The Tragedy of Richard Holbrooke
The mismatch between an old foreign-policy hand and a new president: An excerpt from James Mann’s The Obamians.
In their beliefs, then, the two men turned out to be not too far apart. In their personalities, however, they were strikingly different. Holbrooke was aggressive, emotional, dramatic, persistent, preoccupied with the personal, and consumed with whatever was happening at that moment. Obama remained cool, restrained, impersonal, far less swept up in the news coverage of the day, more preoccupied with long-term strategy, more driven to challenge established political power.
* * *
Kristoffer Tripplaar/Getty Images.
The memorial service for Holbrooke, held at the Kennedy Center, was a Washington event like few others. This was in some ways surprising. By way of comparison, three months later Holbrooke’s former boss, Warren Christopher, died. During his Washington career, Christopher had held two jobs, secretary of state and deputy secretary, that Holbrooke, despite his aspirations, never reached. Christopher also ran the high-level negotiations that brought American hostages home from Iran in early 1981. Yet in the nation’s capital, Christopher’s death was a one-day story; no big memorial service commemorated his life. Holbrooke, by contrast, had the biggest, mostly highly attended Washington memorial service of any political or foreign-policy leader since the state funerals of Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari flew in from Pakistan for the ceremonies, along with other foreign-policy luminaries.
President Obama spoke in Holbrooke’s honor, and so did both Bill and Hillary Clinton. All of them praised Holbrooke, yet there was also a certain undertone to the proceedings, the legacy of his difficult time in the Obama administration. Holbrooke had been one of the stars of the Clinton administration; in the Obama administration, he was forced into the limited role of a character actor. To the Clintons and their associates, Holbrooke was Our Crowd; to the Obama administration he was Their Crowd.
Bill Clinton gave a speech that was typically effusive (“I loved the guy. … If you knew him, you had to love him”), but also pointed and obliquely political, with remarks that could have been aimed at Obama: Although Holbrooke had a few “rough edges,” the former president said, “I could never understand people who didn’t appreciate him.” (Left unsaid was that Bill Clinton himself had passed over Holbrooke for secretary of state at least twice in 1992 and 1996—three times, if one includes the time in 1994 that Clinton tried unsuccessfully to bring in Colin Powell as secretary of state.) Hillary Clinton, her face strikingly animated, both warm and sad, spoke of Holbrooke in personal terms, smiling at his foibles: “He’d walk into meetings to which he was not invited, act like he was meant to be there, and just start talking.” When he did something no one else would do, she said, she and her associates would just say, “That’s Richard being Richard.”
It was Obama who sought to put Holbrooke into a broader context, one that went beyond his personality. He depicted Holbrooke against the background of American foreign policy and the generational changes within it. “In many ways, he was the leading light of a generation of American diplomats who came of age in Vietnam,” said Obama. “It was a generation that came to know both the tragic limits and awesome possibilities of American power—born at a time of triumph in World War II; steeped in the painful lessons of Southeast Asia; participants in the struggle that led ultimately to freedom’s triumph during the Cold War.”
In the days afterward, some of Holbrooke’s friends and the Clinton crowd murmured privately that Obama had been off key, that he seemed too aloof in speaking about Holbrooke, that he had been graceful but a bit stinting with his praise. After a few more months, Holbrooke’s friends and family became more public in criticizing the Obama White House. He “was effectively gagged, unable to comment on what he saw as missteps of the Obama administration that he served,” wrote Nicholas Kristof.
Holbrooke had indeed been gagged, prevented from appearing on news shows or talking on the record to the news media—although had he been allowed to appear, he would almost certainly have publicly praised and defended the administration in which he served. From the perspective of the Obama White House, Holbrooke had been reined in because, merely by appearing regularly on the talk shows, he would have called attention to himself and assumed more power than the president and his aides were willing to hand over. They did not want Holbrooke to shape the stories that were written or told about the administration, the narratives that they wanted to control on their own. It turned out that the only drama in which Holbrooke had the lead role during the Obama administration was his own tragedy.
Holbrooke’s widow Kati Marton told the Kristof that Holbrooke had compared Afghanistan to Vietnam. “He thought that this could become Obama’s Vietnam,” she said. “Some of the conversations in the Situation Room reminded him of conversations in the Johnson White House. When he raised that, Obama didn’t want to hear it.”
He certainly didn’t.
Excerpted from The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power. Published by Viking. Copyright James Mann, 2012.
Correction, June 14, 2012: This article originally misspelled the first name of Averell Harriman.
James Mann is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of The Obamians.