Prudence Bushnell served as the United States ambassador to Kenya when a car bomb planted by the terrorist group al-Qaeda exploded next to the American embassy on August 7, 1998, killing 12 embassy staff as well as 212 Kenyans. Approximately 4,000 people were injured. Initially knocked unconscious while attending a meeting in a building next door, Bushnell awoke to a chaotic scene. After receiving medical treatment, she assisted in rescue and recovery operations. The Kenyan ambassadorship was one of several diplomatic postings during her lengthy career. Bushnell also served as ambassador to Guatemala late in the Clinton administration.
It was little wonder that she chose a diplomatic career. Her father was a U.S. Foreign Service officer. Although she was born in Washington, D.C. in 1946, young Prudence moved around owing to her father’s career. She grew up in Iran, Germany, France, and Pakistan. “Our family had lived overseas most of my first nineteen years,” she recalled years later.
She came to appreciate the rewards of living abroad, but it was not a preordained career choice. Women comprised fewer than 15 percent of the ambassadorial core during the years when she was deciding on a profession. “Until the 1970s, it was customary for a female Foreign Service officer to resign upon marriage, and most of those who stayed went into the administrative and consular career tracks, rather than the more prestigious political and economic policy reporting,” Bushnell recalled. She bore witness to the shabby treatment of women who chose a diplomatic career, and “when I was a girl, the Foreign Service had no appeal.”
The family returned to the United States in 1965, settling down in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. Bushnell attended the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. “In 1965 my country was in turmoil, and I had no idea where I fit,” she remembered. “Was I part of the problem or part of the solution? What did I think about Vietnam?” Like many young people of that era, Bushnell believed that she should search for answers to burning social questions. “For two years I struggled with these questions from the cloistered vantage of a midwestern women’s college and transferred to the University of Maryland to get a real education. Much of it did not come from classes.”
Bushnell graduated from Maryland with a degree in French literature and worked for the embassy of Morocco as well as a secretary in the Spanish and Portuguese Department at her alma mater. She also married a man she had known when she studied at the Karachi American School in Pakistan. They divorced within three years.
She found that she had acquired people skills from her father and superior organizational skills from her mother. These qualities helped her succeed. “When I reached the peak of my secretarial career track at age twenty-three, I launched myself,” she later wrote. “I answered an ad under the Washington Post’s ‘Female Help’ section for a travel coordinator job at the national legal services training program, run out of a grant to the Catholic University’s law school. It changed my life.”
The program operated out of a small office with eight employees. The mission was to train attorneys around the country on legal issues involving low-income citizens. The office received much of its funding from the War on Poverty program instituted during the Johnson administration. By 1976, Bushnell had moved from secretarial and support duties to coordinating logistics and administration. She found that she had a talent for management. With this realization, she grew more assertive and dedicated to her professional duties. In the office she also met Richard Buckley, whom she eventually married.
After the training grant program ended, Bushnell moved to Albany, New York. She was unemployed for a time before landing a position with the Public Executive Training Program at the State University of New York at Albany. She trained state government employees and attended night school at Russell Sage College, where she earned a Master of Public Administration degree.
She and Richard Buckley eventually moved to Texas. He had accepted a position directing the Dallas Legal Services Program. Unable to find a fulfilling job, Bushnell became a management consultant. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) became an important early client.
Her career trajectory changed dramatically after Iranian students overran the American embassy in 1979. Bushnell had worked in the embassy as an adolescent. Around that same time, she heard Secretary of State Edmund Muskie on the radio talking about a new mid-level Foreign Service entry program for women and minorities. The program was created because of a litigation settlement requiring the federal civil service to diversify. Inspired to do her part, Bushnell applied for a position. To her astonishment, she was accepted.
Years later, she recalled that her family “was flabbergasted when I joined the Foreign Service. First, it was still ‘pale, male, and Yale,’ which is why an affirmative action program was needed to bring diversity into midlevel ranks. Second, it was a lifestyle from which my sister, Susan, and I had gladly walked away as soon as we returned to the United States.” Her mother predicted that Bushnell would not last five years in the career. “You’re too rebellious,” her mother said. Bushnell playfully recalled that “She was wrong by twenty years….”
As a career Foreign Service officer, her father offered practical advice. Change career tracks,” he counseled her. “You’ll never get anywhere as an administrative officer; become a political officer.” It was not bad advice, but she had been hired for her administrative skills. At least initially, she would have to operate at that level.
Some men resented the presence of women in the ranks. “These women are the first to launch class-action lawsuits claiming discrimination as a vehicle to win court-ordered promotions or plum assignments,” detractors charged. “Give them a wide berth; otherwise, find a fine surgeon to extricate the daggers and high-heel marks from your back and to reaffix your testicles.” Bushnell tried to ignore such gripes, but it meant that she and other women frequently worked in hostile environments.
Her first assignment came in 1982 when she and Richard moved to Dakar, Senegal. He accepted a position working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Bushnell found her new role well-suited to her talents. “This was my chance to practice the management skills I had been teaching—but in French, with people of a different culture, around a substantive area I knew little about,” she recalled. Bushnell had learned French during her formative years abroad. “The skills paid off, and the techniques worked. We produced results through goal setting, regular staff meetings, feedback, teamwork, and sometimes fun. In return, my French/American/Senegalese team taught me the cultures and courtesies of West African people while stressed out Americans fretting over incoming or outgoing household effects gave me practice in people skills. After a year, I was pushed up into a supervisory role and received a Foreign Service promotion before I received Foreign Service tenure. That was rare.”
Bushnell became known as a dependable “go to” person who could be counted on to step up even in situations outside her normal job duties. Her grit, skill, and determination caught the eye of her superiors. Prudence Bushnell was on the fast track in the U.S. State Department.
In 1984, I was promoted and assigned to the consulate general in Bombay (now Mumbai) as head of administration,” she wrote in a subsequent book. “I was the first woman administrative officer, and more than one Indian man noticed. ‘I can’t believe the United States of America would send a woman to do this work,’ one said contemptuously to my face.” By this time, she was accustomed to such hostility. For a woman with a groundbreaking diplomatic career, it came with the territory.
Her new position was hardly glamorous. It required painstaking, often thankless work, but she took to her duties with gusto. “I negotiated constantly with realtors and suppliers, learning that nothing is fixed until the ink is dry. I supervised security upgrades to the consulate, a former maharaja’s palace, gleaming white next to the Indian Ocean after our embassy in Beirut was blown up by a pro-Iranian suicide bomber who detonated a vanload of explosives at the front of the building, killing sixty-three people. Had the building been set back one hundred feet, the bomb’s impact would have been vastly diminished. It was a nobrainer, therefore, to change regulations to require such a setback. It was also apparent that resources would be needed to upgrade overseas diplomatic facilities in other areas.” It was a valuable lesson, especially when considered with her experience in Kenya in 1998.
Bushnell faced two challenging incidents while she was stationed in India. On October 31, 1984, two of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s bodyguards shot her dead outside the prime minister’s residence in New Delhi. At the American embassy, a dispute arose about when the flag should be lowered at half-staff out of respect for the slain leader. An angry crowd of Indians congregated outside the building demanding that the flag be lowered immediately. The Indian protocol officer insisted on a delay. The embassy staff waited.
The consul general asked Bushnell to accompany him to sign the condolence book in a nearby government building. As she was making her way to the table to sign the book, she was standing next to the Soviet consul general. The U.S. consul general believed that it was important for the United States to sign ahead of the Soviets. It became a race.
“He was bigger, but I was determined, leaning into him every time he tried to push me to the side,” Bushnell recalled. “We got to the book, and the cameras kept rolling. Would he shove such a nice woman aside or yield? He stepped aside. I signed my name for country and democracy.” He may seem petty, but diplomacy often hinges on subtleties.
The second episode also occurred in 1984. During the evening of December 2-3 of that year, a highly toxic gas, methyl isocyanate (MIC), leaked from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. According to records created in 2006, the leak injured 558,125 people. Estimates suggest that 8,000 died within two weeks. Another 8,000 people subsequently died from gas-related diseases. As of this writing, it is considered the largest industrial disaster in world history.
Bushnell was on hand when the chairman of the board for Union Carbide arrived and insisted on visiting the site to ensure the affected population of the company’s concern. Bushnell counseled against the visit. “I strongly advised him that India was not the United States, and now was not the time to show up at a disaster site with little but an apology. He ignored my advice, went to the site, and was promptly arrested, likely for his own protection.” It was a difficult time to be an American in India, where anti-Americanism was rampant.
By 1986, she was ready for a new challenge. She and Richard returned to Washington, D.C. Bushnell became director of executive development at the Foreign Service Institute, the department’s training academy. There she developed a midlevel management training program for career Foreign Service officers. She focused special attention on the qualities of leadership. As Bushnell spoke with long-term State Department officials, she recognized that leadership involved multiple variables: “Teamwork was necessary, they said, along with advocacy, listening, problem solving, influencing, and setting goals.”
When her friend and colleague Judith Kaufman and Judith’s husband, George Moose, were ready to depart for Senegal, Bushnell asked to meet with them. She pitched the idea that she, “a lowly administrative type, would make a good DCM [deputy chief of mission].” Moose agreed, and soon she was back in the country in a supervisory role.
“The view was different from the number two perch,” she later observed. “Instead of ground- up, it was top- down, and instead of providing services, I was managing State Department sections and coordinating with the other agencies. The State component handled diplomatic relationships and political and economic reporting. It delivered a range of services to in-country Americans and visa services for host-country citizens, and it also provided housekeeping services for other agencies.”
Many U.S. agencies were involved in Senegal, but the State Department often took the lead. Ambassador Moose delegated a great deal of authority to his DCM, and she was only too happy to step up and provide leadership. She was conscious of her relative lack of experience in a non-administrative role, but she was undeterred. “What I lacked in experience in conducting diplomacy and reporting events, I made up in my ‘you can do this’ self- talk every morning,” she later confessed. “I watched George and Kathy carefully and studied visiting officials to learn what they were doing and how they were doing it.” Bushnell proved to be a quick study.
In 1992, Bushnell moved back to Washington, D.C. Her professional career took a giant leap forward. “I was surprised and genuinely thrilled to be asked to serve as ambassador to Rwanda,” she later wrote. “Wow! Someone had noticed me. Life was good. I was accepted into the Senior Seminar, a nine- month program for select members of the military service and civilian national security agencies deemed to have good prospects at higher levels.”
Unfortunately, the medical office denied her husband Richard a clearance to accompany her owing to the precarious nature of his health. Rwanda did not have the facilities necessary to care for Richard’s condition. After a “sleepless night balancing career ambitions” with the rest of her life, Bushnell withdrew her name for the ambassador post rather than leave Richard behind. She wondered if she might be offered such a plum position again.
After Bill Clinton became president in January 1993, he appointed George Moose the assistant secretary for African Affairs at the State Department. Moose in turn asked Bushnell to serve as a deputy assistant secretary (DAS). It wasn’t quite an ambassadorship, but it was an advance in her career. “I would handle all transnational policies, from democracy, disease, and conflict to environment, refugees, and women, in forty-six sub-Saharan countries,” she learned. “I said yes and spent at least a third of the next three years traveling around refugee camps, conflict zones, capital cities, and rural areas of Africa. In Washington, I managed our meager resources, our management and regional policy offices, and an assortment of crises. ‘Disaster DAS,’ a colleague branded me.”
Disasters certainly abounded in Africa. Providing funding and personnel in foreign countries had always been politically difficult when a significant percentage of Americans questioned the necessity of spending blood and treasure in places where the problems appeared intractable. The difficulties grew worse after 13 American soldiers died and 73 were wounded in October 1993 as they pursued a warlord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Mogadishu, Somalia. Incensed after the bodies of Americans were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, the public cried out for their government to withdraw support in war-torn nations where U.S. interests were not directly affected. This increasing lack of engagement in Africa held enormous consequences and was partially a cause of an appalling genocide in the African nation of Rwanda in 1994.
Bushnell was serving as the acting assistant secretary of the Africa Bureau when the Rwanda crisis began. On April 6, 1994, an airplane transporting the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down over Kigali, the Rwandan capital. As a result, tribes of Hutu militias erected barricades around the city and retaliated against another tribe, the Tutsi minority. The nation quickly descended into civil war as Hutu and Tutsi leaders targeting each other. The killings spread into the countryside where members of the tribes indiscriminately slaughtered each other. It did not matter if the dead were military or political leaders. No one was safe, especially women and children. The bloodlust seemed to increase with each passing day.
Bushnell had foreseen the wholesale slaughter. Having visited the area not long before the plane was shot down, she understood the precarious nature of the peace between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. Immediately following the plane crash, she penned a memorandum to her colleagues outlining the likelihood of bloodshed unless the United States or United Nations forces intervened. Her pleas were to no avail.
The State Department initially focused on evacuating American embassy personnel and their families along with foreign diplomats who chose to leave. To ensure their safety as they traveled overland, the American government refused to allow Rwandan citizens to join the caravan. This decision allowed Americans to insist that their personnel should not be attacked by any tribes until the fleeing diplomats could arrive on neutral soil. At the same time, by leaving behind vulnerable Rwandans, the tragic figures “were left to their fate.” Bushnell remembered that “Once the Americans were out, the White House lost interest.” President Clinton had been bitterly criticized for the American casualties in the Battle of Mogadishu a year earlier, and he did not want another African imbroglio on his hands.
Yet the lack of American engagement meant that the slaughter continued unabated far longer than it probably would have if there had been a countervailing force to restore law and order. As Bushnell described the situation, “The National Security Council ordered our ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, to propose the withdrawal of all UN [United Nations] peacekeepers from the chaos and violence. There was no longer any peace to keep, the argument went.”
The resultant tragedy was almost beyond belief. More than 800,000 people died violently in the next 100 days, mostly Tutsi tribesmen killed by roving gangs and vicious neighbors wielding machetes and small weapons. The tide eventually turned when the mostly Tutsi Rwanda Patriotic Front battled the Hutu military and won. Hundreds of thousands of vanquished Hutu fighters as well as government officials complicit in the murders fled across the borders and settled in refugee camps hastily erected on a live volcano in Eastern Zaire (now called Eastern Congo). After a cholera epidemic broke out, the United States sent assistance. For some victims of the genocide, the aid was too little and too late.
Bushnell had been horrified by the senseless deaths. “The new government inherited a country littered with corpses, a busted economy, no treasury, and a suspicious international community,” she subsequently reported. “I saw an aspect of policy making that I had not known existed: how to manage a crisis by deciding not to decide. The White House could not adopt a formal policy of ‘genocide bystander’ because that would have looked bad. We would not commit to any alternative because Americans still remembered the soldiers who had died in Somalia in 1993.”
Bushnell was frustrated to find that the United States was willing to monitor events in Rwanda
without directly intervening with a military presence. Sidelined by a cautious presidential administration, State Department personnel with responsibilities for Africa “called meetings and made work.” They uttered excuses to rationalize not intervening. “Every day my colleagues and I huddled around a large table in a secure room holding video conferences with people from other agencies,” Bushnell reported later. “Now that all but a few peacekeepers had been removed, Defense Department representatives gave every reason why the United States should not use troops, technology, resources, or the bully pulpit to intervene.”
The lack of a military option did not mean that Bushnell was completely powerless. She took to the phones, calling Rwandan military officials to urge a cease fire. Although she could not credibly threaten to send troops, Bushnell told Rwandan military leaders such as Théoneste Bagosora, a prominent colonel who was involved in the killings, that a day of reckoning would arrive. Bagosora refused to listen, but he would have been wise to do so. He was subsequently arrested for his part in the slaughter, convicted, and sentenced to serve 35 years in prison for his actions. He died in prison in 2021.
Bushnell did not mince words. “Experiencing genocide, even from a distance, seared my soul,” she later confessed. “U.S. national interest had trumped moral imperative. No one could claim that keeping American citizens, treasure, and resources out of harm’s way was bad management. We had indeed managed the crisis and in so doing abdicated leadership that could have saved hundreds of thousands of people. My Defense Department colleagues mocked me for my pathetic efforts, but I was spared the level of regret President Clinton, UN ambassador Madeleine Albright, and national security advisor Tony Lake voiced once they were long out of office. At least I had tried to do something.” Her attempts to stop the genocide appeared in a 2005 film, Sometimes in April, which focused on the genocide in Rwanda. Actress Debra Winger portrayed Bushnell in the film.
After three years in Washington, Bushnell accepted a position as the chief of mission in Nairobi, Kenya. She departed with a clear understanding of the challenges ahead. Morale was low and corruption in the Kenyan government was high. Bushnell was told that she had considerable flexibility to do what she thought was in U.S. interests, but no one would care. She refused to surrender to cynicism or disillusionment. “Richard and I cared,” she said. “We wrote our leadership agenda and put ‘raise community morale’ and ‘focus on teamwork and shared goals’ at the top.”
It initially appeared to be an almost idyllic post. After paying her duties in the State Department for many years, Prudence Bushnell was a seasoned diplomat. She spent most of her time trying to persuade Kenyan President Daniel Moi to fight corruption and institute democratic reforms. He resisted, but she was relentless. She also worried that the U.S. embassy was vulnerable to attack by hostile forces. The compound had been built at a time when security concerns were not as heightened as they were in the 1990s. For two years she lobbied her superiors to construct a new building that would be much more difficult to attack. Her pleas fell on deaf ears.
The situation changed at midmorning on August 7, 1998. Ambassador Bushnell recalled that she was in a meeting when the building swayed, a teacup rattled, and shards of glass sprayed around the room. “One thought swirled dreamily around my brain as every muscle in my body clenched in revolt,” she later wrote. “‘I am going to die.’ I was on the top floor of a high-rise office building that I knew was going to collapse.”
Earlier that day, two Commerce Department colleagues had joined her for a meeting on the twenty-first floor of the Cooperative Bank Building in downtown Nairobi adjacent to the embassy chancery. Tea had been served shortly before an explosion from the street below drew the group to a window. As Bushnell moved across the room, “a loud wave of freight- train force hurled me back across the room. Everything dimmed. Shadowy figures silently moved past me. Then nothing. I woke to find myself alone. Where had everyone gone? The man lying face down on the other side of the room was surely dead, I thought, and in a second we would both be plunging down multiple stories of concrete.”
A colleague directed her toward a hallway. “Ambassador, hurry, quick, we need to get out of here,” he insisted. They stepped into the hall and checked for survivors as they crawled through smoky debris. The atmosphere was hazy and otherworldly. “I felt like Alice at the bottom of the rabbit hole,” the ambassador later reflected.
“We met only a few people coming out of the top floors, dazed and silent,” she remembered. “As we descended, we joined a parade of slowly moving, shocked and bloodied Kenyans, crushed together and morphing into a multiheaded reptile calmly slithering down steps and over doors.” They saw bodies in the stairwell, but it was unclear whether the people were unconscious or dead. “We continued down. Someone began to pray. Blood dripped steadily onto my hair and my arm. Was that my blood? Was it getting into the open cut on my arm?”
They eventually made their way to the ground floor and into the daylight. The stairwell had been filled with smoke. Their emergence into fresh air was a godsend. Bushnell thought that they were close to asphyxiation.
She was unprepared for the scene that greeted her. “The parking lot we had walked through earlier that morning had disappeared, replaced by hell,” she observed. “Flames rose from burning vehicles as smoke billowed into the building from which we had just exited.” Thousands of people were there, many of them injured or dead. “In the middle of the usually busy street next to us, a city bus smoldered, most of its incinerated passengers still in their seats,” she recalled. “It had stopped for the red light on the corner. The schoolboys in another bus had been taken to a hospital to have shattered glass dug out from their eyes, faces, and upper torsos. Ahead of us, outside the fence of the chancery, an angry-looking American civilian I did not know stood duty, his suit covered by a flak jacket and a weapon in his hand.”
It was a chaotic scene. Unbeknownst to Bushnell and her staff, another car bomb had exploded in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, at approximately the same time as the bomb went off in Nairobi. The Dar Es Salaam device killed 11 people and wounded 85. The attacks were part of a coordinated attack by the al-Qaeda terrorist group.
By the afternoon of August 7, Ambassador Bushnell and her staff reconstructed the events of that morning. “We pieced together what information we had: A truck with two men had driven into the rear parking lot and tried to get into our underground parking garage. The Kenyan contract security guard had stopped it. One of the perpetrators had thrown a grenade, and some gunshots were fired, giving the guard time to run, desperately calling the marines on his radio as he fled. Seconds later, the truck had exploded.”
After the shock wore off, Bushnell felt enormous sadness at the loss of life as well as anger that her repeated attempts to improve security for the embassy had been ignored. During the after-action assessment, numerous officials lamented the vulnerability of the embassy in Nairobi. Bushnell felt frustrated that her multiple requests for security upgrades had been ignored until it was too late to forestall calamity. Official visits by high-ranking American officials such as Secretary of State Madeline Albright did little to assuage the concerns of Kenyans who believed that the United States government was not paying sufficient attention to the human costs of the attack. Ambassador Bushnell was criticized for allowing few Kenyans to participate in the clean-up. She responded by noting that the cleanup and recovery efforts were conducted by Americans trained in forensic techniques necessary to link the bombing to al-Qaeda.
The United States government retaliated by lobbing missiles at an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan as well as a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan. “The missile strikes failed to deliver on both accounts,” Bushnell remarked. “[Al-Qaeda leader Osama] Bin Laden was not dead, and the plant that employed three hundred people produced legitimate drugs. In the U.S. Congress and American media, President Clinton was ridiculed for fabricating acts of war as a means to deflect attention from the investigation into his personal conduct. In Nairobi, we carried on.”
Bushnell went outside the State Department chain of command to request additional money for embassy security from colleagues working inside the Office of Management & Budget (OMB). She also granted interviews to several popular magazines. Her goal was to emphasize the need for changes in embassy security measures, but some career diplomats thought that she had overstepped permissible boundaries.
Her performance appraisal reflected these beliefs. “Two months later I got my annual performance appraisal,” Bushnell wrote. “For the first time in my seventeen-year career, I was not asked to draft a benign critique to fill up the ‘Needs improvement’ section. Instead, I received a completed one with the notation that I tended to ‘overload the bureaucratic circuits,’ a coded reference to my repeated efforts to draw attention to our security posture.”
She continued working until her new assignment arrived. “The administration did request about $30 million in disaster-related assistance funds to help Nairobi citizens and businesses devastated by the attack,” the ambassador recalled. “It would still be months before we would see the money, and it was far less than the Kenyan government had requested, but at least we could start working. More than 100 buildings and 250 businesses were damaged or destroyed, and among the 5,000 people injured, a large percentage would remain permanently disabled.”
In 1999, a year after the Nairobi embassy bombing, President Clinton nominated Bushnell to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala. Secretary Albright swore her into office on October 5, 1999, two days shy of the anniversary of the bombing. Bushnell departed from Kenya with a heavy heart, but she understood that she was needed elsewhere.
When she arrived in Guatemala City, she was distressed to learn that the embassy there was also vulnerable to terrorist attacks. “I learned that the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City was almost a twin to the old embassy in Nairobi—same vintage, same architecture, same proximity to busy downtown streets, same State Department attitude about relocating: no way; there was no money.” As she had done in Kenya, she repeatedly asked for improvements to security at the embassy, but she was rebuffed at every turn.
Many Guatemalans were suspicious of Americans, and with good reason. As the ambassador admitted, the “U.S. past in Guatemala was not pretty. We had engineered the coup d’état against a democratically elected president in 1954, the same year we ousted the democratically elected prime minister of Iran. In Iran, the interest was oil. In Guatemala, it was land for the United Fruit Company.” Guatemalans were caught in a vise as the United States government and its officials sacrificed the interests of the citizenry in favor of foreign interests. “The Dulles brothers, who ran the State Department and the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency], also sat on the board of United Fruit. The land reforms promoted by the new president represented a Communist threat, or so they told Eisenhower. We supported a military takeover of the country and moved in and out of the conflict for decades, supplying and training military and paramilitary operatives who committed atrocities and acts of genocide against the poor and largely rural Mayan communities.”
These injustices continued for decades, but reforms were slowly happening. “With the end of the Cold War came a shift in U.S. policies and an apology from President Clinton for past deeds,” Bushnell observed. “A bipartisan Congress committed hundreds of millions of dollars to implement the 1996 Peace Accords. Its reforms were to transform Guatemalan society.”
Although she was appointed by President Clinton, a Democrat, Bushnell continued as the ambassador to Guatemala into the administration of President George W. Bush. Her tenure was controversial because the ambassador was a hands-on administrator who met frequently with Guatemalans from all strata in society. “The head of the congress, former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, called me ‘La Imprudencia,’ a label that stuck.” She was sanguine about her reputation among Guatemala’s elite. “I was denounced for violating diplomatic protocol by meeting directly with members of Guatemala’s congress; for interfering in domestic affairs; for demanding what surely would mean the economic ruin of the country. Calls to the Guatemalan government to throw me out were followed by letters to the Wall Street Journal and to the White House asking for my recall.”
Despite the vocal opposition, Prudence Bushnell remained at her post until July 2002, when she left to become dean of the Leadership and Management School at the Foreign Service Institute, the United States government’s primary training institution that prepares American diplomats as well as other professionals to advance U.S. foreign affairs interests. She stayed there for three years. She often told students about the Nairobi bombing as well as the lesson it taught her about the need for embassy security. Bushnell also “redesigned the two-week mandatory seminar for ambassadors before they departed for their posts and inserted those lessons. I joined a leadership roundtable of midlevel colleagues brainstorming ways to bring leadership into the Foreign Service culture.”
She recognized that the time for retirement had arrived in 2005, not long after Condoleezza Rice replaced Colin Powell as secretary of state. The State Department was changing, and Bushnell did not wish to serve under the new conditions. “Leadership was out,” she recalled, and “’transformational diplomacy’ was in. Another team, another policy priority.” It was enervating. “We invited one of her inner circle to speak with senior staff at the Foreign Service Institute to define the term, and he responded, ‘I cannot tell you what transformational diplomacy is, but I can tell you that the Foreign Service can’t do it.’ Oh, great, I thought. It was going to be that kind of political appointee crowd.”
She was tired after decades of service. “Time to go, I decided. The fit with the State Department and the Foreign Service was no longer a good one. With immense pride and no tears, I accepted the American flag handed to me at my retirement ceremony, the survivor flag from my office in Nairobi.”
In 2004, she earned the Career Achievement Award, a Service to America Medal awarded to employees who make a significant impact on governance in the United States.