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

Holbrooke, the president's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, died after surgery to repair a tear in his aorta.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011; 10:21 PM

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.' "


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