Remembering Richard Holbrooke a Year after His Death

Holbrooke was an indispensable diplomat .

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The bell tolls, the world weeps for Richard Holbrooke. 

He made the earth seem small in his exuberant embrace, 
holding a cell phone and flashing the blues. 
Wish there were time and world enough for one more set before day is done, 
before the last battle is lost—or won. 
We will have for company a spirit that shall never be extinguished.  
Yet just now, days before the winter solstice, the world is sadder, duller and darker— 
and yes, lonelier without you, Richard Holbrooke. 
One year ago to this day, Holbrooke's heart stopped beating, leaving the world of time. If America is still the indispensable nation, he was the indispensable American diplomat. He was 69.

As he would have wished, Holbrook was on the playing field when he fell—in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's office in a meeting on Afghanistan and Pakistan, two of the darkest corners of the world. President Obama asked him to be special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and somehow light that darkness.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Holbrooke was the champion of muscular diplomacy, dealing with war criminals directly to bring peace to Bosnia during the Clinton '90s. The architect of the 1995 Dayton Accords after months of shuttle diplomacy in the Balkans, he brought three antagonistic presidents together at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in the Midwest—Ohio—and ended a war. Or, he made a peace.

The city of Sarajevo, the gem of Europe's roughest neighborhood, could sleep at night. Sixteen years later, Dayton proudly calls itself the city of peace.

There are many who will tell you the brilliant Holbrooke deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for this. There are more who will say he deserved to be Secretary of State. The forceful Holbrooke himself might tell you these things. Modesty did not become him.

[See pictures of Hillary Clinton in Myanmar.]

This is not an obituary. This is simply to say how much he was loved and how much he is missed in the city of suits which he enlivened. I recently went to an event at Politics and Prose bookstore where Strobe Talbott, his old friend, and Kati Marton, his widow, spoke to us as if they were telling stories by a fireplace. There was fond, knowing laughter even among those who never met the man. It felt personal, because Holbrooke made everything personal, and that may be his greatest gift.

"Richard had a dog in pretty much every fight," Marton said with a smile.

If he mentored you, as he mentored scores of younger people, you might get tough love on a paper you wrote, while a United Nations meeting waited. Samantha Power, a human rights expert on the National Security Council, tells of just such a compelling session. In a book of remembrance she co-edited of writings by and about Holbrooke, The Unquiet American, readers can hear him speak again in his unmistakeable voice.

[Read the U.S. News debate on whether Pakistan is a reliable ally.]

It's well known that Holbrooke's intense, urgent, and spirited style of diplomacy—warning of another Vietnam War in Afghanistan—did not work wonders with President Obama, a coolly elegant and feline character. The emotive President Clinton and Holbrooke connected much more easily and freely, with a robust mutual humor and understanding. In his last mission of public service, many people wondered why his office in the status-heavy State Department was on the first floor near the cafeteria. Holbrooke was not one of those people.

But I was one of those who never met Holbrooke, but felt the cut of his death.

I wrote the words above in the grief of the moment and sent them to Steven Clemons, the Washington policy denizen, close to Holbrooke. This was a year ago.

The next day, Steve told me he was with Holbrooke's family at a small gathering when he received my E-mail message and had actually shown it to his wife and sons. Moments after I wrote the words, they read them.

The amazing, swift connection in world and time—that was pure Holbrooke.

  • See photos of soldiers returning home from Iraq
  • See a collection of political cartoons on the turmoil in the Middle East.
  • See pictures of NATO protests in Pakistan