In the Arena

Holbrooke Tribute

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I wrote this brief tribute to Richard Holbrooke in the current issue of the magazine. Obviously, there’s a lot more to say about the man–and others are saying it eloquently, particularly Michael Elliott on Time.com yesterday and Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic. Both reflect my feelings, although my experience with Richard was somewhat different from others, at least in one respect: he inspired my son, Christopher, to join the foreign service and chose Chris to work on his staff at the United Nations

Holbrooke as boss was a prospected to be dreaded, if the advance reports were true–impossible, temperamental, egomaniacal. But, as with so much of the gossip about Holbrooke, the reality was quite the opposite. He was very demanding. His standards were incredibly high, and he could be brutal if you didn’t meet them. But if you did, he proved an incredibly loyal and loving boss, a lifetime advocate and adviser. (I know that Holbrooke would have felt neglected if my son hadn’t consulted him every time he faced a new “bid list” of jobs on offer in the department; of course, Chris wouldn’t think about taking his next post without Holbrooke’s input.)

Indeed, there is a league of former Holbrooke aides who would have taken a bullet for the guy; I know my son would have. In my experience, these were uniformly brilliant diplomats–people like Christopher Hill and Ashley Bommer–and academic recruits like Vali Nasr and Barnett Rubin, and staffers like the rock-solid Rosemary Pauli. Holbrooke’s ability to put together a team was legendary, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan team, his last, may have been the best he ever assembled. (I’m sure, if he were still around, Holbrooke would be calling me, angrily, for not mentioning more than a few others–I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Dick, you’re right.)

Those who worked with Richard, especially those who were working with him at the end, are particularly bereft now. I would count the Secretary, Hillary Clinton, who worked aggressively to try to save his life last Friday, in that category. But they are his legacy, his gift to the State Department, an institution that he loved and which perpetually frustrated him, and which he always hoped to improve. They should be proud to have met his high standards. I know they’re going to continue to make a difference, to honor Richard’s memory and our country, as they move ahead with the peaceful, frustrating work they love so much.

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