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Holbrooke Memorial Draws Obama, Clintons

President praises him for bringing peace to the Balkans while others remember the heroic, irascible side of the late diplomat.


Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke answers questions from the media in August. His achievements for peace and his legendary determination were mourned at the Kennedy Center.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Updated at 5:30 p.m. on January 14.

Richard C. Holbrooke, a doctor’s son who fought tenaciously to end wars on three continents for five decades and achieved a legendary status far eclipsing his official titles, was remembered on Friday as a tireless worker for peace and as a diplomat who President Obama said “made a difference.”


“His legacy is seen in the children of Bosnia who lived to raise children of their own and in a Europe that is peaceful, united, and free,” said Obama of the man who was his special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It was the last mission undertook by Holbrooke, who died in December shortly after surgery to repair a torn aorta. He was 69 and a veteran of so many high-level diplomatic missions that even 14 speakers at his memorial service could barely touch upon them all.

The president was the sixth speaker, following Holbrooke's widow, the author Kati Marton, two sons, and a stepdaughter to the lectern in a service spiced with humor and recollections of a man who Obama said was a person of “complexity.”


“In many ways,” said the president, “he was the leading light of a generation of American diplomats who came of age in Vietnam” and who “came to know both the tragic limits and awesome possibilities of American power.”

Holbrooke, he added, had “a hardheaded, clear-eyed realism about how the world works. He was not naïve.” But, Obama continued, Holbrooke always carried to his missions an unshakable belief that “America has a unique responsibility in the course  of human events.”

The service for Holbrooke was unprecedented in modern Washington. The closest parallel may have been the state funeral-like send-off given to the late Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post. A man little known to the American public and someone who never achieved the lofty titles or many of the jobs that he sought (most notably secretary of State) Holbrooke nonetheless was given a memorial service that drew to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts a glittering array of big names from around the world. Many had anecdotes chronicling Holbrooke’s over-sized ego and often-infuriating tenacity; all had praise for his role in making the world safer and more peaceful.

In attendance were two U.S. presidents, the secretary of State, prime ministers, and other world leaders whose countries had been touched during Holbrooke’s long career. Former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell could be spied in the audience. It was an assemblage of clout and prestige unseen at any recent Washington funeral for any official short of a president – a remarkable final accomplishment for a man whose highest official title was his brief stint as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the final year of the Clinton administration.


But Holbrooke never relied on his official title. His influence came from his tenacity and a bullheadedness that gave him the nickname “The Bulldozer.”     

Holbrooke served under four Democratic presidents: Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Obama. His hand could be seen in efforts to resolve most of the major conflicts of the era, from his work as a junior aide at the Paris talks aimed at ending the Vietnam War, to his days as architect of the 1995 Dayton Accords to end the war in Bosnia, to his mission to Africa to halt combat in the Congo, and, finally, to the work that consumed him in his final days when he was working to end the war in Afghanistan.

His attention to foreign policy began modestly and only because The New York Times would not hire him to start the career he desired as a reporter. Fresh out of college, he instead joined the Foreign Service. He spent six years in Vietnam, starting in the Mekong Valley and learning lessons on aid and development that he later tried to put in place in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He served two U.S. ambassadors to Vietnam before joining Johnson’s White House staff and going off to Paris for the peace talks.

Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, who met earlier in the day with Obama at the White House, attended the service.  So did Vice President Joe Biden, the former ministers of Sweden and Afghanistan, and several ambassadors. Among the speakers were former President Clinton, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Adm. Mike Mullen, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

If any anecdote captured the indefatigable Holbrooke it was the one told by Annan, who led the U.N. when Holbrooke was ambassador there. Annan drew laughter when he recalled how Holbrooke managed to persuade then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms to relent and permit the United States to pay its dues to the world body. First, Holbrooke arranged for the conservative senator to address the Security Council. “What I did not realize was that part of the deal was that I should go and speak at Jesse Helms’s alma mater,” said Annan, who made the trek to tiny Wingate, N.C., to speak at the Jesse Helms Center at Wingate University. Bill Clinton echoed the anecdote, wondering aloud how Holbrooke got Helms to cough up funding for the international organization he had long criticized.

That, said Annan, was “the beauty and the power of Richard’s unique brand of diplomacy.”

Secretary of State Clinton concluded the two-hour service by recalling her many flights with Holbrooke. “What was most memorable was that on many flights he would disappear into the restroom and then emerge having changed out of his sober business suit into what he called his sleeping suit. It was bright yellow. And he would brief the press in it,” she said. “The rest of us would shrug. That’s Richard being Richard. There simply was no one like him anywhere in the world.”


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