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US bids farewell to 'gracious' Richard Verma

April 19, 2011 00:40 IST

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accorded Richard Verma a rousing farewell at the State Department's ornate Thomas Jefferson Room. He exited after more than two years of serving as her principal Congressional affairs advisor in his capacity of assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs.

There was much humour and emotion at the event, attended by several senior administration officials. They included President Barack Obama's National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Clinton's Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills, United States Agency for International Development Administrator Dr Raj Shah, Verma's wife Melineh, parents, sisters, brother, close friends, and the entire Bureau of Legislative Affairs staff.

Mills, who had initially offered Verma the job and had set up his interview with Clinton, kicked off the farewell ceremony. She said Verma, with "grace wisdom, steely determination and unflappable will, helped us all be bigger than we are, and achieve more than we dreamed when we first walked through this door."

Donilon said it was "a real privilege to be here to be paying tribute to an extraordinary public servant, a great friend, and a wonderful human being."

He recalled his first meeting with Verma over a decade ago on Capitol Hill, and noted: "You couldn't help but be struck by his depth of foreign policy and his knowledge of how foreign policy works."

He spoke of how Verma had always imbued "trust and confidence," and credited him with a laundry list of the administration's "foreign policy legislative victories of the last few years, from funding our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to achieving what many thought was not possible to last year, the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (with Russia)."

Donilon also brought with him a personal letter from President Obama, which he read out. It said, 'Dear Rich, I extend to you my sincere thanks for your valuable service to my administration. Over the past two years, our country has faced a host of challenging foreign policy and national security issues. At each turn, your skilled judgment and leadership has helped shape effective Congressional engagement. You played a key role in our efforts to ratify the New START treaty, to manage the response to the tragedy of the Haiti earthquake and to negotiate a powerful Iran sanctions bill.'

Obama's letter added: 'You worked in a demanding environment and always responded with able advice and good humour.  I appreciate your dedication and professionalism. Please accept my best wishes and thank you again for your contribution to the country.'

But Clinton stole the show, starting off with a humorous anecdote about how upset she was that she was going to lose Verma as her close and faithful advisor.

She said, "My mother lives with us in our house here in Washington, and I was saying goodbye to her this morning and she said, 'What's wrong, you don't look very good --that's what mothers are there for!' And I said, 'Well, I know, I am not just in a very good mood today.' And she says, 'Well, you know, there's so much going on in the world, all over the country, and the economy.' But I said, 'No, it's not it; it's Rich Verma.'"

The nearly 100 guests cracked up.

Clinton said, "Richard has just been our superb point person on the Hill. He hasn't just been an absolutely, exemplary deal-closer and problem-solver, he has been a counselor and friend in the truest sense of the word. He has been there for every one of us -- as I look around the room at the senior leadership here, at the State Department, and Raj Shah from USAID. He's really been there for us, every step of the way."

She recalled how Verma "helped me get through my own confirmation hearing. He hadn't even been confirmed as assistant secretary, but he'd already worked with me to prepare my testimony and I knew as he sat behind me in that hearing room, that he literally and in every other way, had my back."

She said, when two years later, "there I was back on the Hill again, testifying for hours and hours and hours to make the case for the resources that we need to make the case for America; and Rich was there right behind me. Now, it's almost impossible to think of going forward without him. We are thrilled that Dave Adams is going to be following in his footsteps and we know that Dave's team and everyone working together will not miss a step."

But, Clinton said, "It is true that we had some remarkable achievements in the past two years and Tom made reference to these, and of course, so did the President in his letter. We had the UK-Defence Treaty, the Australia-Defence Treaty, the Convention on the International Recovery of Child Support, we saw the Iran sanctions bill successfully passed. And when Rich met with President Obama last spring to talk about the Iran sanctions bill, the President had a request. He said he wanted authority to grant a waiver to countries that closely cooperated with the international efforts to prevent nuclear escalation. That was not an easy case to make, but once again, with Rich's leadership, we got it."

Clinton also pointed out that thanks to Verma, the confirmation rate of several State Department officials and ambassadors "has been really phenomenal."

"Now of course," she added, "the full measure of a person isn't just the work they do, in fact, far from it, it is the memories that are left behind, especially with people that they have worked with."

Verma, she said, had left loads of such memories. She cited examples, including how when his Executive Secretary Marjorie Jackson (a longtime State Department employee, who had also been former secretary of state Colin Powell's secretary) was stranded in a snow-storm in January, "Rich offered to drive more than 30 miles to take her home."

So, she said, "There are a lot of Rich Verma stories and when you talk about Rich around the building, you hear the same words -- gracious, humble, modest, principled, effective, professional. How much he cares for his country, his people… but most of all, what you hear is how much he loves his family and how proud he is of them, and how he is so devoted to everyone that he feels a sense of responsibility."

She recounted interesting and humorous vignettes of the trips she had taken with Verma, including to Munich "to exchange the instruments of ratification for the START treaty with Russia's foreign minister. This was really a sweet moment for Rich to be seeing the culmination of all his work paying off."

She joined Mills and others in making a presentation of gifts to Verma, which included a framed copy of the voting record of Congress on the START treaty.

Verma was also humorous and emotional as he thanked his staff, his colleagues and profusely expressed his gratitude to Clinton for the "amazing opportunity" she had afforded him.

He told Clinton, "You've given us all your confidence and your courage to do things, and to take risks, and frankly, to make some mistakes along the way. Saying that you have our backs would be a gross understatement. I really can't tell you how much this means to all of us."

He spoke of the sacrifices his parents and his wife's parents -- who are Armenian -- and grandparents had made. He said, "Whether it was surviving the aftermath of World War I, serving in World War II, living through a dangerous Partition (of India), and taking a chance on a new country for a new future… they took all the risks, they have done so much for us… and I know we can never fully repay them for what they have done. But we can take great comfort that this secretary of state and President are every day working to validate those previous sacrifices, and are sowing the seeds for a better future for our children and generations to come."

Image: Richard Verma, right, briefs the media on the START treaty as Secretary Clinton, center, listens

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC