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The Ambassador's Toast: Remembering Richard Holbrooke

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A few thousand people will gather today in Washington, D.C. to honor the life of ambassador Richard Holbrooke, one of the world's finest diplomats, whose life ended suddenly one month ago. I was only exposed to a sliver of his life, but three years ago I experienced his diplomacy first hand.

The ambassador was known to work round the clock, though he never lost sight of personal priorities. He had hired me in 2001 to help build his HIV/AIDS outfit, the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS. Several years later, I left that organization to work for the foundation of the Virgin group, but Holbrooke graciously agreed to put together a meeting for my new boss Richard Branson with CEOs and numerous global health leaders. This was in September 2007 during the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, a moment that ended up being a turning point in my life.

The luminaries filed into his conference room, and even though I no longer worked for him, the ambassador insisted on getting a personal update from me. Just like a stern father, he pushed his papers aside, stared me down and pressed for news as to whether I had plans to get married. This was, of course, his well-known blunt and personal style. It allowed him to take risks, even if that meant pissing a lot of people off.

My personal life was something he asked about often, although I repeatedly dismissed him. This time, however, I did actually have news for him.

Excitedly, I told the ambassador that I had met someone, but that there was a major problem: his family was Muslim and mine Hindu, and both our parents were from India where Hindu-Muslim tensions still simmered even 60 years after the partition of India and Pakistan. I winced, saying this was a line I was warned never to cross.

Holbrooke balked at my comment. Rather than try and coddle me or assuage my anxieties, in his forceful manner he said, "You've got to be kidding me! You guys are American. Your parents have to understand that. Go sort this out with your families and let me know the wedding date. They will see the light when they understand you are American!"

This approach -- whether doling out marital advice, tackling the war in Bosnia or in his recent position serving as President Obama's Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) -- went far beyond taking a stand. He created opportunities for dialogue and fought tirelessly and aggressively until the change he was chasing became a reality.

We experienced his tenacity on his work to turn the tide of the global AIDS pandemic. After a trip to Africa with his wife Kati in 1999, Holbrooke was appalled by the spread of AIDS and the disease's threat to community and economic security. In his role as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., he succeeded in getting HIV/AIDS on the Security Council agenda and it became the first ever public health issue addressed by the Security Council. Soon after its adoption, Peter Piot, who at the time was the Executive Director of UNAIDS, congratulated Holbrooke, saying, "I can think of no better legacy to leave the world than to have ensured that the United Nations Security Council now regards support for the global fight against AIDS as among its core business." This accomplishment is a lesser known side to Holbrooke's legacy, even though it has saved thousands of lives and will have a lasting effect on global public health.

Perhaps his most difficult challenges in the public health arena came when he rallied for the business sector to be involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and again when he pushed to institute opt-out HIV testing, in response to the large numbers of people (about 90%) living with HIV who didn't know they were carriers. These efforts went against the status quo, but Holbrooke was brokering critical conversations to help curb the spread of the pandemic that had already infected over 30 million.

Protests were abundant and skeptics were vocal. Among them was George Soros, who had actually funded Holbrooke's AIDS organization. In an interview with USA Today's Steve Steinberg back in 2002, Soros said, "I'm doubtful of success; I wanted to give them enough rope to hang themselves." During the George W. Bush administration, the ambassador also strove to achieve bipartisan support for the issue, engaging U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, including the late Jesse Helms.

This Holbrooke style of diplomacy, rooted in taking risks and championing humanity, is something we must pass on for generations and cultivate in future in leaders.

On that day in September more than three years ago, I wasn't exactly expecting the ambassador to solve my wedding problems. But, as it turns out, he was no less effective delivering marital advice as he was brokering peace accords.

After a few years of steadfast negotiating -- our own brand of shuttle diplomacy from New York City, to Michigan and Kansas -- my now husband and I built a bridge between the Hindu-Muslim divide and had a wedding date embraced by both sides. To top it off, the ambassador had graciously accepted to deliver our wedding toast. And he delivered a memorable one.

On May 15, 2010, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Holbrooke's imposing stature filled the stage at our venue, which was built as a synagogue in the late 19th century. His toast was preceded by a friend's Brazilian samba troupe, and he went on to reassure our guests that despite the flashy dancing and the fact that it was an inter-religious ceremony involving no one of Jewish origin that had nevertheless taken place in a synagogue, the wedding was typical for two Midwestern kids.

The line was meant as a joke, but underpinning the comment was a sincerity about the role of the United States in the world. As he knew first hand, our nation really was one of the few that could bring people together. Groups who more often were inclined to pick up a rifle to confront their perceived enemies rather than share a meal and air out their differences. For us, the ambassador's toast will always be a reminder to seek peace in conflict.

Ambassador Holbrooke truly embodied this sentiment in his life's work. It's not hard to believe that with his death the country has lost a true advocate for the type of pluralism that, while vital here at home, also sustains our commitment to forging peace and finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems abroad.

I learned of Holbrooke's death hours before we were set to leave for our honeymoon. In the days after, I received a phone call from the his dedicated SRAP team at U.S. State Department asking me to help highlight his achievements on HIV/AIDS for the House Resolution filed to honor him. This task helped me find some closure. However it will be tough to reconcile his loss. I think back to the advice he gave me in September 2007. The Ambassador didn't solve our problems, but instead forced us in a direction that while filled with risk allowed us to find a solution ourselves. I hope that the members of the global community -- whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan or those closer to home -- will continue to take risks to champion humanity, just as the ambassador did into his final hours.

(Photo by Craig Warga.)