Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Richard Holbrooke: RIP

Holbrooke and Albright

Sorry to have to say this, but I think that Richard Holbrooke's last assignment literally broke his heart. At the very least, his physical heart, because inside he was a cold calculating mind-bot with a monster IQ and an ego as big as all outdoors. During my FSO career of decades, I had cause to interact with Holbrooke on a number of occasions, including two menage-a-trois lunches in Lyon, France, where we dined a good part of the afternoon drinking fine wine and aperitifs. Those were the two times I saw the charming and witty Holbrooke, but he was a man of parts, and some of those parts didn't mesh with those working under him. Years after our lunches, I was there when the third member of the menage-a-trois in Lyon reminded Holbrooke of the long lunches and he totally stiffed me, looking over me [he may have been 6'5"] as though I weren't there. He was famous for that mile-long gaze over anyone he didn't want to continue a conversation with. While I worked as a special assistant, I found that he had become a snob who partied harder than he worked while he was Asst. Sec'y of State for East Asia, when he rarely showed up for the 9AM senior staff meetings I attended. At the time he was shacking up with Diane Sawyer and a couple of other newsladies as I found out later. And living at the Harriman mansion on N St. where Pamela presided over the festivities. He cut a socially adept figure, even though Les Gelb's famous apothegm, "the rumors that Dick Holbrooke is half-Jewish are half-true."

Actually, during his Pamela H. and Richard H. were a matched pair of layabout socialite snobs, with the caveat that Richard could work hard when he put his mind to it and exerted his considerable powers of will and coercion. His ability to fake his way through meetings where he hadn't read the preliminary 'take' of the morning was awesome, according to his Senior Deputy Asst. Sec'y of East Asia, and his willingness to go the extra mile to achieve a step up the ladder was legendary. After resigning with the departure of Carter, a risky thing to do for a career FSO, he used his regional expertise to take off a few years during the '80s to be an investment banker, which make him a wealthy man, though he never abandoned his liberal [hypocritical?] posture. He projected the imago of a master of the universe, which his subsequent career during the Reagan years at Lehman Bros. as an investment banker exemplified. Indeed, I ran into him doing lunches at The Four Seasons in Georgetown on a number of occasions while I was working at Drexel Burnham as a consultant. I even was invited into the mahogany-panelled offices of Lehman Bros. by then-partner George Ball, who was among those who might have been partners-in-capitalist-crime with Holbrooke at the time. Bonfire of the Vanities and all was vanity, as Tom Wolfe told me when he autographed his book and I asked him about the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test with the Merry Pranksters, but I digress.

His drive and abitlity to work hard and his fierce almost narcissistic conviction that he was the smartest person in the room did give him an edge which the Dayton Accords proved could produce big diplomatic breakthroughs. He went back into government under the Clintons and would have been Hillary's SecState if she'd won the nomination and election in 2008. That would have made him the second FSO, after Larry Eagleburger, his contemporary and an ardent conservative, to have attained that position. Larry, coincidentally is from my native Wisconsin and his wife, a Heinemann, whom he met overseas in Belgrade, lived on my Sentinel paper route in Wauwatosa during my youth [so did Red Schoendienst and Henry Aaron, for a short time]. But I digress. I heard many Eagleburger stories during my stint in Vietnam and I have to admire Holbrooke, to wrap this up, for mastering the Vietnamese language, which is much harder than Chinese, as my linguist brother assured me [he spoke both very well] and which I studied desultorily before spending two years in CORDS.

I also remember that he would chat up my girlfriend of the moment, Elva Morgan, Cy Vance's executive sec'y and try to get in to see Vance by cajoling Elva. She would fend him off as though he were a pest, and he was only an Asst. SecState at the time. Karzai did the same and Holbrooke worked the press to convince them that Karzai, who is a normal wheeler-dealer in the old Afghan Pesh Jurga tradition, is a monstrous crook. He did the same with Mushareff and his successor Zardari in Pakistan, both of whom also, protestations to the contrary, have no love lost for Holbrooke and will be frankly glad he's gone. This was confided to me by a long-time senior official in Foggy Bottom, who adds that the PM of India, Manomhan Singh [sp?] is also not a great admirer. Unfortunately, it takes an indefatigable a-hole like Holbrooke to work the US will in that far-off part of the world and even with his manifold shortcomings and abrasiveness, he will be missed.

I can remember during one of his lunches in Lyon while he was heading the Peace Corps in Morocco, he had tried to persuade me to buy a subscription to Foreign Policy, a mag he had done the heavy lifting to jump-start the year before his Moroccan holiday. I told him I'd just that very morning subscribed to The Rolling Stone magazine and said I'd think about it. He didn't handle the rejection very well as I remember, and perhaps that's the reason he stiff-armed me five years later in Foggy Bottom in a seventh floor office next to the Sec'y of State.

No comments :