Capitol Idea: Richard Holbrooke and the Washington Most of Us Don’t Know

Washington has become engulfed in grief.

This town is in a depth of mourning for veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke—who died late Monday at the age of 69—usually reserved for senators or others of elected office.

The outpouring of eulogies for Holbrooke—with such supreme acclaim as that he was “a true giant of American foreign policy,” in President Obama’s words, or one whose “life’s work saved tens of thousands of lives,” in those of Sen. John Kerry—has been intense.

And yet, as painful as our anguish is here, I imagine that it must seem strange outside the capital for us to feel so profoundly the loss of someone whom most people in the country probably had never heard of.

Richard Holbrooke, after all, was never a national household name in the way, say, was the case for the late Elizabeth Edwards, who, too, just passed away.

Most of the nation might be quick to dismiss Holbrooke as just one more bureaucrat, another “nameless, faceless functionary,” albeit perhaps a high-level one.

It is true that one of the tragedies of Holbrooke’s demise is that he died before getting the chance to win wider renown in the high post of Secretary of State.

(And Holbrooke might well have become the next Secretary of State, replacing Hillary Clinton, when, as expected, President Obama moves her to head up the Pentagon to replace Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who plans to retire in the coming year.)

But for those of us in Washington, our sense of loss isn’t driven merely by the rank of Holbrooke’s last posting.

No, there is much more to it than that, just as there was much more to Holbrooke the man.

Everyone here in this city admired Holbrooke for his accomplishments, and his out-size personality—whether we knew him personally, or not.

In its story on Holbrooke’s death, the Washington Post reports this vignette: “The hulking, broad-shouldered Mr. Holbrooke knew presidents and prime ministers, journalists and policy wonks—and he wanted to make sure everyone he knew knew one another.

“At cocktail receptions and dinner parties, he frequently dragged people across the room for an introduction to someone they just ‘had to know.’ The introductions always came with extensive praise of one friend being introduced to another.”

And, also, there is this: “On one trip to Pakistan, he padded to the forward of the cabin in his stocking feet to point out to a reporter a passage in Margaret Bourke-White’s memoirs of the time of India-Pakistan partition and independence.

“Bourke-White quoted Pakistani leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah telling her that Pakistan would have no problems with the Americans, because ‘they will always need us more than we need them.’

“Mr. Holbrooke laughed, saying, ‘Nothing ever changes.'”

At a time when federal officials and their workers have been reduced to caricature, this portrait of Holbrooke is the antidote.

The fact is that while Holbrooke was extraordinary, he was hardly unique.

Washington is full of people just as smart, big-hearted, dedicated, and irrepressible as he was—on both sides of the political spectrum.

These are the “thoughtful corporals” of our capital. These folks way well be partisan Democrats (as Holbrooke was), or Republicans, but they usually leave the bickering to others.

Folks like Holbrooke come to Washington to do good, and make their mark. They come to get results, to make their country—and in the case of diplomats like Holbrooke, the world—a better place.

It is a pity more Americans didn’t get a chance to know Holbrooke and others like him.

If they did, they would come to have a much different opinion of their government, and of the people who work in this city every day.

Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade. Capitol Idea is his regular column from Washington. This article was first published as Richard Holbrooke and the Washington Most of Us Don’t Know on Blogcritics.

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