Be Fearless:
Kati Marton on Richard Holbrooke

 

 

 

As invited guest speaker at the latest edition of our premiere BookTalkUNA series of events, award-winning journalist Kati Marton shone brightly for our attendees in her inspiring and highly moving tribute to her late husband, Richard Holbrooke, who died in 2010. Through sharing a deeply appreciative account and first-hand experiences of someone who had become one of the most respected figures in the field of international diplomacy, Kati deepened the admiration of many attendees who had come to hear her anecdotes and insights about this subject of a recent book, to which she contributed the introduction.

Although mentor and friend to many whose fond recollections and assessments fill the pages of An Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World, he was also a sometimes controversial figure who, while passionately disallowing cynicism and defeatist attitudes, also maintained his own uncompromising standards and occasionally promoted himself with high opinion.

Marton mentioned in passing that her husband helped dedicate the building which housed the evening event's co-host, the International Institute of Education, "in the part of the city that was the pillar of Richard's New York life," she remarked. "He was brought here when the UN was just a construction site by his father, who was a refugee from both Communist and Nazi oppression, and who told his little boy that the building to come would represent the hope of the world… that we would never go back to the anarchy and the bloodshed of the twentieth century because of this building." Subsequently, the request by President Clinton in Holbrooke's later life — for him to take on the U.S. ambassadorship to the UN in 1999 — held deep meaning for him.

Uncomfortable in the office but adept in the field, Holbrooke's aversion to bureaucracy went hand in hand with his purposive drive, allowing him to achieve a wide range of accomplishments, "because he was so dogged, and wasted no time," according to Marton. These traits undoubtedly played a part in the 1995 Dayton Accords, his signal diplomatic achievement in Bosnia, where his key role helped broker a peace agreement among warring factions there. It was clear that such a highly determined individualism was one in which personal ethics effectively operated at the forefront of a quest for an inclusive diplomacy which left no one out.

"It made him a living legend in Europe… It was the privilege of my life to have been with Richard in Dayton and to have observed him bring some of the toughest and most ruthless warlords to the conference table. He made them not only talk to each other but, ultimately, to end the war and to hammer out the outlines of a future state… Richard knew that he had his place in history."

Holbrooke and Marton on their their tour of Africa during his U.S. ambassadorship. | Photo courtesy of Kati Marton.

Holbrooke first met Marton, whose own parents survived the Nazis in Budapest and were imprisoned by the Soviets, after she'd published her first book on the Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg. Her husband carried her book around at length, even during meetings with Milosevic. When asked how he could sit down with "all these horrible people," Holbrooke simply responded, "Wallenberg sat down with Eichmann... To save lives I'll sit down with anyone."

Those aforementioned qualities could account for his acceptance of his last mission as UN special envoy to Iraq and Afghanistan. "He loved going to terrible places… because they most challenged him and presented the most complicated problems," Marton said. Citing an educational background in physics as a source of his analytical gifts, she saw Holbrooke as a problem solver who could see "how all the pieces fit" even when considering the regional scale of complexities encompassing Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and the Taliban.

Other remarkable feats of diplomatic engineering were seen during Holbrooke's two years as UN ambassador, wherein he managed to facilitate the belated payment by the U.S. government of its back dues (nearly one million), as well as converting the resistant Rep. congressman Jesse Helms to become an advocate for UN concerns. While head of the Security Council, Holbrooke established the African AIDS crisis as a major priority for UN endeavors on the continent, convincing a then resistant Secretary General Kofi Annan that this grave health issue was also one related to security.

His effectiveness was readily reflected in a personal motto cited by his wife: always have an outcome at every meeting.

"You had to be a pretty big person in every sense of the word to let a man like Richard into your heart," she mused warmly, addressing his outsized character. "He fit George Bernard Shaw's great line about the unreasonable man as the one who makes progress… You had to be unreasonable, to shake things up in order to get things done, and Richard was an unreasonable man when it came to saving lives and righting wrongs. His brand of diplomacy was unique, and the reason we are here talking about him is that his brand of diplomacy was: one human being at a time."

Among the many notable qualities in this unquiet American, Marton includes her husband's search for mentors in his early years (at 13 having lost his father), and his subsequent mentorship for many young people who encountered him throughout his life, fulfilling a presence many public officials at his level seldom adopt. "Why? Because he gave a damn — that sums up Richard's life."

At the close of the Q and A session which rounded out the evening, an inspired young Nigerian at NYU asked about possibilities for Africa's future, aware of Holbrooke's passionate interest in the continent. Marton reflected back on her husband's abiding resourcefulness and strength, and replied: "Be fearless… about controversy… about your goals… but also be strategic in your thinking, and like Richard, be a builder of relationships. He knew more people in more countries than any other human being on the planet."

 

 

 

reportage: Peter Muller