9/8/11 – Washington, DC –Adapted from a story in The Inquirer – Philadelphia, written by Jeff Gammage, staff writer
On Thursday, September 8th in ceremonies in Washington, William J. Burns was officially sworn in as Deputy Secretary of State, placing him directly below Hillary Rodham Clinton in authority and raising his responsibility for diplomatic relations around the globe.
Bill Burns’ mentors at La Salle University vividly remember Burns’ A-plus classroom performance and a “mild-mannered, mild-speaking, but tremendously smart…very, very bright man,” said George Stow, director of the graduate program in history.
“Bill Burns began serving as the Department of State’s newest Deputy Secretary of State, alongside Tom Nides. I am grateful for Bill’s decision to continue his nearly 30 years of service to the American people as we implement President Obama’s ambitious foreign policy agenda. As our most senior Foreign Service Officer, Bill has advanced U.S. interests all over the world. He has been on the frontlines during some of the most significant foreign policy breakthroughs in recent years, from building international consensus on free trade, to curbing the nuclear threat posed by Iran, to nurturing democracy in the Middle East, to helping negotiate the historic START arms control treaty with Russia. Wherever he has served, Bill has set the standard for leadership in our Senior Foreign Service. He is our country’s senior-most professional diplomat for a reason — he is the best in this business, a role model for generations of Foreign Service Officers and someone whose counsel both the President and I hold in the highest regard. I look forward to working even more closely with Bill to tackle some of the most difficult challenges we face, as we help build a more peaceful and prosperous world.
Burns, 55, enters office focused on the events of the Arab Spring and the revolutions occurring in the Middle East, a part of the world that has been his specialty since his student days. Burns, who as one of two deputies is responsible for policy while his counterpart handles management and resources, speaks Arabic, Russian, and French. He has been ambassador to Russia and to Jordan, and special assistant to Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright. Before being named deputy secretary, Burns was undersecretary for political affairs, the State Department’s third-ranking post. In that role, he oversaw the bureaus for Africa, East Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Eurasia, the Near East, South and Central Asia, and the Western Hemisphere, along with international organizations and international narcotics law enforcement. He has a master’s and doctorate in international relations from Oxford University, along with the bachelor’s in history he earned from La Salle in 1978.
“I got a terrific education at La Salle,” Burns said. “I was lucky to have some really fine teachers there, Jack Rossi, George Stow. . . . Studying history gives you a perspective. History doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but you can learn from the challenges that leaders have faced. There are a lot of lessons to be learned.”
“He was in one of my classes, and he sat all the way in the back. I’m noticing this fellow doesn’t seem to be taking many notes, usually a bad sign,” said Rossi, who has taught history for more than 40 years. “I gave an early writing assignment. His was almost perfect.”
Stow recalled a similar classroom episode: “I’m hammering on Greek history, everybody scribbling – except one guy,” he said. “However, when the first exam came around, I had never seen anything like it.” Stow sponsored Burns for the Marshall Scholarship, a rigorous program that allows 40 young Americans a year to study in Britain, and which turned Burns toward Oxford. He was the first La Salle student to earn that scholarship. Burns joined the Foreign Service in 1982. Stow said he was not surprised that his former student would rise to the top ranks of the State Department, given his intelligence and his interest in international affairs, policy, and peoples. “Bill has always had a way about him. He’s a self-effacing man, tremendous interpersonal skills. . . . He enjoyed learning.”
Burns said he chose La Salle for a couple of reasons. An uncle had attended the school. So had his father, a 1954 graduate who became an Army general and served as an arms negotiator under former President Ronald Reagan. That family tie, and scholarship money, made the school attractive. With a father from Havertown and a mother from Upper Darby, he felt as if La Salle were home, even though the military family had moved often.
“La Salle for me was a very grounded place, with lots of people with common sense,” he said. “If you can’t explain the policies that an administration is embarking on in a way that makes sense to people . . . then there’s probably something wrong with your policy.”