WASHINGTON – Randy Beers (search) sat on the porch steps next to his longtime friend and colleague Dick Clarke (search) and the words came tumbling out in a torrent. "I think I have to quit. ... I can't work for these people. I'm sorry, I just can't."
It was a few days before the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, and Beers was President Bush's special assistant for combating terrorism, a job he had held for only a matter of months. But Beers was no newcomer to government; he had worked on foreign policy for four presidents.
To Clarke, Beers recited a list of complaints about Bush's foreign policy. Too fixated on Iraq. Not enough focus on Al Qaeda. Weak on homeland security. Too political.
In public, Beers, 61, said only that he was quitting for personal reasons.
The real surprise came a few weeks later, when he signed on as foreign policy adviser to John Kerry (search), then still but one candidate in a pack of Democratic presidential contenders.
While working in government, Beers had a reputation as a nonpolitical sort, a hard worker who kept his ego in check.
"He had his nose to the grindstone; he's not a pol," says Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the private Council on Foreign Relations, echoing the thoughts of many in foreign policy circles. "Frankly, I had no idea if he was a Democrat or a Republican or whatever."
R. Rand Beers — Randy to his friends — is a Democrat who spent a good part of his government career getting things done for Republican presidents. He served as a Marine rifle company commander in Vietnam, began working for the State Department in 1971 and went on to serve on the National Security Council staffs of Presidents Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes.
Sandy Berger, who was Clinton's national security adviser and is backing Kerry, remembers his team interviewing more than 50 people from the first Bush White House during the 1992 presidential transition.
"We decided to keep on about half a dozen, including Rand," said Berger, who assumed Beers was a Republican. "It was clear that he was extraordinarily able and very knowledgeable in the area that he was working," a portfolio known as "drugs and thugs" — narcotics and counterterrorism. "He is an absolute straight shooter, someone with enormous integrity."
At the White House, Beers displayed a low-key style, in sharp contrast to his hard-charging friend and colleague Clarke, who recounted Beers' decision to quit in his book, "Against All Enemies," which is highly critical of the Bush administration.
Clarke had quit the Bush White House a few months before Beers. When Clarke's book came out earlier this year, White House and Bush campaign officials pointed to the friendship between Beers and Clarke in trying to discredit Clarke as pushing a political agenda.
Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel declined to weigh in on Beers' impact on the Kerry campaign beyond saying, "Whoever John's Kerry's advisers are, it all adds up to policies that are wrong for our country."
Out of government for the first time in decades, Beers and Clarke taught a foreign policy class together at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government this spring.
Eric Rosenbach, who was their teaching assistant, said Beers shared his thoughts about the Bush administration with the class, "but he would only speak about bad policies rather than bad personalities. He's not intensely ideological. He seems to be more set on good policy-making."
Barry McCaffrey, the former Clinton drug czar who has known Beers for more than a decade, said Beers was "my view of what you'd hope a foreign service officer would be like."
"He's an extraordinarily thoughtful, very civil, easy-to-deal-with, courteous guy," said McCaffrey, who stressed he is staying neutral in the presidential race. "He doesn't produce exothermic reactions; he produces solutions." Translation: Beers is no hot head.
Berger, the former Clinton national security adviser, said one key to Beers' success is that he doesn't mind sharing credit.
"Randy's someone who is high value, low maintenance," said Berger. "I've discovered in Washington that when you're prepared to give other people the credit, you can get an awful lot done."
Steven Simon, a Clinton-era National Security Council staff member who considers Beers something of a mentor, said that in working as a civil servant, "it's not all that hard to work for whatever administration is in power." Still, for Beers, he allowed, "I would think the Democratic agenda is more compatible with his approach to life generally."