David Rothkopf

On the death of a wise man

There will be a thousand eulogies for Richard Holbrooke. Heads of state and foreign ministers, journalists, and chief executives, movie stars and Foreign Service officers will remember him vividly even if they only knew him briefly. They will remember him that way because Richard Holbrooke was one of those great and complex characters who filled ...


There will be a thousand eulogies for Richard Holbrooke. Heads of state and foreign ministers, journalists, and chief executives, movie stars and Foreign Service officers will remember him vividly even if they only knew him briefly. They will remember him that way because Richard Holbrooke was one of those great and complex characters who filled up every nook and cranny of a moment. 

Some, no doubt, will remember him as the greatest American foreign-policy practitioner of his generation. Some may not. But those who do not will be wrong.     

He was among the very brightest lights of a generation that was drawn to service by the call of John F. Kennedy and among the small elite group who learned their craft as aides to Henry Kissinger. Think whatever you will of Kissinger, his greatest contribution was almost certainly the generation he trained or elevated to the forefront of the U.S. foreign policy community. They led that community for four decades and of them all, Richard Holbrooke was among both the most gifted and the most accomplished.  

When he was 35, he served as the youngest U.S. assistant secretary of state, covering Asia. During the Clinton years, he served as ambassador to Germany, as assistant secretary of state for Europe, and as U.N. ambassador displaying his truly global range and grasp. 

It was Holbrooke who hammered out the deal that brought the war in Bosnia to an end, he who famously and unflinchingly stood up to Milosevic. Then as more recently there were detractors. Some were colleagues who were rivals. Some were people with whom he had lost patience. Some resented Holbrooke’s unabashed love of the spotlight.  They quipped that the most dangerous place in Bosnia was between Holbrooke and a camera. When he arrived for one trip, a State Department cable reportedly announced "the ego has landed." Oh he had an ego, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the skill of it all or fail to recognize that he was a master at using the media as an essential tool in the practice of information age diplomacy.

It is a terrible tragedy that a man who was definitely not for the faint of heart was lost in the end because his own great heart gave out too soon. But ask yourself why it did. What was he doing that tested and strained him at age 69 to the point that ultimately he succumbed?  

He took the most difficult job the U.S. government had to offer: serving as the president and the secretary of state’s personal envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was not the most glorious job available in the government. It was not the secretary of state job which had nearly been his before, a post at which he would undoubtedly have excelled. It was almost impossible to imagine how one could be successful at this business of trying to make a success of a seemingly unending war in one of the world’s most hostile, complex, and baffling regions. But Holbrooke knew it had to be done. He knew that his experience, beginning with his early years as a young Foreign Service officer in Vietnam, would be of direct relevance. And he relished the challenges associated with what was the diplomatic equivalent of the Gordian knot. And so he set to work doing that insurmountable, confounding task with that massive energy and intelligence and creativity and humor of his, even without the full support of all those with which he worked or the allies he had hoped to help. 

He created a shop in the State Department that was a prototype of how the U.S. government should be run. It brought together people from every agency into one unified team that defied the old maxim of government that "where you sit is where you stand." The silos were broken down.  When the attempted terror attack took place in Times Square, because he had folks from the FBI and the intelligence community on his team and they could put it in context, they were among the first to brief Secretary Clinton. The very structure of the unit he created was so innovative that one hopes that after he is gone it is remembered and recreated as the right way to tackle a complex, multidimensional foreign-policy problem.

Each time I saw him during the past year, he would coax and cajole me to come see this team at work, to see the great team he had put together. He said it again just a week ago and I promised I would come after the New Year.  And then this horrible thing happened — he was there one minute and gone the next. 

To say that it is too soon is a terrible and useless and empty cliché. For the family he loved so dearly, he is irreplaceable. But you know, we really could have used having him around a little longer. And by we, I mean, us, America. He was a grown up and a wise man working in an area of U.S. foreign policy where both distinctions put him in the minority. 

In fact, perhaps that term "wise man" is one that we should not pass over too quickly. Holbrooke was a direct descendent of that line of U.S. foreign-policy thinkers who earned that title, one made famous by Walter Issacson and Evan Thomas in their great book on the seminal foreign- policy thinkers of the post World War II era. In fact, he was a scholar of that era, having co-written with Clark Clifford his memoir of that era, Counsel to the President. But more than that, he was a lifelong student of foreign policy, writing several terrific books, dozens of incisive articles and columns and, of course, having served for five years as editor of Foreign Policy — a fact that was commemorated at FP‘s recent 40th anniversary celebration with, as it turns out, inadequate appreciation given how soon he would be gone.

He also worked on Wall Street, led the Asia Society, and helped revitalize the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. 

And then for each and every one of us writing and speaking eulogies, he did some other great or small thing, something just for us, elevating us with his friendship and generosity of spirit or, in some cases, improving us with his toughness or candor.  For me, it was the former, over and over again whether he was helping me enormously on my last two books — not just providing interviews, but reading chapters, offering advice and guidance — or whether he was chairing the advisory board of my last company… or whether, during our meetings over the last few years over lunch or breakfast or a drink, he was simply sharing his great humor and the odd bit of gossip and the very best advice one could hope to receive.

And of course, as is always the case, while the focus of the eulogies will be the great achievements, what breaks the heart are the tiny fragments of the man that continue to shine on in our memories. Incongruous and unexpected bits and pieces of a life.  Mischievousness and warmth. Bursts of irresistible enthusiasm. Insights so sharp you could cut yourself on them. Those things don’t translate so well. They’re a bit too personal. But with a guy who touched as many lives as did Holbrooke, they are the reason today that so many eulogies will be written or spoken or just quietly considered. Some tinged with regret, some with the phantom pain of old wounds.  Some with glittering memories or gratitude. But all with an unmistakable sense of the loss of a great, wise man who will be sorely missed and who by departing with uncharacteristically bad timing has made the work of the world more than a little bit harder.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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