Lawrence Eagleburger, 80, Dies: A Legend of the Foreign Service

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Former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger (R) chats with Czech President Vaclav Havel during a meeting at Prague Castle March 18.

Lawrence Eagleburger, the only career foreign service officer ever to be named Secretary of State, died Saturday at his home in Charlottesville, VA.

Eagleburger, 80, had a long and storied career as an American diplomat that began in the 1950s. He was the quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) guiding force behind several decades of politically appointed Secretaries of State. He served Democrats as well as Republicans from Eisenhower to Bush 1, and formed a particularly strong partnership with Henry Kissinger during the Nixon era.

His biography is a descant to the last 50 years of American foreign policy. The son of a Milwaukee doctor he once described as more conservative than Genghis Khan, Eagleburger joined the foreign service in the late 1950s, served in Belgrade and in Washington before taking up a series of high level, politically sensitive posts. He worked for Dean Acheson when Lyndon Johnson called him back to service; for Walt Rostow at the National Security Council, at NATO Headquarters in Brussels and of course for Kissinger under Nixon.

By the early 1980s, Eagleburger had emerged as something of a secret weapon of presidents and secretaries of state, a man who could take the visionary ideas of, for example, a Kissinger, and somehow push them through the state department’s often sluggish back offices. He was ideologically moderate, ruthlessly hard-headed about American interests and unusually effective behind the scenes. “Eagleburger was bright,” wrote David Halberstam, “with a practical rather than abstract intelligence and his greatest strength was his shrewd reading of the people around him.” He was “virtually without peer in knowing how to work within the bureaucracy and actually make things happen.”

Being a career foreign service officer, he often was called upon to do the dirty work that the secretaries of state themselves preferred to dodge. At this the often blunt spoken Eagleburger proved to be uncommonly good, as when he informed an unhappy Margaret Thatcher of George Herbert Walker Bush’s plan to reduce the number of troops in Europe in 1989 or was sent by Bush to Jerusalem in 1991 to convince the Israeli government not to respond when Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles on Tel Aviv. He was trusted overseas where more politically connected officials were not. “He’s utterly loyal,” Nixon once said of him. “won’t have his own agenda and he’s smart as a shithouse rat.”

Under Carter, Eagleburger served as ambassador to Yugoslavia, and in the Reagan era he served George Schultz as the State Departments’ top political adviser. Eagleburger and Kissinger later went into business, in the mid-1980s, forming Kissinger Associates, in New York and Eagleburger is often credited with getting that company up and running. He went back into government in the first Bush era as the no. 2 at State and became the first career foreign service office to rise to the job of Secretary of State when James Baker left that post to run Bush’s re-election campaign in 1992. Baker called him “a legend” in the Foreign Service.

After he retired, Eagleburger had many offers to join corporate boards but resisted some because he couldn’t survive the cross country flights without a cigarette break. “In a world where successful men and women,” Halberstam once wrote, “appeared to be ever sleeker physically and colder of demeanor, Eagleburger was somehow old-fashioned and endearing. There he was, short, appallingly overweight, far too many pounds distributed on a body whose contours seemed to defy the State Department prototype, his health always terrible, suffering from severe asthma, yet still chain-smoking, alternating cigarettes with his anti-asthma inhaler.”

Eagleburger served as the 62nd Secretary of State until Bill Clinton became president in January 1993.