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Warren Christopher, Secretary of State and NewsHour Regular, Dies at Age 85

Of all the occupants of the lofty seventh-floor offices of the Secretary of State, perhaps none wanted to appear on the NewsHour more than Warren Christopher, whose death was announced Saturday morning.

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher; WikiMedia Commons photo courtesy U.S. State Department via FlickrAs secretary during President Clinton’s first term, Christopher was a guest on the program countless times to explain what the administration was trying to accomplish in two particular hotspots — Bosnia and the Middle East. The NewsHour was without a doubt his favorite media venue, often to the frustration of beat reporters covering the State Department for other news organizations.

Christopher served three Democratic presidents — Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Clinton — in numerous difficult assignments that required his lawyerly and low-key finesse. But the most searing time for him in office was the endless negotiation in 1980 up until the last day of the Carter administration on Jan 20, 1981, to obtain the release of the U.S. Embassy hostages from Iran. He became a regular commuter to Algeria, which was acting as middleman. In his memoirs, he referred to the “bazaar behavior” of
the Iranian negotiators, but he could just as well have meant “bizarre,” because he was dealing with a regime in the early stages of a revolution, several of whose principals later ended up executed or in exile. Years later, as Secretary of State, it seemed the only thing that could perturb his usual unperturbable demeanor was mentioning Iran. I recall a background White House briefing with him on a totally different subject, but Iran came up. His face muscles tightened, his eyes darkened and he dismissed out of hand the possibility of dealing with the clerical regime of Tehran. Little surprise that no Iran initiatives were undertaken during his time as Secretary. His successor Madeleine Albright was left to pick up the strings of that tattered relationship, but with little luck.

Like Christopher, Albright had a long history as a NewsHour guest preceding her tenure as secretary. But like most of her predecessors and successors, she spread her interviews around the journalistic panorama.

But not Christopher. If he wanted to talk, he came on the NewsHour. To the point that AP reporter Barry Schweid once complained to me, “I am thinking of moving my desk to Shirlington (the NewsHour’s Virginia headquarters outside Washington).”

Indeed, even Christopher’s staff also tried to get him around to other outlets. Once the secretary agreed to do an interview at CNN studios near the Capitol. They showed up in late afternoon, shortly before the scheduled hit time. But this was the era of OJ Simpson, when even the smallest twist in the story was bulletin material in for that cable outlet. Christopher’s interview kept getting pushed back and back some more. Three hours later, it took place in abbreviated form.

On the drive back to Foggy Bottom, the secretary turned to his staffers and said, “The next time, can I go back to the NewsHour?” There was little they could offer in the way of argument.

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