The apothegm "De mortuis nil nisi bonum" ("Of the dead, say nothing but good") urges compassion and respect for the recently deceased, no matter how flawed they were in life. That injunction was obeyed last week in a memorial conference arranged by Yale's Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy for Morton Charles Hill, the university's "Diplomat in Residence," who died, at 84, on March 27.
The conference webinar's virtually assembled (and tightly monitored) participants — some Yale faculty were "removed" by the website host from the "audience" — parodied unintentionally Hill's long career of diplomatic dissembling. A Vulcan conservative, he revered England's iron-fisted 17th-century Puritan "Lord Protector" Oliver Cromwell but also John Milton, an enigmatic diplomatic aide and chronicler whose work prefigured Hill's. He emulated both models at times in his own Foreign Service work and as a confidant and ghostwriter for secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali; as the chief foreign policy adviser to Rudy Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign (during which Sen. Joe Biden quipped that Giuliani's every sentence "contains a verb, a noun and 9/11"); and as the purveyor to starstruck Yale students of his own dark, twisted reading of liberal education's great conversation across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit.
"Nil nisi bonum" has long been Yale's way of arranging senior luminaries' comings and goings with announcements "staged in a sequence indicative of sound judgment, good feeling, and the dawn of a bright new day," as Lewis Lapham put it in "Quarrels With Providence,"his poignant, sometimes hilarious short history of Yale. In one such orchestration, you might have thought that Charles Hill was ascending to oceans of eternal light last week as the tributes to him flowed at the Yale conference.
Kissinger, now 97, characterized Hill as a master practitioner of "anonymous indispensability" throughout their 50-year relationship. Hill was Shultz's top executive assistant in the State Department and then a fellow with Shultz at the conservative Hoover Institution.
Yale named him "Diplomat in Residence" and a "distinguished fellow" of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, which has been funded by former Reagan Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and securities analyst Charles Johnson, as well as by the conservative Olin and Smith-Richardson Foundations. For more than 20 years, that program's faculty triumvirate — John Lewis Gaddis, Paul Kennedy and Hill — worked to make "grand strategy" a brand name within Yale and at other universities, collaborating with other conservative-funded Yale initiatives: the Jackson School of Global Affairs, the William F. Buckley Program and the Johnson Center.
Conference tributes came also from Yale alumnus L. Paul Bremer III, the former American proconsul of Iraq's Green Zone in 2003; from former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills (who embarrassingly praised Charles Hill's work with Boutros-Ghali); and from toadying Yale faculty, including Hill's Grand Strategy partners, the historians Gaddis and Kennedy, as well as from the ubiquitous political scientist Bryan Garsten and the self-avowed "public interest lawyer" and longtime program functionary Justin Zaremby.
But a better admonition to conference goers would have been "De mortuis nil nisi veritas" ("Of the dead, say nothing but the truth"). The whole truth is that Hill instilled in student acolytes the strain of that iron yet duplicitous discipline that has run from Yale's own Puritan founders and from its first "spy," Nathan Hale, class of 1773, through its birthing of the CIA (see the movie "The Good Shepherd") and Yale's outsized role in designing and staffing 20th-century American foreign policy. "Nothing but the truth" would reveal that, in Washington as well as at Yale, Hill perpetrated something worse than diplomacy's inevitable, artful deceptions.
If you're tempted to consider this assessment over-determinedly liberal or leftist, read a strongly similar assessment of Hill in the American Conservative by Michael Desch, a professor at the George H.W. Bush School at Texas A&M University. Desch reports — as the recent, credulous, error-ridden Washington Post obituary for Hill does not — that "Hill was forced to resign from the Foreign Service after it became clear that he had concealed evidence of Shultz's extensive knowledge of the Iran-Contra scandal from federal agents." Hill was a "Diplomat in Residence" at Yale because he was a diplomat in exile from Washington. And that's only the beginning of what the nil nisi bonum faithful evaded.