Richard Holbrooke: An American in Full

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic (right) talks with Richard Holbrooke in Belgrade, October 1995. Holbrooke was U.S. assistant secretary of state at the time. Dragan Jevremovic / AP

The tributes to Richard Holbrooke now pouring in are out of proportion to the various positions he held over the years as an assistant secretary and ambassador. They are more befitting a cabinet officer or even head of state than a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, arguably the most grueling and thankless job in the whole government.

And yet Holbrooke belongs to a tiny group of diplomats—men like George Kennan and Chip Bohlen—who shaped their times without ever achieving cabinet rank.

With the WikiLeaks revelations casting a harsh light on the work of diplomats, Holbrooke's career is a useful reminder that we depend on indefatigable men and women working killer hours with killer travel to keep us all from getting killed by war or terrorism.

He was 69 when he died, but the news came as a great shock to his many friends of all ages, as if a gale-force wind suddenly stopped blowing in Washington, New York, and foreign capitals.

President Obama never clicked with Holbrooke personally, but he wasn't exaggerating when he said, "There are millions of people around the world whose lives have been saved and enriched by his work."

Hillary Clinton, who would have appointed Holbrooke secretary of state had she been elected (the same was true of Al Gore and John Kerry), called him "a true statesman" and "the consummate diplomat, able to stare down dictators and stand up for American interests and values even under the most difficult circumstances."

Bill Clinton, who first shunted Holbrooke off as ambassador to Germany but came to view him as one of the most talented members of his administration, credited him with helping to end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, breaking a stalemate in Cyprus, and refashioning the United Nations: "Our nation is safer, and our world stronger, because of the work he did."

But the tributes missed something about Holbrooke, and not just that he could be an overbearing SOB if you crossed him. He was arguably the last of a dying breed—an immensely vital, passionate, larger-than-life American; more loyal to his superiors than his critics claimed, but always his own, self-created man. He was the kind of ambitious and voracious character who helped build this country and kept it strong, and whose likes we rarely see anymore in high places—a Theodore Roosevelt for our times.

We live in a washed-out PC world where nobody in government wants to say the wrong thing, so they say nothing at all. Holbrooke, by contrast, was all bright colors even when forced into diplo-speak. For all his legendary sensitivity to criticism, he seemed unfazed by the jealousy and resentment directed toward him. He was a big man with a big engine and big things to do, no matter what the hell anyone else thought.

The largeness of spirit was infectious. Exposure to Holbrooke and his accomplished wife, Kati Marton, both children of immigrants, could make even the most materialistic banker or apathetic slacker feel engaged in the serious business of trying to fix at least a little corner of the globe. From the time he was a cocky young development officer in South Vietnam's Mekong Delta, Holbrooke made his presence felt, from staffing the Paris peace talks in 1968 to mastering the nuances of Afghan agriculture in 2010. In between, he helped smooth the integration of West and East Germany, charmed Sen. Jesse Helms enough to keep the U.N. solvent, and organized businesses to combat AIDS, to mention only a few of his victories.

"Everywhere he put his foot down, he left a monstrous footprint," his friend Mort Janklow said of him last night.

Holbrooke died with those boots on, trying to end the war in Afghanistan and bring stability to nuclear Pakistan, the most dangerous country in the world. He wasn't succeeding in this final mission, and the unglamorous travel—16-hour flights in military planes with innards like cattle cars—began to take its toll. Barbara Walters introduced him to Paul McCartney at the Kennedy Center Honors on Dec. 6. "I worried that he looked so pasty and heavy," Walters said. He was suffering from blood clots. Marton vowed that they would retreat to a country inn for the holidays to relax and recharge.

Did the job kill him? As he began to recite his travel schedule to Janklow—Islamabad, Washington, Kandahar, Kabul, Berlin, New York—it was hard to believe otherwise. From the start of the Obama administration, he had been haunted by Vietnam and skeptical of the AfPak mission. But he had soldiered on, bound by loyalty to Hillary and an implacable sense of duty.

On the morning of Dec. 10, Holbrooke was working on the seventh floor of the State Department near Hillary Clinton's office when he suffered a ruptured aorta and was rushed to George Washington University Hospital, where he underwent nearly 30 hours of surgery over two days that would have left him seriously impaired had he managed to live.

As it happened, Holbrooke was scheduled to have lunch with me that day at the Hay-Adams Hotel. The man I would have dined with was the same Holbrooke known to countless other journalists, young diplomats (he was a legendary mentor), friends, and foreign leaders—blunt, teasing, wide-ranging, acerbic, mischievous, browbeating, strategic, historical, and, above all, intensely committed to advancing peace and American interests.

He was a terrific source, and not because he leaked. His talent was analyzing the complex interplay of policy and personality around the world in a way that made even the dullest stories pulse with drama and importance. This was true whether he was in government at the time or watching events from the private sector.

Inside the Obama administration, he suffered for consorting too much with reporters. He quickly learned that the "no-drama Obama" style meant he must subordinate himself or leave. By the end of his life, colleagues who had once been appalled by what they considered his prima donna games eventually came to admire him, just as so many had before them.

Still, he intended to leave soon to write his memoirs. Janklow, his agent, told him he could write only one volume, not two. It's distressing to consider how much illuminating diplomatic history will now go unwritten.

Unlike most government officials, he wrote well, even when ghosting. The chapter in Clark Clifford's memoirs (written by Holbrooke) describing Harry Truman's decision to recognize the state of Israel is the best narrative available of that historic decision.

Holbrooke was often accused of taking himself too seriously. "The ego has landed," staffers would say when he returned to Foggy Bottom after touching down from some godforsaken "stan."

"He had a way of appearing supercilious or arrogant, but he could also be so warm and caring," Walters said, in comments echoed by a long list of unfamous friends and aides who remain hugely loyal. He was a generous and amusing host. Young people in particular remember how he would carefully listen to their often ill-informed views, showing patience with them that he often lacked in dealing with clueless colleagues.

He possessed a bottomless curiosity about both high and low culture. "I will remember Richard Holbrooke singing," Stephen Colbert said last night. "Willie Nelson and I were having a war of words over our competing Ben & Jerry's flavors, and Richard gamely agreed to come on the Report to broker a peace."

My own favorite memory of him dates from the 1990s, when he famously tongue-lashed Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. I was with him the night in 1995 when he returned to New York from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, after brokering a peace agreement between warring factions in Bosnia. This was the greatest American diplomatic triumph in years (and arguably hasn't been equaled since). Holbrooke was practically carried into an International Rescue Committee banquet on a litter. Huzzahs all around.

I wanted to know the secret of the breakthrough. He explained to me in the car over to Nightline how, after the talks broke down, he instructed the U.S. delegates to leave their luggage curbside so that the Serbs, Muslims, and Croats would think the U.S. was departing. That would have meant a humiliating defeat for all sides. The brilliant bluff worked, and the parties returned to the table.

But instead of savoring the triumph, which many foreign-policy analysts believed should have led to a Nobel Peace Prize, Holbrooke berated me for a negative article that someone else had written about him in NEWSWEEK. The histrionics continued as he got out of the car, went into makeup, and sat down to talk to Ted Koppel. I had to admire the multitasking.

The last time I saw him was at a State Department conference he organized this fall on Vietnam, the country deepest in his blood. Before an audience that included dovish American academics and Vietnamese generals, he delivered a subtle but tough critique of our disastrous policy. The highlight of the day was an address by Henry Kissinger, his first on the topic in years.

Holbrooke was friends with Kissinger, but he remained unflinchingly honest in his appraisal. Kissinger's speech was decent enough, Holbrooke whispered to me, but he blew it in the Q&A. No excuses or rationalizations. If you didn't meet his standards, he could be merciless.

Richard Holbrooke was a proud specimen of our national character—relentless, expansive, and sensibly patriotic. An American in full, who served his country long and well.

Jonathan Alter is also the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One and The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.