Earlier he had been the Carter administration’s point man in persuading the Senate to ratify the Panama Canal treaties, which eventually ceded U.S. control of the canal to Panama. He gained the support of crucial senators as the architect of a “reservation” giving the United States the right to protect the canal and then managed to persuade the Panamanians to accept the provision.
When he was named Clinton’s secretary of state, Mr. Christopher was considered the veteran hand who would complement the former Arkansas governor’s limited foreign policy experience.
Mr. Christopher’s primary responsibility was to ensure that crises in foreign policy did not undermine or interfere with the president’s domestic agenda. It was the first time in more than a half-century, Clinton would later say, that the United States was “without a single, overriding threat to our security.”
As a diplomat, Mr. Christopher projected an image of discretion and unflappability. People magazine included him in a feature on the best-dressed men in America. Dressing well, he said, “is a mark of the respect you have for others.” His language was reasoned but often noncommittal. His stock answer to questions about his personal success was “I've been very lucky.”
Writers and commentators characterized him as dour, attentive to detail, patient, steady and poised, but rarely, if ever, charismatic. Clinton once joked that Mr. Christopher was “the only man ever to eat presidential M&Ms with a knife and fork.” No one was surprised when, on an official stopover in Ireland, he ordered Irish coffee, decaffeinated and without alcohol.
In a normally high-profile office, Mr. Christopher shunned publicity, and he disliked being in the spotlight. It was on his watch as secretary that peace accords were reached in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, ending a three-year war and ethnic slaughter in Bosnia, but much of the news media attention was focused on Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke, who had handled the nitty-gritty of the negotiating. Mr. Christopher later described the agreement as “one of the greatest achievements in American diplomatic history.”
Almost four years after stepping down as secretary of state, Mr. Christopher, a senior adviser to Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, returned to the public arena as chief of the team that litigated the results of the Florida recount.