Idealism at work

Jill Schuker’s job is to make the world a better place.

The slogan of her employer, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is “Better Policies for Better Lives.” As head of the OECD’s Washington Center, Schuker said she takes those words seriously.

“I do not see the world through rose-colored glasses,” she said during a recent interview with The Hill at OECD’s offices on L Street. “I’m reality-based and know the importance of being practical. I also know that you have to get in the game to be able to improve the game.”

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Schuker began her career during the tumultuous politics of the 1960s. She interned with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), and was working on his presidential campaign in South Dakota when he was assassinated in June 1968. She returned to D.C. to take part in the funeral arrangements. 

“I had also been in Washington two months earlier, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, when there was rioting and the city was in flames,” she said.

And in July 1968, she was in Chicago for the raucous Democratic convention and the police riot that exacerbated the tensions of the time.

In addition to the violence and social upheaval she witnessed, Schuker got her first taste of hard-edged political warfare in 1968.

“That was the most difficult experience in my political life — my work on gun-control legislation,” she said, referring to her time as an assistant to Sen. Joseph Tydings (D-Md.), who sponsored the Firearms Registration and Licensing Act of 1968 to require national gun registration.

“I thought, ‘How can there not be enthusiasm for gun control, after all this death?’ ” she said. “Yet the legislation went down to defeat.”

The National Rifle Association and other elements of the gun lobby defeated the bill, then helped run Tydings from office in 1970. More than 40 years later, national firearm registration remains an unfulfilled goal of gun-control advocates.  

“For me, that whole experience was a very important learning curve,” she said.

But rather than daunt and dissuade, the early defeat strengthened Schuker’s resolve to “improve the game.”

She served as press secretary for New York Gov. Hugh Carey (D); public affairs officer for the U.S. Mission to the U.N., including during the Iran hostage crisis; executive director of the bipartisan New England Congressional Caucus, which was co-chaired by Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.); deputy spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of State; as well as consultant to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Dialogue on issues including anti-corruption, transparency, institutional integrity and accountability.

Signed photos of RFK, O’Neill and Carey are among the pieces of artwork that grace Schuker’s office walls, in the spaces not occupied by chocked bookshelves. Also among the snapshots are two more of her famous bosses — President Clinton and Clinton’s secretary of Commerce, Ron Brown.

“I headed public affairs for Commerce Secretary Brown,” Schuker recalled. “I was transferred from Commerce to the executive branch a few months before Secretary Brown’s plane crashed in Croatia.”

The U.S. Air Force CT-43A carrying Brown crashed into a mountainside in April 1996, killing all 35 people onboard, including the person who had recently replaced Schuker.

She went on to serve the Clinton administration as special assistant to the president on national security affairs, senior director for public affairs at the National Security Council and deputy communications director at the White House.

“With all its flaws, we have a very special system of government here in the U.S.,” she said. “People should be participants. Voting is important, but it isn’t enough. I get disappointed sometimes in the electorate, and the leadership. Political leaders should inspire, encourage and educate the public.

“I go back to Edmund Burke on this — ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ And I go back to John Adams, who emphasized numerous times the need for the citizens of a democracy to be educated in how that democracy works.”

After the Clinton years, Schuker entered the private sector, using her knowledge of government and world issues to serve clients at the Kamber Group and Hill & Knowlton. Eventually, she opened her own consulting firm in Washington, JAS International, and worked across the globe with both governments and societies in transition on a range of civil society, social responsibility, governance and modernization issues.

In 2009, Schuker took all that experience to OECD, where her life’s professional commitment dovetailed with the organization’s mission.

The OECD is, so to speak, the grandchild of the Marshall Plan, which was established in 1947 to restore Europe from the ravages of World War II. The Marshall Plan morphed into the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation, which, in 1961, was broadened from European and North American members to include developed and developing nations worldwide, with the organization now headquartered in Paris.

“The strength of the OECD is our integrity and our track record,” Schuker said. “We know the policies that will help your nation improve. We have the resources and the working relationships. We know how to get your nation from here to there.”

The organization acts as consultant, think tank, data miner, program developer, convener, archivist and incubator for its 34 member nations, the scores of nations that want to be members, and NGOs, corporations and trade unions around the world. 

Despite the turmoil she’s seen, Schuker said she remains an optimist at heart.

“I have met some extraordinary people in public life: mentors, profiles in courage, who cared about the country and the world, who have done important things through politics and policy, who cared about learning and history, who were not about the big bucks and who saw a positive future. I’ve been lucky to work with such people throughout my life. I’ve learned from them and been inspired by them.

“And I don’t think any of what I’ve just said is naïve.”