Backdrop... The setting for my conversation with Richard Holbrooke was Kati Marton's book salon and wine reception at the New American Foundation.
Ironically, Josh Rogin had an exclusive interview with Richard Holbrooke several hours after I had a conversation with him, with the following from Rogin the exact same thing Holbrooke revealed in our casual conversation earlier in the evening.
"I didn't know I was missing in action because I was kind of busy all day," said Holbrooke, denying that the White House had given him any instructions to lay low or stay out of the public eye, as has been alleged.
... He said he "has no interest" in the press stories discussing his lack of face time with the media, but took exception to one editorial in the New York Times, which wondered aloud about his status.
Both Rogin's interview and my conversation with Holbrooke rebutted the premise of McClatchy's "Where's Dick?"
Our conversation happened after Kati Marton's talk, when Holbrooke, Marton's husband, was standing with Steve Coll and a small group gathered, including Cliff May and myself. May had just gotten back from Pakistan offered a pessimistic view.
"Our involvement in Pakistan is not altruistic, it's strategic," Holbrooke reminded May. When May continued, talking about the Pakistanis not being very happy with the aid package, Holbrooke pressed a question a couple of times. "You know who started that?" May didn't answer. Holbrooke repeated the question, then added, "the military." With much of what's going on in Pakistan having to do with internal politics as much as anything else, Holbrooke also mentioned briefly his long friendship with ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as well as the internal dynamics of the stretched tensions in Pakistan.
I asked Mr. Holbrooke whether he believed the Afghan winter would impact the runoff election. That started a monologue that would last around ten minutes. Once the runoff of Nov. 7th happens, Holbrooke said there is about a two week envelope with the winter's impact in the north, thus the Tajiks. (Abdullah is Tajik and is from the north; Karzai a Pashtun from the south.) Continuing, he said that we got Karzai to agree to the runoff "by the skin" of our teeth, by "this much," changing metaphors and holding up two fingers to show less than an inch. "Of course, we got it," but it was very close, he added.
I interjected another question, starting with "John Kerry-", with Holbrooke interrupting me immediately, saying "Can't say enough about John Kerry." I smiled and said, "I'll make sure to quote you." Holbrooke continued heaping praise on Sen. Kerry, stating what had already been reported about Kerry meeting with Obama after he got back. Holbrooke talking about all the serious work he'd been doing in the area and how long it had been going on, with everyone working in concert. Holbrooke, Secretary Clinton and Amb. Eikenberry also had a 40 minute conversation with Kerry as well.
At one point he added that he'd seen a caption, he believed on CNN, that said "Ambassador Kerry?", then chuckled. Now, some would have tried to construe this as a snide aside, however, Holbrooke was obviously making a good-natured comment about Kerry's diligent efforts, while also making the point of how everyone worked different angles together.
"The administration worked seamlessly on this," Holbrooke added, nodding his head.
After the discussion with Holbrooke I had an interesting conversation with Cliff May talking about Pakistan, but also my interest in international women's issues, particularly Afghanistan.
As for Kati Marton, I've written about her before when she and Flynt Leverett had a clash of wills (Ms. Marton won) back when everyone was discussing Terror Free Tomorrow's pre-election Iran polling. She roasted Mr. Leverett on his heartlessly blunt assessment of Iran that the election changed nothing. Marton would have none of it. She won me over that day.
It continued last night. Below is the Washington Post review of her book, not because I've read it or was given a copy, which I have not and was not; but because the conversation she offered last evening was riveting.
The family about which Kati Marton writes is her own. A moderately well-known and exceedingly well-connected print and broadcast journalist in New York, she is a native Hungarian who lived the first eight years of her life in a country under the repressive communist rule of the dictator Matyas Rakosi. She was born in 1949, the daughter of a prominent Hungarian journalist, the Associated Press correspondent Endre Marton, and his wife, Ilona, also a journalist. They were brave people who paid for their courage by being sent to prison, leaving their two young daughters to live with a family "willing to take us in for a certain monthly sum." -- "Behind the Iron Curtain" (Washington Post review of Enemies of the People - My Family's Journey to America, by Kati Marton)
I tweeted some of the more interesting moments, as I do with most of the events I attend and report on, which included her hilarious assessment of her nanny: "French babysitters: the most treacherous of them all." According to Marton she was a "part-time nanny, full-time agent." After Marton's father was arrested by the Hungarian secret police he went through "Abu Ghraib-like interrogations," which never got real info. The FBI and Hoover investigated her parents too.
Kati Marton's husband beamed throughout the conversation she had about her book, which was facilitated by Steve Coll, in what turned out to be a very interesting evening.