Elspeth Davies Rostow, 90; Presidential Adviser

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007

Elspeth Davies Rostow, 90, a presidential adviser, political science professor and retired dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, died Dec. 9 of a heart attack at her home in Austin.

A professor of American studies and government at the time of her death, she was dean of the LBJ School from 1977 to 1983. In the fall, she taught courses on the American presidency and U.S. foreign policy over the past 60 years. She had firsthand experience with both.

She was the wife of Walt W. Rostow, senior adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and served as a member of the President's Advisory Committee for Trade Negotiations and the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties, both under President Jimmy Carter. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the Board of the United States Institute of Peace, which she later chaired.

"She was as vibrant and engaged at the end of her life as she had been through 70 years of teaching," James Steinberg, current dean of the LBJ School, told the Austin American-Statesman.

Known as a gifted teacher, Mrs. Rostow also continued to write and speak out about politics and public policy. In 1999, she took issue with then-presidential candidate George W. Bush, who had said Johnson used federal money to override local control of public schools.

"My impression is Governor Bush is exaggerating, simply because Johnson had great respect for local control whenever it was effective," she told a Cox News Service reporter.

In an interview with Texas Monthly magazine this year, she urged the president to pay more attention to "the neglected domestic agenda." Education, health care and the environment were areas that had been ignored, she said.

Mrs. Rostow was born in New York City and graduated from Barnard College in 1938. She received a master's degree in history from Radcliffe College in 1939 and a master's degree from Cambridge University in 1949.

While teaching at Barnard in 1939, she was among the founders of American studies as an academic discipline, said Robert Abzug, a history professor and former chair of the American Studies Department at UT-Austin. She was the author of "European Economic Reconstruction" (1948).

During World War II, she worked for the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, analyzing dispatches from the French Resistance. She had met Walt Rostow at a Paris seminar in 1937. After their marriage a decade later, the couple lived in Geneva for three years.

In the 1950s, Mrs. Rostow was an assistant professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her son, Peter Vaughan Rostow, recalled that Mrs. Rostow, the only woman on the faculty at the time, gently suggested to the MIT administration that the school build a faculty club for her exclusive use, because she was being charged for use of the all-male club but was not allowed inside. MIT changed its policy.

Mrs. Rostow and her husband returned to Washington on Jan. 20, 1961, the day of Kennedy's inauguration. While her husband worked for the White House, she taught in the School of International Service at American University and at Georgetown University. She also taught U.S. Foreign Service officers at the Foreign Service Institute.

On Jan. 20, 1969, the day Richard M. Nixon was inaugurated, the Rostows moved to Austin. There, Mrs. Rostow was deeply involved for the rest of her life with the university, nonprofit boards and the city itself.

In 1992, she and her husband, by then a retired professor of political economy, were among the founders of the Austin Project, an effort to promote educational and social literacy in local schools serving disadvantaged students.

Walt Rostow died in 2003.

"She was sometimes perceived as an intimidating woman, regal and erudite," her daughter, Ann Lerner Rostow, wrote in a memorial. "Underneath that image was a woman who was somewhat shy, somewhat reserved, poetic, sensitive and wickedly funny. Her brilliant limericks are too racy to be published in a family newspaper."

Survivors, in addition to her two children, both of Austin, include a granddaughter.

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