June 7, 1999 - Boston Globe: Mark Gearan is leaving Washington a better place

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Directors of the Peace Corps: Mark D. Gearan: August 11, 1995-August 11, 1999 : Gearan: June 7, 1999 - Boston Globe: Mark Gearan is leaving Washington a better place

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Mark Gearan is leaving Washington a better place

Mark Gearan is leaving Washington a better place

A local boy with vision is leaving Washington a better place

By Thomas Oliphant, Globe Columnist, 06/07/99

est to start on a bipartisan note about the guy from Gardner who made it in the big leagues without once checking his principles at the door.

Largely because of Mark Gearan's vision and tenacity, the Peace Corps, one of the best ideas of post-'50s America, is in the process of getting ginned up by a Republican Congress under a Democratic president to a level of activity not seen in more than a generation.

Ten thousand dedicated people will be serving abroad three years from now, which is fabulous news for a great many needy nations, including new partners Jordan, Bangladesh, and South Africa.

It is also fabulous news for the United States, whose superpower status demands good works. And fabulous news for those mostly young Americans (as well as a growing number of over-50 volunteers) who are quietly reviving national service as a worthy pursuit.

But it is also an eloquent tribute to the work of one person who has never been quite what he seems to be, and who has managed at 42 to do a lot more than put fresh life into a vital program. Included in that is helping build a Democratic Party capable of governing the country with new ideas. The scouting report says ''great guy, everybody loves him, plays a mean piano, selfless, decent, and super-smart.'' That's not half of it.

All over most of Washington last week - in the middle of Kosovo - people were buzzing about something else, word that Gearan would stop running the Peace Corps this summer to take over the presidency of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, two smaller-school gems in upstate New York.

Washington is a tough town; departures are routine and rarely noted. But this was different, a widespread murmuring of delight at Gearan's good fortune, true sadness that he's moving, and more than a little quiet confidence that he will be a Cabinet secretary someday.

The buzz was on Capitol Hill, among the Republican authorizers and appropiators who built the hoops Gearan jumped through to win his campaign for an expanded Peace Corps, as well as a new operation using experienced volunteers in humanitarian crisis situations.

And, less surprising, it included President Clinton and his wife, Vice President Gore and his wife, the current and former secretaries of state, every domestic policy official of consequence in the administration, and everybody who did anything or knows anything of consequence about presidential politics over the last three cycles.

This is not a resume; it's an instructive life, and a good place to begin is in the middle. It's the late fall of 1991 at Georgetown University and Governor Bill Clinton is making the first of three lengthy, complex policy speeches about a different kind of Democratic agenda. Only a few people are with him, most notably Al From of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which Clinton had headed; also in the entourage was Gearan, then in his third year of running the Democratic Governors Association, another early Clinton power and networking center.

In the crafting of what would become a successful and popular domestic policy, they were, at the outset, almost the symbolic yin and yang of opportunity and responsibility.

Gearan already had rich experience: Harvard University, Representative Robert Drinan's fourth reelection campaign, a year in the journalism racket, then a chance in Washington with former Iowa Representative Berkley Biddell, then a bigger chance with Governor Michael Dukakis.

In running the federal office in Massachusetts and then as a senior aide in Dukakis's star-crossed presidential campaign, Gearan helped generate ideas that foreshadowed the Clinton presidency. Then in '92, he helped make a president, staffed the selection of Al Gore, ran Gore's campaign, and then staffed Clinton's transition. The White House was chaos for two years, but Gearan's office was an island of sanity and never falsehood.

For those surprised that he went on to be arguably the most important director of the Peace Corps since Sargent Shriver himself, the image had been ''nice, quiet staff guy.'' And it was always wrong, as his very proud mom is happy to explain.

Gearan lost his dad, the principal of Gardner High, when he was only 12. Martha Gearan says her youngest was devastated but never lost his bearings and was never afraid to tackle hard things. But he always did so quietly. She knew he was applying to Boston College, but didn't find out he had filled out an application to Harvard until he told her. When she drove him to Cambridge for his interview, she worried that he didn't have a briefcase like most of the other kids. He told her not to worry, and I doubt she has since.

Washington may be a tough town and a tough business, but for those not afraid to be quixotic, the Mark Gearans reward your faith every day.

Thomas Oliphant is a Globe columnist.

This story ran on page A13 of the Boston Globe on 06/07/99.

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