Ernest W. Lefever, 89

Ernest Lefever, 89; Think Tank Founder Was Embattled Nominee for State Dept. Job

A Senate panel rejected Ernest Lefever for the human rights job.
A Senate panel rejected Ernest Lefever for the human rights job. (1981 Twp File Photo By James K.w. Atherton - 1981 Twp File Photo By James K.w. Atherton)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ernest W. Lefever, 89, who founded a conservative public policy organization in Washington and was an embattled nominee for a State Department human rights job under President Ronald Reagan, died July 29 at a Church of the Brethren nursing home in New Oxford, Pa. He had Lewy Body dementia, a progressive brain disorder.

Dr. Lefever, a Chevy Chase resident, was an international affairs specialist with the National Council of Churches, a staff consultant on foreign affairs to then-Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) and a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution before starting the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 1976. The center studies the link between Judeo-Christian morality and national and foreign policy.

In 1981, Reagan nominated Dr. Lefever for the State Department position of assistant secretary of human rights. After months of accusations over conflicts of interest involving his think tank and insurmountable controversy about his views of the human rights job, Dr. Lefever withdrew his bid after rejection by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

What drew the most media attention during his nomination was his distinction between "authoritarian" regimes that supported U.S. policy -- right-wing juntas, for example -- and "totalitarian" regimes run by communists who saw the United States as a foe.

Authoritarian states, he said, could be accorded "quiet diplomacy" to effect change, but totalitarian countries were diplomatically untenable.

"Our friends deserve quiet support and public encouragement in their quest for a more humane society," Dr. Lefever wrote at the time. "We must earn this respect by being a steadfast ally rather than an erratic and capricious partner given to moral posturing.

"We should be concerned more with results than with rhetoric," he added, "more with doing good than with feeling good. Getting one innocent man out of prison is worth more than a dozen noisy and ineffectual TV demonstrations."

Many critics said Dr. Lefever's distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes was arbitrary. Among his opponents were his two younger brothers, Donald and John. Donald Lefever, a department manager for a Minneapolis farm cooperative, told the Foreign Relations Committee that both types of autocratic societies repressed human rights and that his brother was not the man for the job.

The presence at the hearings of Jacobo Timerman, a prominent journalist who was tortured by the military regime in his native Argentina, was said to have been a factor in the Senate committee's rejection of Dr. Lefever.

There were also allegations that Dr. Lefever's think tank had a quid pro quo arrangement with Nestle, the Swiss food company that controversially marketed its baby-food formula to developing countries.

Nestle had given Dr. Lefever's Ethics and Public Policy Center $25,000 as the think tank sponsored a study into the medical needs of developing countries. The study was never written up, but the author, a reporter at Fortune magazine, wrote an article heavily favoring the company's perspective. Dr. Lefever's center reprinted the article.

The human rights post went to State Department official Elliot Abrams, who later that decade pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress during hearings into the Iran-contra scandal. Abrams was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush for a role in a scandal in which U.S. officials covertly sold arms to Iran to win the release of U.S. hostages in the Middle East and used some of the profits to support Nicaraguan rebels known as the contras.

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