Every once in a while, amid all the stories about Osama bin Laden and the U.S. war on terrorism, I am reminded of one very sad fact: Richard Holbrooke, the president’s special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, is no longer with us.
Granted, it has been almost six months since his untimely passing, but it still doesn’t seem real – and it certainly doesn’t seem right. And while death is always hard to understand and accept, his seems particularly disconcerting.
After all, Holbrooke was larger-than-life and an indefatigable force of nature. As one of our nation’s most influential and experienced foreign policy practitioners, he had played key roles in some of the most important issues of our day. And as one of the most visionary and effective people in government, he was often able to make the impossible possible.
Fortunately for me, I knew Holbrooke and had the opportunity to work for him at the United Nations. As his deputy communications director, I worked closely with him, traveled with him, and attended many events and meetings with him. For about 18 months, I basically had a front row seat and was able to experience some of his extraordinary work firsthand.
â€¢ when Holbrooke declared January 2000 “The Month of Africa” at the United Nations – taking a seemingly unprecedented theme-based approach to his turn as president of the Security Council;
â€¢ when Holbrooke pushed past critics in the U.S. government and at the United Nations to organize a Security Council meeting on HIV/AIDS – the first such meeting on a health issue;
â€¢ when Holbrooke helped pave the way for Israel – the only country effectively shut out from full participation in U.N. bodies – to achieve its rightful place among all other members;
â€¢ in the Democratic Republic of Congo when Holbrooke led a U.N. delegation to convince that country’s leader to allow a U.N. peacekeeping presence;
â€¢ in Ethiopia and Eritrea when Holbrooke led a two-day mission of shuttle diplomacy to prevent a resumption of fighting between these neighbors;
â€¢ in North Carolina when Holbrooke spent a weekend courting former Sen. Jesse Helms, an outspoken opponent of the United Nations – a trip that led to the senator’s support for U.S. membership in the world body;
â€¢ and day-in and day-out when Holbrooke would speak passionately and act decisively on issues ranging from the plight of refugees to war crimes to women’s human rights.
In other words, on so many occasions and in so many profoundly important ways, I was there to experience greatness.
To be sure, I know that he had his critics. I know that he rubbed some people the wrong way. But I also know that there is a large community of contemporaries and protÃ©gÃ©s who knew his brilliance, felt his compassion, and appreciated the sense of purpose and sense of urgency that he brought to every issue.
To us, Holbrooke was living proof that a great mind and a great heart are not mutually exclusive.
Following our working relationship, we remained friends. Once in, no one ever seemed to leave Holbrooke’s world. When I applied for a position with then incoming Gov. Jim McGreevey, Holbrooke proactively called my soon-to-be-boss to speak on my behalf. When I ran for Congress, he headlined two of my events, including a house party in Tenafly. When I lost that race, he picked up the phone and called me.
Holbrooke was many things to many people – a father, husband, and friend; a statesman, diplomat, and peacemaker. But to me and to so many of my friends and colleagues, he was – and will always be – a mentor, an inspiration, and an example.
For that, we are grateful. For that, we are better.