Smart Power, Smart Friend

Remarks at State Department reception for outgoing Fulbright Board chair, Anita McBride

Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

In this building, you hear a lot about smart power.

You’ll have to indulge the writer in me, but I’m always curious about the origins of words. “Smart” has its roots in the word for fire: a source of warmth and light that’s quick and powerful and beguiling.

People gather around the fire.

People gather around Anita McBride.


No one embodies the concept of smart power better than she.

But here’s something you may not know about how Anita conducts her shuttle diplomacy, as she goes from one group gathering around her to another.

Anita drives a Smart Car. One of the very first Smart cars ever to hit the streets of Washington, D.C.

I want you to picture this glamorous, smart woman in her cutting-edge smart car: This is the 21st century.

Now when a Healy praises a McBride, there’s definitely a bit of Irish involved. But, of course, for this wonderful, proud Italian-American, it’s only by marriage that Anita became a member of the McBride clan.

But there’s no question she shares some important characteristics of that McBride history: the McBrides trace their beginnings back to St. Brigit. St. Brigit of Kildare, who, with St. Patrick, was one of the early leaders of the Gaelic Church, the Irish community, one of the most powerful women in early Christendom. The McBrides were the tribe who gathered around Brigit’s communal fire.

Brigit is the patron saint of children and the patron saint of poets. (Okay, that may be the same thing!) She’s also the patron saint of travelers and scholars and the poor. And do you know what St. Brigit’s symbol is? In every painting and icon you’ll see of St. Brigit, she carries a lamp. She carries a sacred fire.


I was struck by this image as I thought about the smart power embodied by someone who has carried the lamp of opportunity while working for three presidents, one first lady, two secretaries of state—traveling to 70 countries, supporting scholars and poets and children, holding a lamp toward freedom and hope, being one of our country’s true and great leaders for women and for all of us. She helped launch the African First Ladies Initiative, the US-Afghan Women’s Council. She participated in the UN Commission on Human Rights and the UN Commission on the Status of Women. She has been passionately engaged in literacy, youth issues, the arts, and the fights against diseases, from malaria to HIV/AIDS.

Anita McBride is that charismatic person who lights a fire and gathers us around, that brilliant woman with the Smart car who also somehow has the ability to slow down and be such a wonder with each of us one on one. And the remarkable ability to connect not just with adults but with children. I’ve seen Anita with her own lovely children and I’d like us all to offer our thoughts and prayers for her young daughter who had a serious concussion recently.

You know, Anita lost her own mother when she was only three years old. That difficult, tragic experience of growing up without a mother is one she actually shares with the great Harriet Fulbright, who is here with us tonight

Somehow, through that pain and loneliness, Anita – and Harriet too – became a wonderful mother and a smart, loving, generous, mentoring figure for so many more of us.

It is a great honor to follow in the light of Anita’s smart power. I’ve even gotten a ride in her Smart car.


We are so deeply grateful for your service as chair of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. And we are so pleased that you’ll be our colleague, our friend and mentor in the years to come.

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