America lost a treasure yesterday — I want to make sure you meet her; one of first female press secretaries in Senate, but so much more

Claudia Bourne Farrell, far left, with friends at Thanksgiving.

Good-bye, CBF.

A famous woman died yesterday, one who set the stage for independent, strong women everywhere.  At about the same time, an important woman died who did just the same thing.

You didn’t know her, but CBF was my friend. And she was your friend, too.  Her fingerprints and husky voice are all over nearly every important consumer issue in the past 40 years.  You can Google it.  

If you do, you’ll find almost nothing at all about Claudia Borne Farrell, the person. Not even a single picture. Her employer of more than 20 years couldn’t even find one.  The only scrap of personal life I found on Ms. Claudia Bourne Farrel was a list showing she had been a repeat donor to St. Albans School in DC at the parent of an alumnus there (Privacy was a pet issue for Claudia. She obviously excelled at it).

But you will find thousands upon thousands of news items covering everything you care about — from money to monopolies to fraud to freedom — with her name on them. So I’m going to try to fill in some of the gaps here.

Claudia lived a most extraordinary life. While Mary Tyler Moore was breaking TV barriers, she was breaking real ones. She was among the first female press secretaries in the U.S. Senate, serving for Sen. Charles Percy, a Republican representing Illinois, in the years before Watergate. Then, navigating a most complicated city as a single woman at a time when that just wasn’t done, she was the public face of the International Space Station for NASA.  At around the same time I was hired to be an intern for what would become MSNBC.com, Claudia started working at the FTC in 1994.  We “met” soon after.

By then, Claudia was already a battle-hardened political veteran of Washington D.C.  For the first five years or so, I knew her only by voice, true for many of my relationships as a reporter in Seattle. On the other side of a phone line, she sounded like she grew up chain smoking cigars in a coal mine.  She also sounded like she knew a half-dozen people who could kill me and then disappear if I spelled something wrong, so I was afraid of her.

But as a cub reporter who didn’t know the FTC from the NBA, she gently showed me the ropes.  Calling her to ask a simple question like, “Can I get a copy of this lawsuit,” almost always felt like sitting down in a dark bar and drinking whiskey.

“So, what else is going on?” she’d ask, gently showing me that I was supposed to be the one asking that.  Then, of course, she’d tell me.  A 30-second second call would take 30 minutes.

“I think it might be worth filing a Freedom of Information Request on that. But use these words.  But I didn’t tell you that,” she’d say. In my mind’s eye, she was blowing smoke rings while she said this.

Sorry, federal agencies — Claudia didn’t just give me the occasional tip that helped the FTC’s cause here and there, as most PR people do today.  Claudia told me EVERYTHING.  Good or bad for her boss. For her agency.  Good for the country, that’s what mattered.

I was 25 and just beginning a consumer column at MSNBC.com. At the time, MSNBC.com sounded like a jumble of letters to most important people, who wouldn’t return my phone calls.  Claudia always did. My column ultimately had a regular audience of 3-4 million people every month, thanks in large part because identity theft became a thing right as my column was becoming a thing, and there was rabid interest in the topic. Claudia, pushed me to write about it. A lot. I owe her a lot, but then, we all do.

When I finally made a pilgrimage to D.C. to meet this scary woman with the huge voice, she met me outside the grand FTC building. She was on a smoke break, naturally. Claudia was barely 5-feet-tall and maaaybe 100 pounds.  But it was all steel, and piss, and vinegar.

As time wore on, and I spent more time in Washington D.C. but less time on FTC issues, Claudia would pester me.  “Nobody covers us anymore,” she lamented.  She was right.  With journalists dropping like flies, the FTC would file major lawsuits that didn’t get a single press mention.  That was depressing for both of us.

When you are a journalist, you learn that pretty much everyone is always disappointed in you. There’s always a story you should write that you didn’t quite get to, or an angle you missed in something you did write.  So of course, I disappointed Claudia a lot.

I made her mad plenty of times, too — embarrassed her in front of her boss once, completely my mistake.  I had that, “I disappointed grandma” feeling. She barked at me, but then just moved on.  Everything rolled off Claudia. Like all you’ve heard about old Washington D.C., it was possible — easy, really — to fight with someone one minute and be friends the next.

Claudia cared.  Four years ago, when Microsoft and NBC got divorced, she wrote to me immediately ask how that would impact me.  When I left NBC a year later, she was among the first to write.

“You’re not leaving. You’ll continue to do what you do – write – from a different office, maybe one with better coffee. We’re all still out here. Call us when you can,” she wrote.  Then she followed it up with, “PS. If you missed the (appalling) AP piece this AM on surveillance of the Mosques in NYC, you should go read it.  Also not to be missed: Ray Kelly’s reaction on Morning Joe (he had been booked to talk stop and frisk.). Typical:  distortions, misrepresentations, error filled, blind quotes, disgruntled former Feds.”

Claudia retired from the FTC a few years ago, but of course, her emails never stopped. The Apple-FBI controversy. The massive GAO database hack.  Even as her health faded, Claudia was still telling me what questions to ask.

 

It’s a sad, but rich part of our digital lives now, that you re-read old emails from someone you love when they die.  They make you smile, and they hurt. I see right now all the story leads Claudia gave me that I never managed to get to; it pains me to think I disappointed her.

Finally free from her government job, finally able to speak her mind directly instead of through a reporter, I wanted Claudia to write as essay for my site. I invited her several times. My last such invitation was sent in an email on April 7.  “When are you writing something for me?” I asked.

“Soon. CBF” she wrote back.

One last time, I failed Claudia. I should have followed up, been tougher on her. Now it’s too late.  One last lesson Claudia taught me.

A few months ago, Claudia — who now couldn’t get around without help from an oxygen tank — demanded that a friend take her to Ikea. Not the  easiest store for a stroll. My friend offered to push Claudia around in a wheelchair. Claudia refused. They fought.  My friend took a wheelchair anyway. The two of them wandered the endless hallways of Ikea with Claudia shuffling around, and my friend chasing her with an empty wheelchair the whole time — a ridiculous imitation a mom chasing a 3-year-old with a stroller.

I’m pretty sure Claudia didn’t enjoy being retired.

Claudia was  a proud, tough, tough lady.

We were both invited to a friend’s party in December, and I expected to see her there. I was anxious to talk about all the changes coming with the new administration.  But she wasn’t feeling well, so she stayed home that day.  I emailed the next day to check in on her.

“Sorry I missed you too, Bob. I hope to catch up with you soon. If not before then, happy holidays,” she wrote.

And that was it.

I rest my case: Claudia Bourne Farrell gave all her life and all her energy to America.   You can look it up.

She died in her 70s for all the normal reasons, but I suspect her recent retirement didn’t sit well in her heart, and she might be a bit frustrated with the way things are going, so God decided to give her a break.  Or perhaps he needs someone to help explain some of His recent decisions to a confused public.  She’ll be great at that.

Good-bye, CBF. And thank you.

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About Bob Sullivan 1318 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

4 Comments

  1. Through her modesty, she kept her many accomplishments under the radar, unlike our current ignorant presidential loudmouth. That’s unfortunate. She was so powerful while remaining so invisible. Sorry I didn’t hear about her before now. She really served her country gallantly.

  2. CBF was a dear friend to me and my family. To have had a front row seat to her passion and commitment was a huge impact on me in my formative years and I am grateful to have had such a role model and dear friend.

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