In Memoriam: Evelyn S. Lieberman

Tiny, tough as nails, always impeccably coiffed and famous for the resounding thunder of her F-bombs, Evelyn Lieberman was an indomitable force of nature. Her management style, she said, with a glint in her eye that might or might not have been humor, relied on “fear and benign neglect” and any excuse or complaint was likely to be met with a tart “Don’t bother me with your personal problems.” A consummate professional, she demanded no less of her staff than she did of herself and was generous with her praise, her loyalty and her wisdom. Evelyn Lieberman was fearless. She spoke truth to power and held the powerful to the truth. She will be sorely missed.


Evelyn S. Lieberman (Photo by Tamara Hoffer)

Evelyn S. Lieberman (Photo by Tamara Hoffer)

The Smithsonian Institution lost a great champion with the passing of Evelyn Lieberman Dec. 12 at her home in Washington, D.C. She had pancreatic cancer.

Mrs. Lieberman was senior advisor and assistant to the Secretary for external relations at the time of her death. She had served since 2002 as Director of Communications and External Affairs, where she oversaw the Smithsonian’s internal and external communications, the Office of Government Relations, the Office of Special Events and Protocol and the Office of Visitor Services. During her tenure, she served five Secretaries, and participated in many major milestones for the Smithsonian, including the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, the renovation and reopening of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, and groundbreaking for the Smithsonian’s newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“Her advice on matters big and small was much sought after,” said David Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian, “and I personally benefitted from her wisdom and guidance. Her blunt, worldly and grown-up advice illuminated a path, and how to walk that path, for me and four other Secretaries. And she would scold me for saying that. We already miss her immensely.”

Mrs. Lieberman came to the Smithsonian with a remarkable portfolio. She was appointed in 1999 by President Bill Clinton as the first under secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, where she was responsible for the educational and informational activities of the former U.S. Information Agency after it became a part of the State Department.

From 1997 to 1999, Mrs. Lieberman was the director of Voice of America, the official broadcast service of the United States government, which by law serves as a “consistently reliable and authoritative source of news,” broadcasting radio and television programming in 52 languages to millions of people worldwide. According to the New York Times, President Clinton said at her swearing-in, “Evelyn has a special talent for cutting to the chase and getting to truth.”

Mrs. Lieberman was a member of the White House staff from 1993 to 1997. She served as assistant to the President and was the first woman to be deputy chief of staff to the President of the United States. She also served as deputy assistant to the President and deputy press secretary for operations and as assistant to the chief of staff in the Office of the First Lady.

Before serving in the White House, Mrs. Lieberman was press secretary to then-Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. (D-Del.) from 1988 to 1993.

“Jill and I are blessed that Evelyn Lieberman was our dear friend for thirty years,” said Vice President Biden in a statement. “She was one of the wisest people we knew. Smart, funny. Gifted story teller. Trusted counselor. And devoted mentor to a generation of younger staffers—especially scores of women who have gone on to do incredible things.”

A former English teacher, Mrs. Lieberman’s career in public service began with her service as communications director for the National Urban Coalition and as director of public affairs for the Children’s Defense Fund, where she met Hillary Clinton. She took a leave of absence from the Smithsonian to act as chief operations officer for Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Mrs. Lieberman graduated in 1966 from the State University of New York at Buffalo, where The Evelyn S. Lieberman Scholarship Fund has been established in her honor. Mrs. Lieberman gave the commencement address at the University and received an honorary doctoral degree in 2014. In an interview with the Buffalo State alumni magazine she described the lifelong inspiration she found in Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.

“Here’s this poor girl from Brooklyn who has had extraordinary opportunities and great encouragement from others,” Mrs. Lieberman told the magazine. “And I believe it’s my responsibility to provide that same encouragement to others, especially young women. Marian Edelman said that ‘service is the rent we pay for living.’ I think that says it all.”

In addition to her husband, Edward H. Lieberman, Evelyn Lieberman is survived by a brother, Haskel Simonowitz.

Posted: 15 December 2015
About the Author:

Alex di Giovanni has been editing The Torch since August 2006. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, she worked as a writer and editor for the National Geographic Society, Plexus Scientific, The Nature Conservancy, The National Foreign Language Center and St. Martin’s Press, among others. She has the best job in the world.