Richard Holbrooke memorial events in Washington a testament to diplomat's reach

He could be exhausting, the eulogists said. Exasperating. Relentless.

A handful. A bulldozer.

And they meant it all as a compliment, a testament to the know-everything, know-everyone machine of a man who was Richard C. Holbrooke. It took a venue as grand as the red-walled Opera House at the Kennedy Center to contain the sheer volume of Washington in-crowd heft and international gravitas that assembled Friday to celebrate the life and career of the diplomat who brokered peace in the Balkans. Holbrooke never became secretary of state - a job he coveted - but he got one of the grander send-offs seen here in years, at least when measured by idling Town Cars. This was not a state funeral, but an invitation-only memorial service freighted with all the anticipation of one.

In Washington, one president on a stage is a big deal. Holbrooke merited two.

There were network anchors and admirals, power brokers and influence peddlers, senators and ambassadors. But mostly there were stories that added to the legend of Holbrooke: Holbrooke the Indefatigable, Holbrooke the Overwhelmingly Informed, Holbrooke the Impossibly Persuasive.

President Obama remembered tears welling in Holbrooke's eyes the first time they met, as the diplomat emoted about "restoring America's place in the world." Bill Clinton recounted how Holbrooke grilled him to gauge his "suitability" to run for the nation's highest office. "I loved the guy," said the former president, who added that he didn't understand why Holbrooke's "little rough edges" made some people not appreciate him.

It was in Holbrooke's role as Grand Inquisitor that others also recalled him, though to come under his gaze could be as wilting and fatigue-inducing as it was stimulating. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told the audience that Holbrooke quizzed him so thoroughly before their first trip together that "it made my confirmation hearing look like an appearance on 'Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?' "

None of the eulogists invoked the line that some aides would throw out when he arrived in a room: "The ego has landed." But the soaring ego that accompanied the larger-than-life man, who died Dec. 13, was a characteristic that several speakers recalled with no small measure of fondness. Noting that some thought his friend had a pronounced sense of self, David Rubenstein, who runs the Carlyle Group and chairs the Kennedy Center, added that "if you can really do it, it's not bragging."

A Holbrooke book could include a chapter titled "How to Win Friends and Tick Off Everybody Else," Mullen said, drawing peals of laughter from an audience that chuckled far more than it sniffled during the two-hour memorial.

The 15 speakers portrayed a Holbrooke who hated to lose. His dear friend Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, recalled marveling at how Holbrooke could dedicate hours to notching a high score on Donkey Kong. Holbrooke eventually resorted to cursing at the machine and - jokingly - "accusing the Donkey Kong company of war crimes." Gelb once got a call from Holbrooke, who proceeded to tell him "I've got this [expletive] next to me" who is promising a box of cigars. "But this guy lies all the time - don't you, Slobo?" He was referring to the Serbian despot Slobodan Milosevic.

Gelb spoke with a palm tree a few steps away, part of the stage set for an ongoing production of "South Pacific." The Kennedy Center management offered to clear the palm tree away, but Holbrooke's widow - the former ABC foreign correspondent and author Kati Marton - said to leave it. "South Pacific" was her husband's favorite.

In the 17 years they spent together, Marton - Holbrooke's third wife - grew accustomed to her husband's relentless ways. On the way to their wedding in Budapest, Marton told the crowd, Holbrooke "was on the phone urging Strobe Talbott to 'start the bombing.' "

For all the star power onstage, the real people-watching was in the audience, where Washingtonians got a glimpse of who's on the A list and who didn't make the cut. In addition to U.S. presidents, there was Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and a coterie of "SRAPs" - diplo-speak for "special representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan"- from nations around the world. Colleagues from the chapters of Holbrooke's varied career - from his U.N. and European diplomacy days, as well as his Wall Street banker days - were hatching plans for informal reunions over meals throughout the capital. And Zardari confabbed with Obama before the service.

A-list attendance

Among those arriving at the Kennedy Center were Washington power couple Vernon and Ann Jordan and former national security adviser Sandy Berger and his wife, Susan. It was a jet-setting, highly scheduled crowd, and more than a few showed up with suitcases on wheels.

Vice President Biden was there, as were former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), TV host Charlie Rose, former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, Democratic political consultant Paul Begala and Washington Post Co. Chairman of the Board Donald E. Graham.

Status was conferred the moment the tickets to the gathering were handed out. The most favored guests received seat assignments; others opened their envelopes to find "general admission." In the lobby outside the Opera House, a military quartet in dress red-and-blue uniforms played a mournful tune, Andante cantabile. Inside, the audience was treated to a stirring rendition of "Ave Maria" by the celebrated soprano Renee Fleming.

"It's just a great pity he's not alive to see it," said Gahl Burt, vice chair of the American Academy in Berlin, an educational institution founded by Holbrooke.

Holbrooke presided just as easily at a dinner table as at a conference table, Burt recalled. One fine night at his U.N. apartment in New York, she remembered, Holbrooke sat her between Henry Kissinger and the actor Matt Dillon. Kissinger didn't know Dillon, but they both knew Holbrooke.

"He had a finger in sort of every pie imaginable: the journalist circles, the intellectual circles, the think-tank circles and the society circles," Burt said.

Holbrooke's affinity for people who write and report was evident during the round of holiday parties in Washington. Invariably, some journalist or another would confide discreetly that he or she was supposed to have gotten together with Holbrooke or to have communed via telephone the day he died or the day after or the day after that.

Relevant to the end

Holbrooke, a former ambassador to Germany, died as dramatically as he lived. The 69-year-old fell ill last month during a meeting - not some low-level sit-down but a top-of-the-pile gathering with Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton at State Department headquarters. Surgeons at George Washington University Hospital tried to repair a torn aorta but could not. Even his final thoughts were matters of intrigue and fodder for analysis. Opponents of the war in Afghanistan delighted to hear that he remarked to a surgeon that the war should end. Later, the State Department needed to clarify that the comment was "humorous repartee" and not a deathbed slam of the Obama administration's policy of increasing troop levels.

Holbrooke exited when his accomplishments were still fresh and his relevance was still indisputable. The final departures of other major diplomats have sometimes come and gone without much fanfare. After former secretary of state Alexander Haig was laid to rest in March at Arlington National Cemetery, his story did not grab major headlines beyond obituaries or respectful television reports. But Holbrooke's sudden death came as he was grappling with the great questions of America's role in the extended battle against terrorism and the course of the war in Afghanistan, which has stretched into the longest war in U.S. history.

In other times, it was Holbrooke who was doing the memorializing - a role he filled in all the circles he inhabited. When the flag-draped coffins of three U.S. diplomats killed in a 1995 car accident during a peace mission in Bosnia arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, Holbrooke was waiting for them. When Reuters correspondent Kurt Schork was memorialized, there was Holbrooke, reminding an audience that Schork "was where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do" when he was killed in Sierra Leone in May 2000. "He wanted us to know that places like East Timor, northern Iraq and Sierra Leone all matter."

When one of the grandest of Washington hostesses, Pamela Harriman, was remembered at the National Cathedral in 1997, Holbrooke served as an honorary pallbearer. And when Washington bid adieu to former defense secretary Les Aspin in 1995, it was Holbrooke who delivered the most memorable line, a line that someone could just as easily say about him today.

His was "a triumphant but unfinished life."

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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