WASHINGTON -- This town spawns erratic career jumps, as any actor-turned-congressman or tycoon-become-ambassador could tell you, but Wendy Sherman's resume is diverse even by D.C. standards.
Trained in social work, devoted early in life to helping battered women and the urban poor, the 50-year-old Baltimore native finds herself talking with North Korean Communists and Middle Eastern diplomats these days as a top U.S. State Department official.
Sherman became counselor to Madeleine K. Albright two years ago after Albright succeeded Warren Christopher as secretary of state. Describing herself as "consigliere" to the secretary, Sherman is a trouble-shooter, special-project agent and political strategist who has Albright's ear and voice daily.
As counselor, a post once held by Cold-War sage George Kennan, Sherman ranks just below undersecretary, carries the title of ambassador and is one of the department's top six people after Albright, who calls her "a close confidante."
"Elaine Shocas [Albright chief of staff] probably had the closest personal relationship" to the secretary when she took office, "but Wendy was somebody who Albright trusts" from years of friendship, said Robert Zoellick, State Department counselor in the Bush administration.
The position, he said, "has shifted depending on the secretary, but the one thing that's probably a constant is that it is intended to be a relatively high-level job where the secretary can determine the functions."
Sherman was the No. 2 envoy and the senior State Department official on a sensitive U.S. mission in May to North Korea, which is developing transoceanic missiles and is considered a significant threat to security in East Asia.
She also was key in the baseball diplomacy involving Cuba and the Baltimore Orioles this year, and she has worked on the Kosovo refugee crisis as well as the Mideast peace process.
"She's a good old Baltimorean. Take out the 'old.' She wouldn't like that, and it's not true," said Peter G. Angelos, Orioles majority owner and multimillionaire lawyer. "She was very instrumental," he said, in the baseball exchange which led to games in Cuba and Baltimore. "Very sophisticated, intellectually and in every way. A very impressive lady."
Sherman is a common Washington type, a 1960s liberal who has embraced the power and prominence once distrusted by her generation. Her modest, seventh-floor reception room offers a copy of the once-radical but now gentrified Mother Jones magazine -- on top of two copies of Business Week.
What distinguishes her, say people who admire her, is that her ideals have survived her importance, and not just on an elevated, policy level.
"She never left any bodies in her wake," said David Doak, a Washington-based political and media consultant who once was her business partner. "When you start to gain power in this town, it's so easy to blow people off. That's what's so great about Wendy. There's a decency with her, and a kindness with her. This is a tough town, and kindness is not often rewarded. But with Wendy, it has."
Sherman is as tough as anybody on the political molehill of the moment -- partisan, brusque, sometimes irritating. From 1993 to 1996, she was the State Department's chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill -- a diplomatic challenge in itself -- scrapping over Bosnian policy, the North American Free Trade Agreement and financial aid for the disintegrated Soviet Union.
But she seems better than many at keeping sight of policy through the smoke of politics.
"I don't think we would have continued our friendship if she were not idealistic," said Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who employed Sherman as chief of staff when Mikulski was in the House in the 1980s. "But she also knows that unless you put your ideals into action, they're hollow. Her belief in the rule of law, her belief in the advancement of women, her belief that no person should be left behind, really allows her to be a very effective counselor in our foreign policy."
Sherman was born in Baltimore and moved at an early age to Pikesville. She attended Pikesville High School and Smith College, graduated from Boston University and earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Maryland. She stuffed envelopes in Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign and later marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Mikulski shared her interests in women's and urban issues, and pulled her into government. Mikulski's successful 1986 Senate campaign was managed by Sherman.
Now a resident of Bethesda, Sherman at various times has been fund-raising director at the Enterprise Foundation in Columbia; Maryland's special secretary for children and youth; a political media pro with Doak; director of Emily's List, a national fund-raising group for Democratic women candidates supporting abortion rights; president and chief executive of the Fannie Mae Foundation; and director of the Democratic National Committee's 1988 campaign.
What she hasn't been much is a foreign policy practitioner, which makes her leadership last May in the highest-level U.S. delegation to North Korea since the Korean War extraordinary.
When Christopher interviewed her to be assistant secretary for legislative affairs in 1993, Sherman told him: "If you are looking for someone who really knows foreign policy well, you shouldn't hire me," she recalled. "But I said, 'If you want someone who understands Washington, understands Capitol Hill, has, I think, a good sense of the American people someone who's loyal to people she works for and with, and is a pretty good strategist, whatever the group is, whatever it is that has to be organized, then we have something to talk about.' "
He hired her, and she quickly became fluent in the thinking and utterances of diplomacy.
"If you were there at a hearing, and some member of the Foreign Relations Committee had a question, she'd have to go to the microphone and express the administration's view on whatever the issue was of the day," said Andy Semmel, foreign policy assistant to Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana. "She was always very good at that."
Albright, who is very close to Mikulski, got to know Sherman well in 1988 when Albright was presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis' foreign policy adviser.
"She has a unique ability to get things done and to move difficult foreign policy issues forward," Albright said.
Neither Albright nor Sherman would discuss the advice that passes between them.
Much of Sherman's role is advisory and political. She spends time on Cuba, where the Clinton administration is trying to expand "people to people" contacts without helping the Castro regime or riling conservatives.
The Orioles deal was cooking when Sherman was in Beijing. "I spent my days doing North Korea," she said, "and my nights, because of the time change, sort of being woken up every couple of hours, having discussions, trying to bring this to closure."
She worries about the department's message, about congressional relations, about internal squabbles.
"One of the things people get sick of hearing me say around here is, 'Does our explanation of what we're doing meet a kitchen-table test?' " she said.
Sherman, who is married to National Journal writer Bruce Stokes and has a daughter in high school, has also accompanied Albright on some missions, meeting with senior foreign officials. Most notable was her three-and-a-half-day mission to North Korea in a delegation headed by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry.
Details of the meetings haven't been made public, but the Clinton administration is reviewing its North Korea policy and is believed by some to favor easing trade restrictions in return for curbs on North Korean weapons production and missile exports.
"It is a country where the leadership and the people in the country, I believe, are going to survive. And I think the regime is going to survive," Sherman said, disputing theories that North Korea will eventually experience political transformation through economic implosion.
It's not social work. But Sherman argues that her job fits into a career of service to people. She talks at some length of a State Department colleague, Meg Donovan, deputy assistant secretary for legislative affairs, who died of cancer last year at 47.
Donovan was "an incredible public servant, just incredible," she said. "She didn't care if her name was in the paper. She cared about doing her job, and she did a lot of service for her country.
"I try to keep her in mind," Sherman said, "when I realize all the wonderful things I get to do."
Pub Date: 7/21/99