OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

An ambitious effort by a Madison Avenue veteran to sell the American way of life around the world as if it were soap, soup or soft drinks - or perhaps, in this instance, Uncle Ben's Rice - has ended, far less conclusively than in those vintage commercials in which the sponsors' products always beat Brand X.

Charlotte Beers, who worked at three big US agencies before joining the State Department soon after the terrorist attacks, as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, disclosed last week that she would be resigning shortly, for health reasons.

(Of course, Washington being what it is, that was reported in some places as "for what she said were health reasons", but insiders say that medical treatments for an unspecified condition are compelling her to step down after she already reduced her hours at work.)

Cynics had a field day when the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, selected Beers for the job, which post-9/11 became a central part of increasingly focused efforts by the Bush Administration to promote American values and ideals - Brand USA, as it were - to a global audience, especially Arabs and Muslims. Assignments handled by Beers during her 32 years in advertising and marketing, for such blue-chip names as Euro RSCG Tatham, Mars, Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter Thompson, were recycled for purported comic effect.

"Uncle Sam is a harder sell these days than Uncle Ben ever was," Margaret Carlson wrote in Time, referring to a notation in Beers' official State Department biography that described her as "the first female product manager for Uncle Ben's Rice".

"If we can't effectively fight anthrax, I guess it's reassuring to know we can always win the war on dandruff," Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times, alluding to her salesmanship for Procter & Gamble's Head & Shoulders shampoo.

Powell sought to defuse the detractors. "She got me to buy Uncle Ben's Rice," he once told Congress, "and so there is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something." And numerous times, Beers herself took issue with the idea that she was the chief propagandist for the "selling" of America to sceptics.

In short order, Beers, known as a "steel magnolia" type whose aw-shucks Texan roots belied her take-charge personality, had myriad initiatives under way. For instance, she helped reverse years of inattention to, and budget cutbacks for, public diplomacy, mounting paid campaigns that used videos, radio spots and newspaper ads to offer Muslims overseas glimpses into the lives of their American co-religionists. Planning started on a custom-published magazine in Arabic, with a complementary website, aimed at Middle Eastern readers ages 18 to 24, featuring articles on non-political topics.

But for each achievement, there seemed to be a setback. Critics lambasted her work as simplistic, even counterproductive, for skirting the principal issues dividing the Arab street from Main Street USA - American policies toward Iraq and Israel. There were the inevitable reports of bureaucratic infighting, with newcomer Beers battling hostile or uninterested brass at US embassies, not to mention an Office of Global Communications, based in the White House, with perhaps an overlapping mission.

With Beers out of the picture, just as America is poised for war, what will Powell do? Let's just hope he doesn't seek her successor at Interpublic.

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