I covered Richard Holbrooke for the Boston Globe when he was U.N. ambassador from 1999 to early 2001. I've covered about a dozen U.S. ambassadors at the U.N. since 1990. Holbrooke was the most engaging of them all.
One afternoon he invited me for lunch at his residence in the Waldorf. There were only about 20 people there. Among them were Arlen Specter and Tom Lantos. When I was searching for my place card among the handful of representatives of the media I saw my name grouped with A.M. Rosenthal, Mort Zuckerman and pre-mayor Mike Bloomberg. I was shocked that he included me among that group. But that was Holbrooke.
He operated through the sheer force of his personality. He was not unknown to employ flattery among his tactics. It usually worked. He combined charm with directness. He had to have it in abundance to deal with the likes of autocrats like Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia. Holbrooke's Dayton deal that ended the Bosnian war was undoubtedly his greatest achievement.
Things didn't go so well for him in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was an unenviable task. He was apparently unable to either charm or bully Hamid Karzai.
When a public figure dies, the usual rules of never saying anything negative about the immediately dead often go out the window. Holbrooke is coming into a fair bit of criticism this morning on the web.
Holbrooke's legacy cannot escape association with the greatest post-war U.S. debacle -- Vietnam. He was part of the Rural Pacification Program during which atrocities were committed. He's also criticized for backing Marcos in the Philippines, Indonesia in East Timor, and threatening NATO occupation of Serbia over Kosovo (something he denied).
He was accused in June 2008 in Conde Nast's Portfolio of getting multiple below-rate loans from Countrywide Financial as a "Friend of Angelo" Mozilo, Countrywide CEO.
For the most part he escaped criticism from the press during his long career. I last saw Holbrooke in New York in July after an early morning event at the Asia Society to muster relief support for Pakistan after its devastating flood. I was among a group of five journalists to be briefed by him in a back room. There he was, as warm as ever, trying to disarm the press with his charm, right to the end.
Holbrooke was 69.