After a long battle with cancer, Ambassador Clayton Yeutter passed away on Saturday at the age of 86 at his home in Potomac, Maryland. With his passing, the world parts not only with a brilliant, effective, accomplished leader, but an extraordinarily generous, decent man whose enduring kindness and humble demeanor made politics and policymaking in Washington more tolerable for all involved.
Clayton Yeutter had a long an illustrious career spent in both the private and public sectors, as well as in academia, but he is probably best known for his service during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.
As Reagan’s U.S. Trade Representative from 1985 to 1989, Ambassador Yeutter presided over implementation of the very first U.S. bilateral free trade agreement (with Israel) and he launched and oversaw negotiation of the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, which evolved into the North American Free Trade Agreement, to include Mexico, in 1994.
As USTR, Ambassador Yeutter also launched and advanced the “Uruguay Round” of multilateral trade negotiations in 1986, under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which resulted in broader and deeper reductions in global barriers to trade than had previously been achieved, and it established the World Trade Organization in 1995.
During the first two years of the George H.W. Bush administration (1989-91), Yeutter served as Secretary of Agriculture, where he was instrumental in steering U.S. agricultural policy back to a more market orientation, from which it had deviated in the mid-1980s. The 1990 farm bill (The Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990) included reductions in agricultural subsidies that were negotiated during the Uruguay Round.
Yeutter held other high-profile positions, including an eight-year stint as President and CEO of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange—a period during which the volume of trade in agricultural, currency, and interest rate futures more than tripled. He served as Republican National Committee Chairman for two years, following the death of Lee Atwater.
In recent years, Yeutter was a partner at the law firm of Hogan and Hartson and then a senior adviser at the firm, after it merged to become Hogan Lovells.
My colleagues and I benefitted from Clayton’s knowledge, experience, and insights, as he served in an advisory capacity to the Cato Institute’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies. Over the years, Clayton was always generous with his time. He read everything we published in the Cato trade center, frequently offering kind words of endorsement or gentle points of dissent.
Even as he was enduring wrenching and sometimes debilitating treatment for cancer, Ambassador Yeutter graciously participated in numerous trade policy events at Cato, speaking with his signature booming voice, offering encouragement to continue the fight for free trade, and holding court with his throngs of admirers in the policy world and in the media.
Last year, we held a conference to showcase the results of our comprehensive study on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the then-85 year old’s still razor-sharp analytical and communications skills were on full display (starting at the 10 minute mark of the 3rd session).
Clayton Yeutter was born at the outset of the Great Depression in Nebraska’s worsening dustbowl, where he grew up, was educated, and met his first wife. Yeutter received a B.S., a J.D. and a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. During the Korean War, between undergraduate and graduate studies, Yeutter served in the U.S. Air Force.
Clayton has innumerable professional pursuits and accomplishments to his name. He operated a 2,500 acre farming enterprise in Nebraska for 18 years; he taught agricultural economics and agricultural law at the University of Nebraska; he served as Chief of Staff to the Governor of Nebraska; he directed the University of Nebraska’s mission in Colombia, which was at the time the largest agricultural technical assistance program in the world; he held various positions within the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Nixon and Ford administrations, including as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for International Affairs and Commodity Programs and Deputy Special Trade Representative in the USTR’s office; he was a senior partner in the Nebraska-based law firm of Nelson, Harding, Yeutter & Leonard; he served on numerous corporate boards, including those of ConAgra Foods, Caterpillar Inc, and Texas Instruments.
After graduating from the University of Nebraska, in 1952, Yeutter married his first wife, Jeanne Vierk, with whom he had four children. Two years after Jeanne’s death, Yeutter married Cristena Bach with whom he adopted and raised three daughters.
Clayton was not only a hard-working, brilliant, accomplished man, but a genuinely decent, caring, and honest person of integrity, who was always willing to share his time and opinions on matters far and wide.
I liked and respected him deeply, and will always remember his generosity and the wisdom of his advice. Clayton was a rare breed in Washington, who exemplified decency and, through his demeanor and actions, reminded us that politics and the policy debate can be conducted without the vitriol and mean-spiritedness that has become all too common.
In 2015, the Clayton K. Yeutter Institute of International Trade and Finance was established at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to help prepare students for the promise and pitfalls of an increasingly interconnected global economy. It’s hard to avoid the symbolism of the passing of a man of great integrity and humility, who believed with all of his fiber in the importance of international trade, investment, and cultural openness, at a time when that worldview and those values are under assault, especially in the United States.
Yeutter is survived by his wife, seven children, nine grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on April 8 at The Fourth Presbyterian Church, 5500 River Road, Bethesda, Maryland. Contributions may be directed to the University of Nebraska Foundation for the support of the Clayton Yeutter Institute of International Trade and Finance.