THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Losing Smith Bagley

musgrove tree steve clemons.jpg
(A giant tree at Musgrove, the family estate of Smith Bagley and the Arca Foundation -- photo credit: Steve Clemons)

In Dubai a day and a half ago, I was sitting on a bus next to well known Clinton family friend and adviser Lanny Davis who was chatting with me about the widest possible array of fascinating and simultaneously disturbing topics (about the political judgment of some others). The New Yorker's brilliant social and political guru Hendrik Hertzberg was there, as was former New York Times correspondent and Full Court Press blogger Charles Kaiser. Sitting in front of Lanny and me was former New York Times national security correspondent and Fox News commentator Judith Miller and just across the aisle, so to speak, was Marie Brenner of Vanity Fair.

They were there for the launch of a new annual meeting called the Dubai Forum, which was sponsored by "Brand Dubai" and focused this year on architecture and sustainability.

It was an odd bed fellow bus ride in Dubai, which makes sense on a number of levels.

But then Lanny Davis' face went ashen and he leaned over to me and said, "Smith Bagley has just died."

smith bagley.jpgIt was an odd, completely weird moment to hear such tragic news about the passing of one of America's great political players and philanthropists. I was stunned. And Lanny Davis, who is not the most loved attorney in liberal circles, was clearly upset -- but we were stuck on a bus with a wildly eclectic assortment of type A personalities. Lanny spoke to me a lot about his memories of Smith Bagley -- and I shared my own encounters with this giant among human beings.

It's hard to overstate the significance of Smith Bagley to liberal and progressive causes in America. The grandson and an heir of R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco tycoon, Bagley early on committed himself to advancing racial civil rights, promoting liberal Democratic Party candidates, promoting global human rights, ending the US-Cuba embargo, and helping to create a climate of sensible justice and fairness inside the United States that focused on helping those with little sustain themselves and promulgating policies that sought to reverse the erosion of the American middle class.

When Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States in 1976, Bagley offered his family estate to Carter to assemble his likely cabinet and closest advisers before formally assuming office in January 1977. The home is full of pictures of that Carter clan retreat -- and an important Norman Rockwell painting of Carter hangs on the second floor loft of one of the estate's great rooms.

I first met Smith Bagley at a private home some years ago when Hillary Clinton was running for the Senate. He was dressed in jeans and a pretty ratty sweater and was completely unpretentious on the surface.

I didn't know who he was -- but he had views, strong ones, which he would occasionally whisper to me, while we sat together, on the hearth of a big fireplace as I recall. He seemed completely unaffected by the power players in the room; he seemed like a big time farmer or lumberjack -- very down to earth, but deeply irritated by the Bush administration's course and by the "lack of humanity" in politicians on the right and the left.

Bagley headed the Arca Foundation, which has been a major funder of progressive causes around the country -- supporting both sophisticated policy development and advocacy work within the DC policy community as well as enlightened grass roots organization and outreach activities. Last year, I had the great privilege of speaking at the annual board meeting of the Arca Foundation at the Musgrove Estate in Georgia, which was part of the massive land holdings of the R.J. Reynolds estate.

Smith and two of his daughters, Nicole and Nancy, were there -- and you could feel palpably their collective commitment to smart progressive philanthropy inspired by the old world, giant oak surroundings of Musgrove. Some of the work of my organization has been supported by Arca, but my views about Smith Bagley and his family are independent of that support.

Lanny Davis sent a very warm email immediately to Elizabeth Bagley, who is a former US Ambassador to Portugal and now is now the State Department's first Special Representative for Global Partnerships, and I only wish I could have as well.

Bagley had been felled in recent years by a stroke -- but the Smith Bagley I saw as recently as the Clinton Global Initiative gala dinner a few months ago still had a fiery furnace of political views and ambition.

Frankly, his money and his advocacy of fairness and civil rights helped push political and policy needles, and like the great, massive, history-laden trees at his old family estate of Musgrove, Smith Bagley will be impossible to replace in the pantheon of contemporary progressive political leaders and funders.

He will be greatly missed by progressive policy practitioners like myself -- and condolences to his family and to the board and staff of the Arca Foundation.

-- Steve Clemons publsihes the popular political blog, The Washington Note