Opinion
8:49 am
Wed November 2, 2011

Foreign Policy: Remembering The Unquiet American

Originally published on Wed November 2, 2011 7:36 am

Strobe Talbott is the president of the Brookings Institution.

Richard Holbrooke came as a package. To know the man in full was to appreciate the most important contents. His was a unique combination of talent, intellect, energy, courage, conviction, gumption, panache, and compassion. Many of those who "got" Richard were confident that he would, someday, receive proper credit for the contributions he made to his country and the world. However, few of us anticipated how quickly that would happen once he was gone. It certainly came as a surprise to me, and it would have been considerable consolation to him, especially since his last mission — as President Barack Obama's and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan — had been as thankless as it was grueling.

The State Department's announcement of his death early in the evening of Dec. 13, 2010, triggered an outpouring of testimonials from around the world and from the various realms in which he had been a seismic presence: from heads of state and international luminaries; from representatives of humanitarian organizations, especially those that fought for the rights of refugees and battled against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria; and from journalists and columnists who not only wrote about him, used him as a source, and let him use them to advance his many causes, but who also saw him as a master of their trade.

In those weeks of mourning, my mind kept going back two decades, to a crisp Sunday morning in the spring of 1991, near the end of Richard's long interlude on Wall Street when Republicans controlled the White House. My wife Brooke and I were spending a weekend at a home with a tennis court and pool that Richard owned in one of the plummier exurban communities of central Connecticut. After a vigorous set of Canadian doubles and a swim, we went to a brunch at a neighbor's house. Richard's eyes lit up when he saw that their recreational facilities included a trampoline on the far side of a manicured lawn. After hastily paying respects to our hosts, he excused himself, went back outside, pulled off his shoes, rolled up the cuffs of his slacks, and clambered onto the canvas. He insisted that I join him. The result was an exceedingly amateurish blend of gymnastic duet and duel — sometimes semicoordinated, sometimes dangerously competitive, and constantly accompanied by talk, most of it coming from Richard.

The subject, naturally, was world affairs. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were coming apart at the seams. Richard was overflowing with observations, historical analogies, and, above all, strong opinions about how the U.S. government was responding. He was scathing about the George H. W. Bush administration's passivity toward the upheaval in the Balkans, which was careening into genocidal mayhem, but he gave the president high marks for supporting Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms that would soon lead to the largely peaceful disintegration of the USSR.

The incident was an antic example of Richard's knack for combining serious business with exuberant pleasure. His business was his pleasure; and, whatever his day job, the only business he really cared about was foreign policy. The work he so desperately wanted to do all his life was fun, even when it was exhausting. Partly for that reason, being his friend was also fun — and, often, also exhausting. That may be why it didn't seem entirely zany to us to be discussing the meltdown of European communism while bouncing into the air, sweating profusely, risking bodily harm, and caring not a whit about what the other guests, peering out the window, thought about the spectacle.

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