He was ‘Mr. Foreign Aid’

Gerry Connolly first learned Capitol Hill’s global reach as a committee staffer in the ’80s

Virginia Rep. Gerald E. Connolly worked through three leadership changes in the Senate as a staffer for the Foreign Relations panel. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Virginia Rep. Gerald E. Connolly worked through three leadership changes in the Senate as a staffer for the Foreign Relations panel. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 30, 2020 at 6:00am

“Tectonic” is the word that comes to mind when Gerald E. Connolly thinks back on his early days in Washington.

The year was 1979, and the future congressman was fresh out of graduate school. He landed a job as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, the Iranian Revolution happened,” Connolly says.

“The world suddenly just blew apart as I was just beginning my tenure,” he recalls — a feeling reinforced by a schism in his own party. The Democrats’ foreign policy establishment split, and some went on to join the Reagan administration.

Connolly wasn’t one of them. He spent a decade as a committee staffer, and in his mind, the job description was pretty clear: keep the Cold War from getting hot. Now he serves in Congress himself, representing Northern Virginia’s 11th District — and he’s still running into people he worked with back then.

Q: What did you learn from your time as a staffer?

A: I had oversight of the entire foreign assistance program and responsibility for writing the annual foreign aid authorization bill. So that gave me a worldwide responsibility, a pretty broad portfolio. I was Mr. Foreign Aid.

One of the saddest parts of my time: We went to Lebanon and went to visit the Marines in Beirut. They were guarding the airport, surrounded by a Shia neighborhood, and they had no intelligence, no one who spoke Arabic. They actually relied on the Shia to warn them that there’s a truck bomb at the end of the runway.

I can remember saying to the colonel that we had 240 young men totally exposed. … [Then President Ronald] Reagan ordered the shelling of Souk el-Gharb, and that totally changed the Shia view of the United States. We went from being liberators and protectors to taking sides in the ongoing conflict within Lebanon, and that whole Shia neighborhood then stopped protecting our Marines.

I remember coming back and pleading with senators to look at this deployment. Tragically, a terrorist blew up our Marine compound and we lost a couple hundred young American lives. … I saw the consequences that flow from your vote on a policy that may look distant but affects lives.

Q: You worked under a couple of different Democratic chairmen of Senate Foreign Relations, including Frank Church and Claiborne Pell.

A: I started with Church. … I was on the majority, and then the minority, and then back to the majority. I went through three statuses.

Q: How was the committee dynamic when Republican Richard G. Lugar took over the chairmanship in 1985?

A: [The Democrats] had an effective majority in the committee even though we were in the minority. On Middle East issues, we had [Rudy] Boschwitz. On humanitarian and foreign aid issues, we had [Charles] “Mac” Mathias. On Greece, Turkey, Cyprus issues, we had Larry Pressler.

We actually controlled the votes on the committee when Lugar became chairman. Lugar was smart enough to count, because otherwise he would’ve lost votes on virtually most issues. He quickly accommodated himself to that, and that made him a successful chairman.

Q: When you started on the Hill, there was tension in the Democratic Party, with a lot of people taking inspiration from Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who was known for his hawkish views.

A: That’s right, the neocons. Many of them went into the Reagan administration because they were disillusioned with [President Jimmy] Carter.

Q: Did any of that thinking make its way into your foreign policy work?

A: There’s a lot of revisionist history with Ronald Reagan. We certainly did not experience the Reagan years as enlightened policy years. We saw them as a real throwback. He was an unreconstituted Cold Warrior who seemed to see the world through his old television days.

It was a rich environment to be a Democratic staffer — trying to prevent the worst from happening and trying to hold [the Reagan] administration to account. That peaked with the Iran-Contra scandal. We had been arguing that there were things going on with Central America that didn’t square with law. … We felt justified when it was revealed what was going on, that indeed people had violated the law, and this was a really shady parallel set of policies we couldn’t tolerate in a democracy. Sound familiar?

Q: Were there any moments of positive bipartisanship?

A: We got solidarity to get [Ferdinand] Marcos out of the Philippines. Lugar came around to that.

We were moving toward more solidarity on apartheid. There was one point we had a bill at the desk on South Africa sanctions. [Lugar] was carrying water for the Reagan administration and didn’t want the Senate to vote on it. And so he did something unprecedented: He went up to the desk and took the bill, physically, so that it couldn’t be called up because there was no bill at the desk. Lugar, I think, grew on the job and came to have a more experienced view of the world over time. But it took awhile on South Africa sanctions.

Q: Any lessons that you pull from that era now that you’re a lawmaker yourself?

A: When I worked in the Senate, I was the chief liaison to the House Foreign Affairs Committee — so it’s kind of fun to come back as a member in the other body and pick up where I left off. … I knew a lot of the interest groups and think tanks. With a 20-year hiatus, I was amazed at how many people I still knew.

I would also say, in those days, your word was your bond. … These were not trivial issues; these were tectonic issues in many ways. Apartheid in South Africa, the Soviet invasion, the Iranian Revolution, the Camp David accord. The disagreements were not mild or small, but we did have an ethos that we were here to try to resolve differences … and I guess the other ingredient is compromise. Even people like Jesse Helms at the end of the day were willing to compromise.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.