When Franklin Roosevelt died on Friday, April 12, 1945, Winston Churchill remarked that the president had died at his station in the fever of battle, fighting as ever “for the cause of freedom and for the causes of the weak and poor [that] have won him immortal renown.” So it was, too, with Richard Holbrooke, one of the heirs of the tradition of personal diplomacy forged by FDR and Churchill and personified by great Americans with whom Holbrooke worked: Averell Harriman, Dean Rusk, Cyrus Vance. When Holbrooke was fatally stricken, he was at work, in the Department of State, by the side of the Secretary of State, struggling with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Holbrooke was the embodiment of an ethos of public service. He loved intrigue, history, power, New York City, journalists (many of them, anyway), his family and his wife, Kati. He was enormously proud of this country and of its capacity to do good. He had his adversaries, but many more friends. From Vietnam to the Balkans, from Foggy Bottom to the United Nations, he pursued peace, understanding that little was straightforward and that in the end the personal was the political. He could flatter and bully, argue and threaten, whisper and scream. I counted myself among his friends, and at various times I was the beneficiary of his grace and the object of his unhappiness. One much preferred the former.
A man of unabashed appetite and ambition, he grasped the appetites and ambitions of others. Through decades in Washington and as the co-author of the presidential adviser Clark Clifford’s excellent 1991 “Memoir of Power,” Holbrooke became a kind of Margaret Mead of the capital, an anthropologist of the city’s competing tribes. Which made him perfect for the the Balkans and Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He joined the foreign service in 1962, in the depths of the cold war. He began his diplomatic work in Vietnam. He brought peace to the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, grew passionate about combating HIV/AIDS in Africa, and he died trying to bring some resolution to what is known in diplomatic-speak as the “Afpak” problem.
Before he went to Washington to take up his latest assignment, we had lunch together at a New York restaurant with paper tablecloths. He asked for a pen, and proceeded to sketch out the Afpak problems in diagrammatic terms. The drawings grew ever-more complicated, working their way around the breadbasket and the water glasses. Finally he looked up and said: “but we have to make it work.” We have to make it work: that, in essence, was the creed of the man whom we lost this week — a creed that Richard Holbrooke embodied, and that we must profess still.