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Remembering Holbrooke

December 14, 2010 |
He never shaded or spun the facts. He accepted the possibility of failure but counselled boldness anyway. These are not common qualities in diplomats, in my experience.
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Richard Holbrooke and Steve Coll at New America's 2010 Board Retreat

Richard Holbrooke, shown here at New America's 2010 board retreat, died Monday in of complications from surgery to repair a torn aorta.

It was not easy to construct a quiet hour or two with Richard Holbrooke. I saw him regularly, as did other journalists and researchers who worked on Afghanistan and Pakistan, but a long sit-down took some effort. Holbrooke was an accessible, open, and attentive person, but he was also in perpetual motion. He moved from meeting to meeting, conversation to conversation, and if you managed to sequester him somewhere for fifteen minutes or more, his cell phone was sure to ring—Islamabad, Kabul, the Secretary of State, somebody.

Related links

Steve Clemons discusses Holbrooke's legacy on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show" and NPR's "All Things Considered"

"A Dominant Diplomatic Force," by Peter Beinart

What is the Legacy of the Late Diplomat Richard Holbrooke?
by Andrés Martinez

Susan Glasser's Holbrooke Remembrance on Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel

"The Peacemaker," by Eliza Griswold

Earlier this year, however, we managed to arrange a private lunch in Washington on a Saturday. He invited me to meet him at the Four Seasons Hotel, near his home in Georgetown. The dining room at the hotel is not quite the watering hole for the wealthy and famous that it is in Manhattan, but it is a Washington-limited facsimile. When the Ambassador arrived the maître d’ attended him lavishly, scolding the waiter who had initially greeted him for failing to assign him an appropriately expansive and exclusive table.

He was carrying that morning’s Financial Times. He marvelled over an article he was reading about I. M. Pei and he wanted to talk about architecture for a while. As I had gotten to know him a little, I had discovered that he would speak about subjects such as acting or trends in academic history with genuine passion. He sometimes preferred those topics to the repetitive nuances of South Asia’s dysfunctional politics. He had a reputation for creating drama around himself; he was genuinely a theatrical man, in the sense of being physical and full of emotion and gesture. I came to think that he lived the way he did in part to avoid boredom.

While we ate lunch, Jerry Seinfeld and some of his entourage entered the dining room; Seinfeld was a guest at the hotel. “Jerry!” Holbrooke shouted, warmly. They were neighbors, it turned out, in New York and Telluride. We stood for introductions and chit-chat. Holbrooke asked what Seinfeld was working on and the comedian talked about his new reality-television show. In mid-explanation, however, Holbrooke’s cell phone rang. It was Robert Mueller, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and so the Ambassador had to interrupt Seinfeld to take the call. Eventually we returned to our table and resumed our discussion about the Waziristans and the rest.

Two years ago, Richard Holbrooke actively sought and embraced his assignment as Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. That by itself made him an unusual character; who else would relish such a deeply difficult, politically unrewarding, high-risk job? He travelled to the region repeatedly before President Obama took office, and he read into his prospective subject in unusual depth. He knew that the portfolio he had chosen might fall apart on him disastrously or damage the record he had created for himself at Dayton, Ohio, where he mediated a durable end to the brutal Bosnian war. He loved his assignment anyway. It was anything but dull. He understood why the war mattered and how it had evolved. He never shaded or spun the facts. He accepted the possibility of failure but counselled boldness anyway. These are not common qualities in diplomats, in my experience. He will be missed.