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Russell Hemenway: An Appreciation

By Tom Blanton, Director, National Security Archive

February 14, 2014

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"R. Hemenway, 88; Aided Liberal Causes"
The New York Times, February 6, 2014

"Russell D. Hemenway, 88; Led liberal political-reform group"
The Washington Post, February 1, 2014

The National Security Archive owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Russell Hemenway, our long-time chairman of the board of directors, who passed away on January 30, 2014.

Today in New York City, in the midst of snowdrifts that he would have appreciated for their beauty and excoriated for their barriers to access, will be his memorial service, at St. Thomas Church on 1 West 53rd Street at 2 p.m.

As chair of the board of directors of the National Security Archive Fund, Russell Hemenway told us he was not going to micromanage.  He believed in the firehouse model of board activism, which is to say, only when there’s a fire, a crisis, should the board intervene.  Perhaps this is not the best fit for for-profit corporations where the least latitude seems to open space for the fundamental greed motive to overwhelm good sense, or even the firm’s own interest (see the legendary London Whale).  But Russ’s approach turned out to be perfect for the National Security Archive, where a brilliant idea (from Ray Bonner, Jim Moody, and most of all, Scott Armstrong) turned into a permanent (we hope) force for open government.

Russ had seen too many organizations undermined by board politics, by directors who themselves wanted to run things, or thought they could run things better.  He insisted that the staff of the Archive run things, and tell the board straight what was working and what was not.  He insisted on financial audits, but as cheaply as possible.  He insisted that we do good work, and as long as we did, he would wave his “pax vobiscum” wand over us.

We never had a crisis at the Archive in the 15 years of Russ’s chairmanship that let me see the steel rod that was Russ Hemenway’s backbone.  In fact, I only saw that inexorable determination in the transition we went through as we gained our independent NGO status in the late 1990s.  The Archive had started back in 1985 with a fiscal sponsor, an umbrella organization called The Fund for Peace, which had a generous endowment from the Compton family, and provided extremely useful economies of scale for key services that small NGOs really could not do very well on their own, such as health benefits for employees, or any kind of decent pension plan, or centralized payroll and accounting and audit.

The Archive from 1985 to the mid-1990s rapidly outgrew The Fund for Peace, and once we made our “civil union” with George Washington University in 1995, we aimed for an independent status, to be recognized under the Internal Revenue Code as a 501(c)3 public charity.  As a Trustee of The Fund for Peace, and as the leader of the new board of directors of the Archive, Russ really steered the transition to independent NGO status for the Archive.  When anyone objected, that just made Russ stand up straighter.

Being around Russ Hemenway made you stand up straighter.  Other than ballet dancers I have never known a person with a more impressive stance in front of the world.  It was contagious.  Back up, shoulders square, chin straight out, eyes directly at you, he seemed several inches taller than he actually was.  And actually, he was way more than life-size.

As board chair for the Archive, Russ was always open to the new generations of activists, he welcomed the Archive’s embrace of the international right-to-know movement, and he vigorously encouraged the Archive’s growth and ambitions beyond the United States.  But he always reminded me that the most “target-rich environment” was the national security establishment of our own country – bigger than everybody else’s combined.

His joy was palpable when the Archive had a big win, a court case victory, a front-page story.  Russ understood the big picture, the long struggle, the permanent tension built into our constitutional system, and he did everything he could to make sure the citizen side of the scale had as much weight on it as he could bring to bear.

After I had made a particularly good presentation at a board meeting or another public setting where Russ was there, Russ would query with a twinkle in his eye, haven’t you ever thought of running for public office?  And I would always remind him, didn’t the voters of New York pick the irascible Bella Abzug over you?  Indeed they did, but Russ Hemenway led several sea changes in public affairs, likely more than any single member of Congress could ever do. 

There was his enormous impact on campaign finance laws and greater transparency in political contributions – a constant struggle undermined of course by the Supreme Court, over and over and over. 

There was his sponsorship of the development of precinct-level political analysis and data, still embedded in the National Committee for an Effective Congress, and brought to its greatest effect by the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012.

And I would say his third great contribution was the creation of a critical mass of civil society organizations fighting for open government, with his blessing, his help in fundraising, his wise advice, his legal and financial sponsorship, and his sense that the more voices were yelling at Capitol Hill and the White House for transparency, the better our country would turn out.

He had a special commitment to freedom of information.  I’m sure it began with understanding the ways that walking-around money bought elections, not least the Kennedy victory in Texas and Illinois that robbed Nixon in 1960.  Russ was no friend of Nixon’s, and had a nice framed page from the New York Times reproducing the infamous Nixon “enemies list” – Russ Hemenway front and center.  Now that’s achievement, Russ would say. 

But Russ had been an Adlai Stevenson man, and he repeated to me Jack Kennedy’s very funny line after the West Virginia primary when Kennedy beat Humphrey and Stevenson, that Jack had called his father the night before and the patriarch had warned him, I’m not going to pay for a landslide, just a one vote margin will do.

Sitting in Russ’s office in New York on an afternoon as I did on many occasions, I still remember the time he politely interrupted our chat to take calls from two U.S. Senators.  He treated me as a Senator too, just a very junior one from Louisiana.   I was learning at the knee of a true professor of politics. 

I remain profoundly grateful that Russ took the time to teach me, he invested the energy to midwife the Archive, he presided over and blessed our years of success, he transplanted his own extraordinary backbone into all of us who fight the fight for open government, and he left us a model of how to make a difference in this world.

"R. Hemenway, 88; Aided Liberal Causes"
The New York Times, February 6, 2014

"Russell D. Hemenway, 88; Led liberal political-reform group"
The Washington Post, February 1, 2014

 

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