I first sobbed to a friend who was an actual Japan lobbyist. He thought the incident funny and said it would blow over. Then I collected myself and did what any graduate of one of the most connected high schools in America would: pick up the phone and call alums. Thus I told the story to the president of the Washington Post, a Senate staffer, and Ken Bacon who was then with the Wall Street Journal.

Ken was most amused by the incident and quickly dried my tears. He said he probably would not write about it, but he would make a call. A school boy mischievousness floated in his voice. The next day he called me back. He reported that he had phoned JEI and had asked the director "how long have they had this practice of banning people?"

I can only say he died way too young; there was so much more good for him to do. I will miss him very much.

Requiescat in pace et in amore

*The Textile Wrangle by I.M. Destler is a good history of this incident. After the textile debacle Wilbur Wills was in over his head with Japan and he, as chair of the Japan Society, was tasked with accepting the first check from Japan (Sumitomo Heavy) to influence the policy discussion on Japan. The check for $1 million was originally intended to go to Brookings, but President Kermit Gordon was old school (like Ken Bacon) and refused to accept funds from the countries the Institution studied. The deal was then to give it to the Japan Society and most of it to go back down to Brookings. There is a wonderful picture in the Japan Society annual report of Mills accepting the check from the Chair of Sumitomo Heavy.

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