Semper Fi: Robert ‘Bud’ McFarlane Dies at 84


Robert “Bud” McFarlane, a national security adviser for President Ronald Reagan, died May 12 in Lansing, Michigan, while visiting for a family wedding, at the age of 84. His son, Scott McFarlane, told the Washington Post that the cause of death was an exacerbation of a previous lung condition. 

“So much has been written recently about Bud McFarlane’s role in government and international affairs, but a truer measure of the man is how he conducted himself out of the spotlight, close to home,” longtime friend Grace Bateman told The Georgetowner. “Bud was a good neighbor and a good friend. He was much beloved here in Georgetown, touching many lives. We will miss him.”

Already well known in military and political circles, McFarlane gained national fame because of the Iran-Contra scandal which set up secret sales of weapons to Iran to funnel funds for the Contras in Nicaragua — questionably an “arms for hostages” deal — during the Cold War in the 1980s. Those Americans involved were also trying to free U.S. hostages in Lebanon being held by Hezbollah, a group under the influence of the revolutionary government in Iran. 

McFarlane “was the only official in the Reagan White House to voluntarily accept legal blame in the Iran-contra scandal,” according to the Post. 

So distraught and ashamed of his involvement in the affair was McFarlane that he contemplated suicide as he recounted in his 1994 memoir, “Special Trust.” He resigned his position in the Reagan Administration in 1985.

Born in Washington, D.C., on July 12, 1937, McFarlane was the son of a Texas Democratic congressman, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He retired as a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel in 1979.

For those in Georgetown, McFarlane and his wife Jonda were those good neighbors who lived on the 3400 block of Prospect Street. Their story tells the fuller tale of Robert “Bud” McFarlane.

Bud and Jonda McFarlane met in a church youth group when they were both in high school in Bethesda. After high school, Jonda went to Penn State, graduating with a degree in English, and Bud went to the Naval Academy. The high school sweethearts were married shortly after they graduated from college and had three children. The McFarlane family lived in Japan and in Switzerland during Bud’s tour in the Marine Corps. Their extended family — that now includes their three children, their spouses and eight grandchildren — remain close and often still vacation together.

In the mid-1980s, when Bud and Jonda were empty-nesters, they moved from Bethesda to Prospect Street in Georgetown and lived there until about 10 years ago when they moved to an apartment in the Watergate. Bud and Jonda were active members of the Georgetown community. They were longtime parishioners and took leadership roles at Georgetown Presbyterian Church.

Bud ardently supported Jonda’s volunteer community activities. Despite frequent international travel for his consulting business, Bud was a regular presence at community events in Georgetown, even after the McFarlanes had moved from the neighborhood. Bud was very generous with his time, serving as mentor to countless children of friends and neighbors, always eager to offer advice and encouragement. He was someone you would call if you needed help or just some good advice, and he would answer the call.

Jonda was the president of the Francis Scott Key Foundation, which created — with private funds — Francis Scott Key Park on M Street near Key Bridge and donated it to the National Park Service. (It was family friend, Sen. John McCain, who gave the dedication address for the park in 1993.) Jonda served on the Georgetown-Burleith Advisory Neighborhood Commission during the 1990s, including one term as its chair. Jonda is a founding member of Friends of Georgetown Waterfront Park, the moving force in building the waterfront park. She remains on the Board of the Friends group.

Memorial services for Bud McFarlane are pending — details to follow.

Bud and Jonda McFarlane, honored at a Spirit of Georgetown event. Photo by Robert Devaney.

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3 comments on “Semper Fi: Robert ‘Bud’ McFarlane Dies at 84”

  • Gene Swanzey says:

    The highlight of my friendship with Bud was when I asked him to chair the Board of Advisors to my investment banking firms, The McLean Group where I was one of the partners–I was the founder of the group. Bud proved to be an excellent Chairman

    • Paul Thompson says:

      The Enduring Contribution of Bud McFarlane

      It was reassuring to read this positive treatment of the life and accomplishments of Bud McFarlane, through the significant impact he had on the local (Georgetown) community. That spirit of service and outreach was also very evident at the national and global level in everything that Bud did.

      Bud was a highly learned and experienced advocate of statecraft and security policy, mastering the many intricacies of arms control during the height of the Cold War. His attention to detail and patience were legendary, and he did, in fact, suffer fools if necessary, to arrive at consensus and progress. From sessions with Presidents, and Prime Ministers, and senior leaders of Congress, to briefing the Pope on Cold War issues, Bud was always fully informed and responsive to every concern. He meticulously explained complex strategies to the media and decision makers, tirelessly expounding on the subtleties of dealing with the Soviet Union, the Middle East, and every other issue on the margins of the Cold War. He was likewise sincere and engaging when talking to local Boy Scouts, a Rotary District Conference in Texas, or the International School in Geneva he so loved.

      Bud was a consummate Marine, principled and committed, internally pondering every matter, externally stalwart and serene. Before undertaking yet another complex mission he would exclaim “over the top,” signaling that he would never fail for lack of will.

      For the fortunate members of his trusted inner circle, he shared the same relentless dedication to family, colleagues, and community, demonstrating the will of a man totally committed to work and country, as described in this Georgetowner article.

      It is unfortunate and a disservice to history that many of the reports on Bud’s passing focus on a perceived negative intel policy occurring after he left the federal government; and they inaccurately depict the policy’s authority, which was a Congressionally allowed and Presidentially authorized covert action, properly based on a Finding. The result is to unfairly minimize Bud’s many successes in service to his nation during decades in military assignments and senior national security positions. In arms control negotiations alone, he was essential in bringing resolution to one of the most dangerous periods of our history. Bud McFarlane was a giant in that process and in every other way!

  • Paul Thompson says:

    The Enduring Contribution of Bud McFarlane

    It was reassuring to read this positive treatment of the life and accomplishments of Bud McFarlane, through the significant impact he had on the local community. That spirit of service and outreach was also very evident at the national and global level in everything that Bud did.

    Bud was a highly learned and experienced advocate of statecraft and security policy, mastering the many intricacies of arms control during the height of the Cold War. His attention to detail and patience were legendary, and he did, in fact, suffer fools if necessary, to arrive at consensus and progress. From sessions with Presidents, and Prime Ministers, and senior leaders of Congress, to briefing the Pope on Cold War issues, Bud was always fully informed and responsive to every concern. He meticulously explained complex strategies to the media and decision makers, tirelessly expounding on the subtleties of dealing with the Soviet Union, the Middle East, and every other issue on the margins of the Cold War. He was likewise sincere and engaging when talking to local Boy Scouts, a Rotary District Conference in Texas, or the International School in Geneva he so loved.

    Bud was a consummate Marine, principled and committed, internally pondering every matter, externally stalwart and serene. Before undertaking yet another complex mission he would exclaim “over the top,” signaling that he would never fail for lack of will.

    For the fortunate members of his trusted inner circle, he shared the same relentless dedication to family, colleagues, and community, demonstrating the will of a man totally committed to work and country, as described in this Georgetowner article.

    It is unfortunate and a disservice to history that many of the reports on Bud’s passing focus on a perceived negative intel policy occurring after he left the federal government; and they inaccurately depict the policy’s authority, which was a Congressionally allowed and Presidentially authorized covert action, properly based on a Finding. The result is to unfairly minimize Bud’s many successes in service to his nation during decades in military assignments and senior national security positions. In arms control negotiations alone, he was essential in bringing resolution to one of the most dangerous periods of our history. Bud McFarlane was a giant in that process and in every other way!

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