GOPAC Chief Tapped for UNESCO Job

Posted September 29, 2003 at 7:08pm

On Sept. 17, as Members of Congress fled Washington ahead of Hurricane Isabel, the White House quietly released the names of eight nominees it had forwarded to the Senate for approval.

The list included a few names destined to drift into bureaucratic obscurity, plus at least one, former Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), that ought to still be familiar on Capitol Hill. And at the south end of the list, third from the bottom, was Louise Oliver.

Despite appearances, Oliver was no anonymous functionary. Until April she was president of GOPAC, a mainstay of partisan activism that bills itself as “the premier Republican organization for political advocacy, voter mobilization, and candidate recruitment and training” — but a group better known, perhaps, as the one-time organizational base for former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Oliver, in fact, has been credited with restoring some of the political vitality the group enjoyed under Gingrich’s ambitious direction.

It’s hardly unusual for a president to nominate political allies to policy jobs. What has since raised eyebrows about the appointment on Capitol Hill is Oliver’s assignment: ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

It’s a job laden with heavy diplomatic baggage. The United States is only now re-entering UNESCO after a nearly 20-year absence due to a spat over its alleged mismanagement and “politicization.”

And GOPAC, like other political organizations, isn’t exactly known as a seedbed of diplomacy.

As word of the nomination has begun to seep out on Capitol Hill, Democrats have expressed bewilderment and anger.

“Couldn’t they find a distinguished Republican with a reasonable background in these things — someone like a [former Rep.] Connie Morella [Md.] — instead of going to the chief operative of a partisan and negative campaign committee?” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked.

Maloney said she would notify Senate colleagues that Oliver’s nomination amounted to “politics of the worst order.”

As with virtually every other member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she was not aware that the president had even put forward a nominee for UNESCO.

“I’m interested to see what — besides the politics she brings for the president — what other qualifications she brings to the table,” Boxer said.

The Congressional Research Service describes UNESCO’s purpose as “contribut[ing] to peace and security by promoting collaboration among member states in the fields of education, science and culture.”

The re-entry itself was important enough to the White House — at least symbolically — that the gesture was made a key feature of Bush’s landmark speech to the United Nations on Sept. 12, 2002, when he challenged the organization to enforce its own resolutions on Iraq.

The president described the decision to link up again with UNESCO as “a symbol of our commitment to human dignity.”

As part of the effort to remind the world about the United States’ return to UNESCO, the Bush administration this week dispatched first lady Laura Bush to speak at the organization’s headquarters in Paris.

The White House didn’t reveal much in the way of background about its new ambassador-designate in the official announcement.

The release stated that the nominee is currently the president of Oliver Management Consultants; that she was “previously appointed by the President to be Commissioner of the National Council on Children”; and that she earned her bachelor’s degree from Smith College.

An Internet search turned up no record of Oliver Management Consultants, though the Web site name olivermanagementconsultants.com has been reserved at an address in Washington, D.C. There is no phone number.

The National Council on Children does not exist. Oliver was, however, appointed to the National Commission on Children in 1988 by then-President Ronald Reagan. Her term on the panel was to end in March 1989, and the commission itself was eliminated in 1993 as part of an effort by the incoming Clinton administration to eliminate various “unneeded” federal councils and commissions.

Attempts to reach Oliver were unsuccessful. A person speaking on Oliver’s behalf left a voicemail saying she is “unable to speak until [her] nomination is acted on”; the call came in response to a message left with the UNESCO office in Paris.

A White House spokeswoman said Oliver has in fact had significant immersion in education policy, citing a stint in the Reagan-era Education Department, as well as roles with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the Center for Educational Reform.

“She has an extensive background in a range of domestic and international educational and cultural issues,” said the spokeswoman, Ashley Snee.

The intercollegiate studies organization promotes “values education,” including what its Web site describes as “instruction in Judeo-Christian moral standards.” The education reform group works to advance “school choice” and charter schooling.

Still, the relative secrecy with which the nomination was put forward has fed suspicions among Democrats that the White House has a domestic political use for the U.N. affiliate organization, though critics are vague on what such a scheme might be.

In any event, Oliver’s GOPAC connection is sufficient to raise their political antennae.

At GOPAC, Oliver, among other things, brought back the video tapes and other organizational methods that Gingrich had used to train activists and candidates in the field.

Former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), GOPAC chairman, lauded Oliver as “an invaluable asset” for the organization when she left in April.

“As a longtime conservative activist who served in the Reagan administration, Louise has successfully integrated the worlds of conservative ideas and conservative politics,” Watts added.

GOPAC was swept into the ethics controversies surrounding Gingrich in the mid-1990s, as one among a web of organizations utilized in the Speaker’s far-flung political operation.

As recently as 1998 the organization remained enmeshed in demands from Democrats for further investigation, though GOPAC was exonerated of charges brought against the group by the Federal Elections Commission.

A Democratic aide on Foreign Relations said the minority has heard from concerned parties outside of Congress and is “aware of her background” with GOPAC and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

In early 2001, Oliver was brought in for a four-month tenure as an outside consultant for Heritage, helping the think tank coordinate with conservative coalitions and other like-minded groups, according to a Heritage spokeswoman.

The return to UNESCO reflects the Bush administration’s judgment that the organization has reformed itself in the 19 years that the United States has been absent.

At the time of the withdrawal, Reagan administration officials cited what the CRS describes as “hostility toward the basic institutions of a free society, especially a free market and a free press,” as well as profligate spending and mismanagement.