Richard Holbrooke: a complicated man but one who stood up for public service

The media portrayals miss the real person, someone who could be prickly and extremely ambitious. But he was also a public servant who performed at a high level for a long time, who cared about doing constructive work, and who could be counted on to tackle the hardest assignments.

The media portrayals miss the real person, someone who could be prickly and extremely ambitious. But he was also a public servant who performed at a high level for a long time, who cared about doing constructive work, and who could be counted on to tackle the hardest assignments.

The electronic and print commentary about Ambasador Richard Holbrooke's death on Monday has come for the most part from people who knew him only in his official roles. The real person seems missing.

Holbrooke, 69 when he died, held a long series of key diplomatic positions, only the most recent of which was his role as the State Department's Pakistan/Afghan czar. He also made money on Wall Street, wrote books and articles, avidly sought publicity, and was a complex character worthy of a serious biography. He was the single most ambitious person I ever have met in public service, exceeding in that regard any presidential candidate. But he also had a genuine desire to serve and I never doubted for a moment that he not only wanted to be important but also wanted to do constructive, important things.

I first met Holbrooke early in 1965, while I was serving as then-Vice President Hubert  Humphrey's assistant. Holbrooke, seven years younger than I, at that time was a junior National Security Council staff member in the Lyndon B. Johnson White House, working for Bob Komer, who ran Operation Phoenix and other covert, hard-side programs in the Vietnam War.  (That was a remarkably talented NSC staff including, among others, Larry Eagleburger, who later would serve as President Bush the Elder's secretary of state).

The Komer/Holbrooke office was just down the hall from the Vice President's suite and Holbrooke frequently stopped by my office.  He already at that point was an active networker.  On one occasion he saw on my wall a large relief map of Vietnam.  He asked if he could have it.  The next day, as I passed the Komer/Holbrooke office door, I saw it in their reception area, hanging above an AK-47 rifle. Later Holbrooke would identify himself as an avid Vietnam dove. While working for Komer, he had been a part of the most hawkish side of that war.

In subsequent years I encountered Holbrooke often. After his LBJ administration stint, he left the Foreign Service and cast his career lot with Democratic presidential aspirants.  He volunteered for presidential campaigns I was serving as policy director or platform coordinator.  Holbrooke made his career breakthrough when, after the 1976 election of President Jimmy Carter, he was named Assistant Secretary for Asian Affairs by a former boss, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.  (Holbrooke had been a staff member for Averell Harriman and Vance during their time as Vietnam peace negotiators in Paris).

During the same period I was coordinating Executive Branch foreign-assistance programs and writing speeches for Vance.  At one point, Holbrooke suggested I join him on an early-1977 confidential mission to Hanoi. I figured he wanted me to commit foreign aid to the Hanoi regime and I declined the trip, thinking it premature. Later, after President Reagan's inaugural, Vance was chair and I president of an unofficial Democratic Party think-tank; Holbrooke was the first to volunteer for work on a foreign-policy task force.

Holbrooke's highest moment came with the Balkan peace settlement, which he achieved after long and taxing negotiations in Dayton, Ohio. The so-called Dayton Accords came at a time when all had given up on them. Later in the Clinton Administration, Secretary of State Warren Christopher resigned.  Holbrooke, former Democratic Senate leader and Northern Ireland peace negotiator George Mitchell, and U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright were finalists as his replacement. Of the three, Holbrooke had by far the longest and deepest foreign-policy exerience.

But Albright, backed by Hillary Clinton, who had sponsored her earlier for the U.N. job, was chosen. It was a hard blow for Holbrooke. (He obviously drew a lesson from the experience, signing up early for Hillary's 2008 presidential nominating campaign against Barack Obama).

Holbrooke was a highly intelligent person, with great energy and physical endurance, and with good writing skills. His internal written and research work, as I observed it, however, often was late or careless.  He compensated for that with a plowing-forward, relentless operating style that pushed obstacles — and slower or less aggressive career competitors — aside. Those who worked for or with him will recount many stories featuring Holbrooke as bully or opportunist.

I never personally encountered Holbrooke's prickly side, however, until he had written a biography of former Defense Secretary and Washington, D.C. insider Clark Clifford. He gave me an autographed copy of the book and asked that I flag any mistakes or misinterpretations in it; he would correct them in a second printing.  When I did as he asked, however, he sent back a long and angry letter defending every particular of his original copy.
Was Holbrooke brilliant? No more than many others. Was he effective? Yes. Did he have a fulfilling life?  Hard to say. He had three marriages and, thus, was often separated from two sons he loved dearly. Friends and colleagues from his early career became alienated or fell away as he rose. He never got to be Secretary of State, which was his life goal.

Someone once asked me, as prospective appointees were being discussed, if Holbrooke would be a good Secretary of State. I said no, his ego would cloud his judgment on sensitive issues. But, I said, he should be given the most challenging, difficult assignments imaginable because he would regard failure in them as simply unacceptable. 
He came through on the Balkans. I suspect the frustrations and possibilities of failure with his Pakistan-Afghanistan assignment contributed to the fatal attack he experienced last weekend. Dick Holbrooke, as many others at or near the top, was a driven man of many parts. The bottom line should read that he never stopped pushing and performed public service, over a long period, at a high level. And, in a real fight or tight spot, he was a man to have on your side.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of