Former U.S. Ambassador and survivor of the 1998 embassy bombing in Kenya, Prudence Bushnell, tells that story in her gripping new book, “Terrorism, Betrayal and Resilience.” With the emphasis on resilience.
– Rattling Teacups by Rheta Grimsley Johnson from The Shoofly Magazine
Prudence Bushnell looks like her name sounds. Neat, petite, well-dressed and well-groomed. Like a resounding success of a 1950’s upbringing, when Captain Kangaroo woke us up and our mothers put us to bed.
Friends, and I am one, call her Pru, which somehow changes everything. Pru has a wicked wit, the resume of a Bond girl and an intellectual curiosity that gets her into more jams than Nancy Drew. She is tough.
In 1998, Pru was American ambassador to Kenya when the embassy in Nairobi was bombed by the radical Islamist group al-Qaeda – back before most of us had heard of al-Qaeda.
Her book – Terrorism, Betrayal & Resilience – is amazingly relevant to today’s world, and proof that often the dust must settle before you can see clearly the truth.
“The building swayed; a teacup began rattling; shards of glass and ceiling tile sprayed the area,” the book begins. “One thought swirled dreamily around my brain as every muscle in my body clenched in revolt. ‘I am going to die….’”
She did not die. Pru lived to tell her firsthand story of the bombing, its 213 fatalities and 5,000 casualties. A story that never inspired congressional hearings and is largely forgotten except by those who were there.
And in telling that story from a hard-hitting, non-partisan perspective, she illuminates flawed characters, policies and agencies.
For it isn’t always a flattering portrayal of the national security community or politicians. Her exchanges with Susan Rice, Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton and other “name” public servants sometimes make you wince. This is a minefield of what-ifs.
Pru grew up in exotic places and largely patriarchal cultures, everywhere from Paris to Pakistan. Her father was in the foreign service, her mother the perfect foreign service wife, not an easy job that included, in post-war Germany, hosting orphans and helping widows.
But the men were in charge.
“As a girl growing up in the 1950s, it was inconceivable that I could become a leader, much less one who excelled in disasters,” Pru writes.
“My only role model was Joan of Arc, and I was well aware of what happened to her when she put on a pair of pants and led men.”
So it surprises no one more than Pru what a continuous adventure her life has been, a serial of true and turbulent stories that make a mockery of Hollywood and its “Homeland”-style heroines. From her first assignment in Dakar, Senegal, she has worn the pants and embraced the leadership role fate assigned her.
Before the embassy bombing in Kenya, Pru worked in Washington in the State Department’s Africa Bureau during the Rwandan genocide that slaughtered 800,000 people.
“We were doing nothing to stop the killing, so I took it upon myself to call Rwandan military figures perpetrating the genocide to let them know we were watching and to advise that they would be held personally accountable for their deeds,” she writes.
That episode of her life would be depicted in a movie, “Sometimes in April,” in which Pru is played by actress Debra Winger.
The cover of her new book – Pru is walking away after laying a wreath at the bomb site in Nairobi – is a photograph by John McConnico that won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Photojournalism.
From Kenya, still suffering with post traumatic stress, Pru became ambassador to Guatemala, hardly a healing place. There she was burned in effigy and watched, from a distance, as the United States was attacked by al-Qadea on September 11, 2001.
Now retired, in theory only, she crisscrosses the country giving talks about leadership, mostly to women. She lives in Washington with her husband, Richard Buckley, in a home with a view across the Potomac of the Lincoln Memorial.
This visit to the Pass is due to her friendship with former State Department employee and Pass resident Betty Sparkman.
The book, published late last year by Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, is on sale now at Pass Books.