Friends, political allies and diplomatic colleagues are recalling Robin Beard as an accomplished public servant and a skilled advocate in international relations. But as much as any other aspect, they remember him as a fun guy to be around.
Beard died on Saturday at his home in Isle of Palms, S.C. after battling a malignant brain tumor. He was 67.
Many in Nashville knew Beard as a politician. He was the local boy, raised on Lynwood Boulevard and educated at Montgomery Bell Academy and Vanderbilt, who showed signs of electoral stardom by winning a seat in Congress at the age of 33. He was the first Republican since Reconstruction to represent Tennessee's 6th District, which sprawled from the outskirts of Nashville to the suburbs of Memphis. And he was the candidate whose ambitions flamed out disastrously after a tumultuous campaign against an incumbent U.S. senator in 1982 ended in a whopping 24-point loss.
Elsewhere — in official Washington, in the multinational diplomatic hub of Brussels and in national capitals across Europe and the Middle East — Beard will be remembered for the new career he pursued after leaving elected office. He served two separate terms, 1984-1987 and 1992-95, as the U.S.-appointed assistant secretary general for defense support with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
"Robin was full of life and a fine public servant," Senator and former Governor Lamar Alexander told NashvillePost.com. "We had been friends since our days at Vanderbilt. He represented Tennessee with distinction both in Washington and at NATO. Honey and I will miss him and his cheerful good humor."
Former Governor Winfield Dunn, who made Beard the youngest member of his cabinet as personnel commissioner in 1970, expressed his sorrow "that such a vigorous, enthusiastic and patriotic human would lose his life at a very prodcutive age."
And Nashville lawyer Justin Wilson of Waller Lansden, who helped organize Beard's first campaign for Congress in 1972, said simply: "Robin was fun." (When was the last time your heard a politician described that way?)
"Kids loved to be around him," Wilson recalled. "Normally boring campaign events, like bus tours, became happenings. Back when he was in Congress, most representatives had offices that were kind of dour places. In his office, there was always laughter. No matter how your day had gone, if you were around him more than five minutes, you got in a good mood."
Beard's track record as a merry prankster, stretching back to his high school days (as recounted in this 1982 interview with a tender young scribe from the M.B.A. student newspaper), seems to have remained consistent no matter how august his station in life became. At least, it made him a suspect when he attended the wedding of a Tennessean in Germany while he was working at NATO and, according to Wilson, "somehow, an F-14 happen to fly over the church just as the ceremony started."
Make no mistake: Beard was dead serious about the issues that mattered to him. As the only member of Congress holding an active commission in the military — Beard took part in manuevers each summer as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, and he eventually retired as a full colonel — he came at his job with rigor and discipline during his ten years in the House.
Beard carved out positions well to the right of center on issues like abolishing the Legal Services Corp., denying amnesty for Vietnam deserters, reinstating the military draft and putting an end to forced busing in public schools.
"Whatever you thought of Robin's politics, you admired his conviction, consistency, passion and energy," said longtime GOP political operative Tom Ingram. "Tennessee has a rich history of interesting political characters, and Robin certainly is one of them."
Beard's sense of humor may have been part of what got him into trouble when he ran in 1982 for the Senate seat of first-term Democrat Jim Sasser. The race became known for Beard's advertising campaign against Sasser, which was seen, at the time, as unprecedented in both its harshness and its maladroit nature.
In one television spot, an actor made up to look like Fidel Castro actor lights a cigar with American dollars, sneering "Muchas gracias, Señor Sasser!" The implication, that Sasser had favored foreign aid for Communist Cuba, had little relationship to the facts. Another TV ad, scorning Sasser as "flippin' Jimmy" for supposed turnarounds in his stances on issues, showed a wind-up toy mouse doing somersaults. The sheer silliness of that spot got Beard plenty of public attention, but mostly in the form of eye-rolling,
The solidly conservative Nashville Banner had endorsed Beard, but it withdrew its endorsement in objection to the ads, calling them "sadly lacking in taste and substance."
Beard would later say that losing the Senate election was the best thing that ever happened to him, as it led him to refocus his life on family and a new international career. But he obviously didn't feel so serene in the immediate aftermath. "The worst and most difficult thing was the next morning going out to the airport," he recalled in a 1983 interview with The Tennessean. "I just wanted to hide. I just wanted for somebody to put me in a Federal Express bag and send me back up – or maybe a body bag would have been more appropriate."
Beard's rejection of politics was convincingly sincere. When Howard Baker announced in early 1983 that he would not run again for Tennessee's other Senate seat, Beard categorically and publicly ruled out a bid.
He told the interviewers in 1983 that he lay awake at night worrying about how to pay off his $150,000 campaign debt. When offered a position on the U.S. arms control negotiation team at the Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, and then at an ambassadorial level to the same body, he turned down both. He said the political uncertainty of his tenure in such a job and the salary made it impossible, given the college costs he was paying.
When an assignment as the highest-ranking U.S. civilian at NATO came up, however, Beard took it. By all accounts he flourished in the role. Beard "did a thorough and fair job as a diplomat," in the estimation of Ken Adelman, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and headed the Arms Control & Disarmament Agency during the Reagan administration. "I especially admired the way he dealt with European friends and allies to further the larger cause of Western security," Adelman said this morning. On a personal level, he added, Beard was "a wonderful person and great patriot. He remains a model of decency."
In 1986, a Rome newspaper said intelligence sources considered Beard as one of the top three civilian targets of Libyan terrorists then operating in Europe. For a time, Beard had large police escorts when he traveled around Europe, and the family's incoming mail was X-rayed before opening. "At NATO, a security specialist was assigned to him to detect regular patterns in daily routines that terrorists might use to plan his kidnapping," Wilson recalled. "After a couple of weeks of observing Robin, the specialist abandoned the effort, saying Robin's routine was so irregular that no one would predict it."
In the early 1990s, Beard worked to develop relationships between NATO countries newly independent from Soviet domination, helping several lay the groundwork for eventual membership in NATO. In recognition of his work at the organization, Beard received distinguished service awards from both the Department of Defense and the State Department.
After his second term in Brussels, Beard became a vice president with Hughes Electronics Corp. and chairman of Hughes Europe. He later joined defense contractor Raytheon Co., heading up its marketing efforts for Europe, Israel and Africa. Recently, he served as a lecturer with the National Defense University's Near East-South Asia Center.
Beard is survived by his wife of 42 years, Cathy, and three children, as well as a brother, William Damon Beard of Nashville, and a sister, Rochelle Beard Barthel of Bon Aqua.
Funeral services are set for 10:30 Thursday morning at Charleston's Protestant French Huguenot Church.
The family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Charleston Ballet Theater, 477 King Street, Charleston, SC, 29403, or the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, 825 College Blvd, Suite 102, PMB 609, Oceanside, CA, 92057.
- ALEX B FRUIN INHERITANCE TRUST; CANDACE F STEFANSIC INHERITANCE TRUST; CANDANCE F STEFANSIC INHERITANCE TRUST; FRUIN, ALEX B TRUSTEE; FRUIN ALEX B INHERITANCE TRUST; STEFANSIC, CANDACE F TRUSTEE; STEFANSIC CANDACE F INHERITANCE TRUST; STEFANSIC CANDANCE F INHERITANCE TRUST
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