On the Heroic Public Life of Faith Whittlesey

Editor’s note: The following eulogy was delivered at the funeral of Faith Whittlesey, who died at home on May 21 at the age of 79.

I had the honor of working for Faith both in the Reagan White House and the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland. I admired her unreservedly and we became great friends. I might even say more than that—as Faith so generously included me in her family in Switzerland and beyond, as Amy and Will here know so well. What a gift! Faith guided me, taught me many things of tremendous value, and supported me unstintingly—as she did for so many others. The conservative movement is notorious for shooting its wounded. Faith did the opposite. She policed the battlefield, picked up the wounded, nursed them back to health, gave them new marching orders and sent them on their way in better armor and with more ammunition. I know because I was one of them. In any case, I was able to see up close some very special things about Faith that others may not have had the privilege of observing.

As her brother Tom spoke on the more personal, family side of things, I will speak of what lay behind Faith’s political achievements. Faith possessed an extraordinary combination of political street-smarts and dedication to moral principle that made her a very potent force for the good. Faith’s accumulation of political power—what we from Chicago call clout—was never self-aggrandizing (something Washington has rarely seen) but always undertaken for higher purposes. By raising her political profile, Faith could do more for the causes she served. Every public celebration of Faith sponsored by fellow conservatives, the pro-life movement, and others had the effect of increasing the political cost to her opponents if they moved against her, and therefore increased her capacity to advance the cause. Faith had an absolutely uncanny ability to walk this tight rope.

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Of course, each step in this direction raised the price on her head. She was a troublemaker—for all the right reasons. She became a target.

Let me give one brief example—notable enough to be mentioned in the New York Times article last week—that illustrates how Faith operated with political street-smarts out of dedication to the highest moral principles. On Lincoln’s birthday in 1985, Faith arranged for the Silent Scream film to be shown in the White House. The film included the sonogram of an actual abortion and was narrated by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who had once been the largest abortion provider in the country. Needless to say, this was controversial. Faith asked various senior members of the White House staff to make the Lincoln’s day address on this occasion. I was with her when, after a presidential event, she saw one of the mice who worked for Chief of Staff Donald Regan (that’s what they were known as by the conservatives—mice). She informed him that she had sent Mr. Regan a letter inviting him to speak at the Silent Scream event. The mouse looked at her with alarm and said, “But that’s controversial!” Faith glared at him and responded, “No it’s not; it’s the president’s policy!”

Regan declined as did others, so Faith gave the speech herself. But first she set the stage. We had obtained enough videocassettes of the Silent Scream for President Reagan to send to every member of Congress. Faith instructed me to build a giant pyramid on each side of the stage made of these cassettes. The press cameras need a visual, she told me. Sure enough, when the network cameramen entered the room they made straight for the videocassette pyramids. They had shoulder cameras, so I soon witnessed them kneeling in front of the pyramids panning up and down in what looked like an ancient prayer ritual from pharaonic Egypt. Leave it to Faith to bring the press to its knees—one way or the other.

I should mention that this high-profile event was the subject of discussion at the senior White House staff meeting that morning. They were wondering whether canceling this controversial briefing would cause more trouble than allowing it to proceed. In typical high-wire fashion, Faith had so arranged things that a political ton of bricks would fall on their heads if they canceled it. So it went on.

Faith hit pay dirt. It was the lead story on the network evening news and on front pages the next day. Faith had also drafted a letter from President Reagan to each member of Congress. The White House counsel said the letter couldn’t be sent because the White House did not have gift receipt authority for the cassettes. Faith quickly solved that problem by calling the great pro-life congressman Henry Hyde and asking him to send the letter under his name, to which he quickly agreed. So a truck full of cassettes went from the White House up to the Hill. The press was none the wiser as it consistently reported that the president had sent each member of Congress a cassette of the Silent Scream.

Faith gave a Lincoln’s Day address that was Lincolnian in rhetoric—the way I think Lincoln himself would have spoken of abortion had he lived to see the horror of it. I don’t believe that she ever gave a finer speech in her life. I think there have been, or will soon be, flights of the souls of unborn children to greet Faith for her unstinting work on behalf of the inviolable sanctity of human life.

This is only one of many such examples spanning a number of issues, including the fight against the “evil empire.” I think you can see why Faith became known to us as the Joan of Arc of the conservative movement. And why we Catholics in the White House made her an honorary Catholic at the time, which is what made us so happy when she entered the Church some years later. Our Joan of Arc. She rallied us to battle. She inspired. She led. We followed.

In fact, I followed her to Switzerland, where I was able to observe what a truly great ambassador does. Faith did all of the important things so well, but also what might seem to be small things. I remember especially what must’ve been the largest formal dinner she hosted in the embassy residence. She rose from her chair and, without any notes, in an extraordinary mnemonic feat, acknowledged each of her 100 guests by name and said something special about them. The Swiss noticed. They also enormously enjoyed the songfests around the piano in the living room afterwards. The fondness they developed for Faith was fully reciprocated. When years later the controversy arose over Switzerland’s behavior during World War II, Switzerland discovered it had a lioness on its side, as Faith rose in its defense and roared.

As I mentioned, all of this came at a price. If you can’t get the policy, get the person—such are the ways of Washington. So efforts were made to get Faith with scurrilous accusations regarding an embassy gift fund and the Iran Contra issue. It was not pretty. It hurt her deeply. I saw the flood of tears it produced. It’s the price Faith was willing to pay. She bore the pain for the greater causes for which she was working. That’s when you see real courage. That’s the real test and that’s why Faith inspired so many of us. Faith under fire was Grace under fire. She was, of course, vindicated, but that did not lessen the pain she underwent.

I’m reminded of an instance in which a wealthy socialite woman approached Mother Teresa of Calcutta and said to her, “Mother, to tell you the truth I haven’t suffered.” To which Mother Teresa responded, “Perhaps you’re not worthy.”

Well, Faith was worthy. She not only suffered from political attacks but from great personal sorrows and from her health. Well, that is now over, and what remains is her magnificent legacy—her children, her grandchildren, her friends, and her many achievements.

In 1987, President Reagan wrote to Faith: “Your sacrifice and exemplary performance in the White House helped to create the enormous public support we received for a second term and for many of the policies I asked you to advocate. I have missed you since your return to Switzerland.”

And now we shall all miss her. God bless you, Faith. May this great champion and dear friend rest in everlasting peace.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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