Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mourning the death of an Überdiplomat

By now everyone has heard of the recent death of Richard Holbrooke, one of American's all-time great diplomats and the President's Special Representative for Afghanistan-Pakistan.  He was also Ambassador to the UN and to Germany and was twice an Assistant Secretary of State.  He was my Ambassador and boss from 1996-97 while I was at the Embassy in Bonn. Although we weren't close friends, I worked with him on several projects and was able to develop a sense for the man.  Here are a few personal antecdotes:

1)  Ambassador Holbrooke was anything but conventional and could always find a way around bureaucratic hurdles.  Early in his Bonn assignment, he decided that he wanted to reopen the American Consulate in Düsseldorf, which was closed only 5 years earlier as a budget cutting measure because it was only about an hour's drive from Bonn.  However because the Japanese Trade Mission for all of Europe was in Düsseldorf,  Holbrooke felt we needed a strong commercial presence there to compete against the Japanese in European markets.  But an old nemesis and Foreign Service classmate of Holbrooke was the Undersecretary of State for Management and wouldn't approve the reopening.  So to get what he wanted, Holbrooke called a press conference attended by all the major newspapers, televisions stations and politicians in the German state of Nordrhein-Westfalen and announced that he was reopening the Düsseldorf Consulate. When the Undersecretary heard about it he said absolutely not and he wouldn't even take the issue before the Congressional Foreign Affairs Committees which have to approve all diplomatic posts.  Holbrooke then simply went over the Undersecretary's head to the Deputy Secretary of State and told him it would be a great embarrassment to the United States if the consulate wasn't reopened after it had been publicly announced.  The Deputy Secretary took up the matter with the Congress which approved the reopening.  But the story doesn't end here: I was the person tasked with finding an office for the consulate.  Furthermore Holbrooke said that it had to be ready for occupancy within three months because he wanted Ron Brown, who was then Secretary of Commerce, to cut the ribbon during a planned trip to Europe. Three months was an extremely short period because we had to negotiate and get funding for the lease, have the space fitted out for offices, procure furniture, furnishings and communications equipment, and arrange for security.  I spent a couple of days in Duesseldorf looking at properties and found five for Holbrooke to look at.  He chose the first one I showed him and didn't even look at the other four.  It was an empty floor in the headquarters building of Rheinmetal, a large German industrial concern. With a great deal of effort and a little luck, I was able to have it ready for Ron Brown's ribbon cutting on the scheduled date.   

2) On a visit to Munich, the Ambassador, a connoisseur of the arts, visited one of Munich's best known art galleries. During a conversation with the owner, he asked if he could host a showing of her most important paintings in the Embassy in Bonn to which he would invite the most important people from the government, the private sector and the diplomatic corps in Germany.  When she approved, it became a nightmare for those of us in the embassy with responsibilities for logistics and security.  The security officer and the Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security were especially concerned as our embassies are now fortresses, with only people allowed in them who have clearances or escorts.  Early one Sunday morning, a few weeks before the art show, I was summoned to his residence for a logistics meeting.  About six of us met with him in his bedroom for about an hour while he was still in his pajamas.  He had very specific ideas as to how the paintings were to be handled and transported to Bonn and how they would be displayed throughout the embassy which we of course followed. During the event, a few hundred VIPs (including some from unfriendly embassies) walked up and down the embassy halls viewing the paintings with champagne glasses and canopies in hand. I'm sure that the security staff watched very carefully and that afterwords they did an electronic sweep of the building to ensure no bugs were planted.   

3) One Saturday morning I received a call from Holbrooke's Administrative Aide, telling me that the Ambassador wanted to play tennis with me and that I should be at the court within the hour.  Of course I went and the match started out well, with me winning the first couple of games.  However he soon figured out my game and defeated me soundly.  After the match he gave me an unsolicited coaching lesson, telling me that my serve was very predictable and that I needed to improve my forehand.  This was typical Holbrooke: he was very observant, knowledgeable of almost everything and not afraid to tell everyone what he thought.  He was often difficult to work for but we all respected him because of his high intelligence and his determination to achieve his well thought out diplomatic goals.   And he was almost always right. 

4) Holbrooke's mother was a Hamburg-born Jew and atheist most of her life.  She emigrated to Argentina with her family at an early age and then to the U.S.  Because of the Holocaust, she was determined that she would never again set foot in Germany.  However when her son became Ambassador he persuaded her to come for a visit. During a reception at the end of her stay, she told the assembled embassy staff that she had had a wonderful time in Germany and that it was definitely a different country than the one she had known as a child.

5) Holbrooke spent many weekends visiting Paris to consult with his friend, Pamela Herriman, our Ambassador to France.   He seemed envious because she got Paris and he got small-town Bonn, even though the German relationship was more important to US interests.  Shortly after leaving Bonn, he was married to his third wife, Kati Marton.  She is a former reporter and journalist (now writer) who was previously married to the deceased ABC News anchor, Peter Jennings. She had a book published last year that will soon be a major motion picture entitled "Enemies of the People: My family's Journey to America."

If you didn't watch last Tuesday's evening Newshour with Jim Lehrer, you missed a great discussion with John Negroponte (another former Ambassador to the UN) and with Susan Glazier of Foreign Policy Magazine on the Holbrooke legacy.  Here is the link for it in case you are interested (  This was particularly interesting to me because I also served under Negroponte when he was Ambassador to Mexico.

I believe that Holbrooke greatest regret was that he never got to be Secretary of State.  I think he would have been Secretary if it hadn't have made so much political sense for President Obama to appoint Hilary Clinton.  I'm very sad that Richard Holbrooke is no longer with us and believe that if peace in Afghanistan is achievable at all, he would have greatly contributed to bringing it more quickly.

Addendum dated 11/5/2015:
HBO has just released a documentary film on Ambassador Holbrooke, directed by his son, David Holbrooke titled "the Diplomat" which provides a history of the Ambassador's remarkable career. The link for the film is and it is available through HBO "On Demand."