A lot has been written over the past few days about Richard Holbrooke, the 69-year-old diplomat who died this week while serving as the Obama administration’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Besides the war, he was focused on doing what he could to improve the life of Afghanistan’s people – their economy, farming, schools, opportunities for women – anything to give them a positive alternative to the intolerant religious extremism that Taliban militants offer for their future. Close associates say his comment to a physician just before he was put to sleep for surgery on his torn aorta were words to the effect, “we have to get it right in Afghanistan.” They were the last words he spoke.
It wasn’t the first tough challenge Richard Holbrooke tackled in his life: he spent an adult lifetime absorbed with what were arguably the hardest problems the world has known in that period – the war in Vietnam, the conflict in the Balkans, the HIV-AIDS crisis in Africa, and most recently, Afghanistan. I’m not a war correspondent, nor have I covered the State Department, but it was just about impossible to work in Washington over the past few decades without bumping into Holbrooke, a brilliant bundle of energy who worked in Democratic administrations — because that was his party affiliation — but who wanted to be part of addressing virtually every international challenge on the planet. Such was his knowledge of global affairs, and his confidence in his own abilities.
On Twitter, someone asked this week why members of the mainstream media are “fawning” over Holbrooke, and whether he had received this sort of coverage while he was alive. It made me think about why we often wait until someone dies before we give them credit for their accomplishments. That’s a universal phenomenon; few get their due before they disappear from the scene.
But it also made me think about how Holbrooke worked, and why he was the force he was. He was large in stature, hugely extroverted in personality, and constantly in motion. Others have described his impatience, occasional abrasiveness, relentless focus on the job at hand, round-the-clock-work ethic, and willingness to confront powerful world leaders who opposed American goals.
I would add that he loved public service, probably due in part to the fact that both his parents escaped anti-Jewish oppression in pre-war Europe, in Germany and Poland, and came to the United States. He loved public service so much that he was frequently trying to circumvent the government bureaucracy that slowed things down.
A good example is how he organized his last position, as Special Representative for Af-Pak, as it came to be called. He created his own self-sustaining “team,” with diverse experts from the various disciplines he knew he’d need, and gave them a sharply-focused mission. He handpicked the people who worked for him, in this case a tightly-knit group of 40, and expected the best of each one.
I didn’t appreciate the loyalty Holbrooke engendered from his current team, and former staff members, until I saw the spontaneous outpouring after he became ill. Staffers from throughout his career showed up to pay respects and hold a kind of vigil at the hospital. After he died, one senior adviser, Quintin Gray, whom Holbrooke had plucked from the Department of Agriculture to work on farming issues in Afghanistan, told me his boss always made a point of praising his aides and advisers in front of superiors. More than once, Gray said, Holbrooke would tell Secretary of State Hillary Clinton what a terrific job Gray was going for him, while putting his arm around Gray or pointing to him. “He did that for all of us; he was an extraordinary boss,” Gray told me.
I heard similar comments from others on Holbrooke’s staff, about his demanding ways — but wholehearted support and loyalty to those who worked for him.
At a time when government is held in notoriously low regard by many Americans, it’s worth thinking about public servants like Richard Holbrooke and the team working with him. It’s possible to disagree with the approach they took, but hard to deny their dedication to country. Just like Quintin Gray and the other Af-Pak advisers, they felt they were making a difference because of the opportunity Richard Holbrooke gave them. How will they continue to do that, now that he is no longer around? How many other public servants are there waiting in the wings with Holbrooke’s energy, drive and determination to make a difference?