Richard Holbrooke was a legend, the high priest of what we used to call the “priesthood” (even though they finally did let Madeleine Albright in), the foreign policy elite who played musical chairs whenever a Democrat was running for or elected to the presidency. Arrogant? You bet. Frustrated with those who didn’t get it, wouldn’t do it, didn’t push themselves as hard as he did? Absolutely.
But here’s the thing: He had a right to be arrogant and a right to be frustrated.
When you’re trying to stop wars and save lives, patience and modesty are not necessarily useful virtues. There aren’t too many people who can honestly say they have saved thousands if not tens of thousands of lives because they simply wouldn’t give up.
In many ways, Holbrooke was a product of his generation, the youngest of the best and brightest, a man of enormous talents for whom the one stage that mattered most was the world of public affairs. He graduated from college in that very small window in which President John Kennedy’s appeal to serve our country had not yet been tarnished by hostility toward a doomed war effort. He signed right up for the Foreign Service and had three years in Vietnam under his belt before he was 25. At 35, he was an assistant secretary of state. Then there was Germany and the United Nations, and then Bosnia, and then Pakistan and Afghanistan.
What a life. What an amazing, satisfying, exciting and ultimately priceless life.
Why don’t more young people today aspire to follow in such footsteps?
Holbrooke’s life stands for many things, none more striking than the commitment to public service and the understanding that real power is not measured by the number of zeroes in your bank account, but by how you use it. Holbrooke was ambitious. OK, maybe he was power hungry. But it was what he could do with that power — how he could change things, his compassion for the people he met around the world whose lives, quite literally, depended on his diplomacy — that drove him.
As it turned out, Holbrooke, like the rest of us, was a mere mortal. At some point, living with no sleep and constantly shuttling back and forth across the world trying to make bureaucrats do better and corrupt leaders take responsibility took their toll. He couldn’t do it all; no one can. Last summer, he was treated for heart issues, but plainly, he didn’t slow down. Too many places to go and things to get done.
In reading all the articles from the past day or two and looking at all the pictures, what struck me were not the ones with Holbrooke and presidents, prime ministers and premiers, of which there were many. What struck me were those of him sitting in refugee camps, crouched among the desperate people who were looking to him to save their lives and homes.
None of us knows the length of our days. As you get older, you find yourself losing those you love, and there is mostly no order or reason to it. My friend Judy died of lung cancer and never smoked. My friend Kath “handled her health brilliantly,” as she used to tell me, having been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes as a child; and she was felled in a matter of weeks by a rare cancer. Ronni Chasen was just driving home in Beverly Hills when a desperate guy on a bike shot her in one of the safest neighborhoods in America. Who knows? You never know.
The greeting card answer is to live each day as if it were your last, but that really doesn’t work. If tomorrow were my last day, would I spend two hours at the dentist?
No, the best I can do is believe that our whole lives are our blessing and our prayer; that what we do with our life, what we make of it — and I don’t mean how much money — is the only answer to the randomness of life and the certainty of death. It is who you have touched, who you have helped, who you have loved well, whose lives are better because of you.
Richard Holbrooke’s life was a blessing that death cannot erase.
— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.