Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

Passing the Baton at Meridian International Center

Former President Walter Cutler and Newly Appointed President Stuart Holliday discuss the transition.

A Look Back

Career decisions are never easy. In retrospect, my decision to join Meridian some seventeen years ago, following a first career in the diplomatic service, could not have been more rewarding personally and, I hope, for Meridian's mission of strengthening international understanding. At the heart of Meridian's diverse operations, we have continued to work with the Department of State in organizing professional study tours for thousands of future leaders coming to our country from around the world. It is gratifying that some 150 of these visitors who have passed through Meridian's doors have in fact gone on to become presidents and prime ministers.

I leave Meridian with many inspiring memories: Hosting Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar as they explained their nuclear initiative; welcoming Iraqi journalists making their first visit to the United States; sitting in the back of a high school classroom as a Korean student from Georgetown University described his country; cutting the ribbon at the opening of a Meridian exhibition in Hanoi; hosting Katharine Graham as she spoke about her days growing up in one of our two historic mansions; and so many, many more. All these activities reflect my personal belief that in today's world of electronic sound-bites and headline news, true understanding is best achieved through sustained, face-to-face dialogue. This has been my inspiration and motivation.

CAROLINE VON FINCK in Theory wool brown sweater, $375 (Wink, Washington, D.C.); MaxMara black tights, $42; MaxMara Brown leather boots, $575 (MaxMara, Chevy Chase, Md.); Gold wire hoop earrings, $ 40 (Wink, Washington, D.C.)

WASHINGTON LIFE: What has been the highlight of your career at Meridian International Center?
While many other social events were being canceled after 9/11, we decided to go ahead with the Ball because, if anything, the terrorist attacks had underscored the critical importance of Meridian's mission: promoting international understanding. In fact, several additional ambassadors volunteered to give pre-ball dinners as a show of support. It was a poignant moment when midway through the evening we all gathered together in the garden to pay homage to the victims of 9/11.

WL: Why did the Meridian Ball become so popular?
For several reasons, including the guests' belief in our mission, the elegant setting and ambiance, and the special opportunity of dining beforehand at an ambassador's residence.

WL: Was there anything you hoped to accomplish but never had a chance to?
The need for greater global engagement remains critical and we must continue to maintain our heavily-used, historic houses.

WL: What does the future have in store?
I will remain active in international affairs and of course, continue my support of Meridian. There are no rocking chairs in my future!

Didi Culter, Walter Culter
Gwen Holliday, Stuart Holliday
Didi Culter and former Meridian International Center president Walter Culter Gwen Holliday and Meridian International Center president Stuart Holliday


A Look Forward

Meridian International Center is a venerable institution with an outstanding history in Washington. It has also touched thousands of people around the world including many international leaders whom we now call upon as friends and allies or key interlocutors.

Meridian is poised to move forward and rise to its challenge to play a key role in our nation's public diplomacy at a critical time. Using its bipartisan stature and its unique position at the nexus of government, the diplomatic corps, and the corporate community, Meridian will bring together the best minds to fulfill its mission of increasing international understanding through the exchange of people, ideas and the arts. Simply put, Meridian's mission, in partnership with the government and private sector, is vital to our national security. We live in a world where information is frequently shaped through the media and on the web. While Meridian will use these channels, it must continue to be a premier venue where people from around the world can meet face-to-face and shape the discussions about where we are heading together.

WASHINGTON LIFE: Explain a little about Meridian International Center.
Meridian works with the State Department and overseas missions to bring approximately 1,800 leaders, journalists, and educators from around the world to promote better understanding of who we are. We carry out international affairs and education programs and seminars for members and government agencies and the private sector. We organize international art exhibits in the U.S. and abroad in addition to working closely with the diplomatic corps.

WL: What attracted you to Meridian International Center?
Meridian's mission. I felt that there was nothing more important I could do than to try to improve and strengthen communication between the U.S. and the rest of the world right now.

WL: What is the biggest obstacle for the organization?
The seemingly rising tide of anti- Americanism and a misunderstanding of the true nature of the American spirit.

WL: You were not a career diplomat like your predecessor. What are the advantages and disadvantages?
I have worked alongside many talented and dedicated career diplomats – my father was in the Foreign Service for three decades. I chose a different path, working for the President and his father. The political path can have risks and rewards. If you can live without job security and want to be more than a spectator in our democracy, a campaign is a great experience. I think you have to stand for something. I was honored to serve in senior positions at the White House, State Department and at the UN.

WL: What have you learned from Walter Cutler?
That Meridian is a special place and the president is really the steward of an institution that belongs to many people.

WL: How will your wife be involved in the organization?
Gwen is very excited to help and believes strongly in what Meridian does. With her PR background, I hope she can help increase Meridian's profile.

WL: Any big surprises for the ball this year?
Like any good October surprise in Washington it will be leaked strategically. I can assure you that the ball chairs have done a great job and it will be a magical evening under the linden trees.


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