NEW YORK — David Holbrooke needs to find himself a tie.
His bags are somewhere out there. Maybe in a cargo hold. Or maybe still at the airport in Colorado, where he lives. He made it to the terminal in time to board a plane for New York, but too late for his luggage to join him.
Holbrooke likes to describe his late father, the famed diplomat Richard Holbrooke, as an “Olympian of chaos,” and some of that characteristic, he figures, has rubbed off on him, though the son is still trying to grasp this mythic figure that everyone claimed to understand so well — everyone except him.
David Holbrooke went looking for his father, hoping he’d get to know him better in death than he did in life. He searched for both the man and the public figure whose sudden death at the age of 69 in 2010 was such an earth-rumbling Washington moment. The result is a documentary titled “The Diplomat,” which Holbrooke is screening at swanky invitation-only events, including a gathering Wednesday in Washington, in advance of its premiere Nov. 2 on HBO. The film doesn’t attempt to be a definitive account of Holbrooke, the relentless diplomatic figure who brokered peace in the Balkans, but it straddles the personal and the professional in a way that only a son’s film about his father could.
In New York, Holbrooke is surrounded by memories of his father — and not all good ones. Their relationship was complicated and so was his father, he says over lunch one afternoon on the Upper West Side at a little cafe where they sometimes met for meals.
He talks about the kinds of hurts that might sound familiar to a lot of sons — the missed birthdays and the skipped visits with his own kids, the elder Holbrooke’s grandchildren. Only, in the case of this particular fractured American family, the distant father happened to be off preventing genocides or hobnobbing with movie stars. Holbrooke explains his motivations in even tones; he doesn’t want to sound “self-pitying.”
“The film has helped me come to terms with him,” says Holbrooke, who has made other documentaries and directs the Telluride Mountainfilm festival back home.
Holbrooke, 50, arrives for lunch by bicycle. He’s 6-feet-6 and wears his sideburns long. He looks more comfortable in a sweaty short-sleeved plaid shirt, fingerless riding gloves and hipster Chrome cycling shoes than he will later, once he’s found a tie to wear to his screening at the Time Warner Center. His cadence is more, “Hey, dude” than “Mr. Secretary and distinguished guests.”
There’s a long scar on his forearm — a reminder of a bone-breaking horseback-riding accident in late August. He was scheduled to host a film program that night, so he waited a day for the surgery, and then went to Burning Man.
Screening the film in New York represents a homecoming for him — he worked as a television news producer early in his career. Still in his cycling shoes, he pops into the office of Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, who greets him as an old friend.
“This guy is THE MAN!” Zucker bellows, pointing at Holbrooke. “THE. MAN. This guy!”
Holbrooke was prompted to make the film, in part, by conversations he had at social gatherings with his father’s former staffers around the time of Richard Holbrooke’s mega-memorial service in 2010 at the Kennedy Center, an event that drew two presidents — Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — as well as a who’s who of the foreign policy and media elites. Former staffers kept telling David Holbrooke little stories about their adventures with his tireless, globe-trotting, unstoppable father — silly things such as the time he lost his wallet, and how chaos ensued.
The son hadn’t heard those stories. They filled him with a sense of curiosity about his thrice-married father, a man who was so often far away when he was growing up, materializing for table tennis matches and Redskins games, then vanishing again.
To rediscover his father, he had to peer into Vietnam, where Richard Holbrooke was posted as a Foreign Service officer in the early 1960s.
“I enjoy the drama of the helicopters with the air being slapped at by the rotor blades and driving hard against you,” the young diplomat wrote in a letter to his first wife, David Holbrooke’s mother, Litty Holbrooke. “These scenes, so common to me now, are still thrilling moments, although I would not dare admit it to anyone here.”
In Vietnam, Richard Holbrooke developed what became a lifelong appreciation for gathering information up-close, and he fell in with a cadre of future diplomatic stars, such as John Negroponte, Anthony Lake and Frank Wisner. He saw that too often top U.S. policymakers were getting flawed and overly rosy dispatches. He saw the truth from the ground.
“Reports lie, ma vieille, they lie,” he wrote to his wife.
In the film, David Holbrooke asks his mother what kind of a husband his father had been. She pauses, groping for the right words: “Absent a lot.”
“It’s so funny to see him doing fatherly things,” David Holbrooke says at another point in the film, clutching a photograph of his father feeding him as a baby. “That just seems weird.”
Indeed, the Holbrooke family members featured in the film paint a portrait of a man with two singular obsessions: his career and himself. Richard Holbrooke’s brother, Andrew Holbrooke, tells the story of the future diplomat writing an autobiography — at the age of 14.
“He changed a lot after he divorced your mother,” Andrew Holbrooke says in the film. “I think he got more and more self-absorbed.”
Richard Holbrooke’s other son, Anthony — a sculptor — pulls out a book authored by his father. It’s signed, “Ambassador Dad.”
The screening in New York draws an insider crowd that is well versed in Holbrooke’s accomplishments: how he ran the Peace Corps in Morocco, served as a managing editor of Foreign Policy, rose at an astonishingly young age, in his mid-30s, to be an assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific in the Jimmy Carter administration, developed a close relationship with Bill Clinton, who tapped him to resolve crises in Bosnia and Kosovo. After all, these are people who don’t just refer to Cabinet secretaries and generals by their first names, but by diminutives of their first names.
Over in one corner, there’s Sally Quinn chatting with Richard Holbrooke’s widow, Kati Marton; across the room, former Massachusetts governor William Weld is ordering a drink for his wife, Leslie Marshall, a child of Washington. HBO chief executive Richard Plepler, the night’s host, is encircled by guys in suits with outstretched hands. David Westin, the former ABC News president, swings by for the cocktail hour.
Among such an insider crowd, poignant personal moments in the film draw audible reactions: Laughter ripples through the audience when television personality Diane Sawyer — who dated Richard Holbrooke for years and lived with him in New York — turns around a question about her former lover and presses David Holbrooke about his feelings.
“How angry were you at him?” Sawyer asks.
“Frustrated more than anger. . . . I don’t think I have that rage. I think I realized I had to figure it out without him,” David Holbrooke responds.
But Sawyer doesn’t let it go.
“Did you tell him?” she says up there on the screen, drawing more knowing chuckles from that knowingest of audiences.
Ultimately, it falls to Sawyer to explain to a son on-screen how his father filled the gaps in his life. “When we traveled, he would have friends within two minutes,” she says. “It would be the guy who was selling the buns on the street.”
It wasn’t just innate curiosity, Sawyer says, “I think he was creating family.”
Marton, who was married to Richard Holbrooke at the time of his death and spent 17 years by his side, appears in the film sporadically, and this bugs her friends in that in-crowd crowd in New York. Over cocktails, they lament how the camera pans the stage at Holbrooke’s funeral, scanning the assembled dignitaries, but doesn’t show Marton, who was on the same stage.
“Kati must feel terrible.”
“Kati doesn’t get her due.”
“How come they didn’t say he called her when he was dying?”
But just in case anyone had any doubts, David Holbrooke says of Marton one afternoon after the screening that “my father loved her very deeply.”
Marton, in an interview, says she’d hoped for “a little more specific detail about Richard’s brand of diplomacy that is really unique — the technique of attacking problems from all angles and bringing in people that are not usually summoned by diplomats.” Marton and her friends have placed great hopes for a fuller explication of Holbrooke’s professional career in a biography to be authored by the New Yorker writer George Packer.
Marton does, however, feature prominently in the film’s account of Holbrooke’s signature accomplishment: the epic peace negotiations that ended the war in Bosnia, a ghastly conflict that included the “ethnic cleansing” of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims by Serbian forces.
Marton tells the story of how Holbrooke seated her between Alija Izetbegovic, the president of Bosnia and Herzogovina, and the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic. It was her job to get them talking and she recounts how she had a breakthrough when she asked the men, in desperation, how the war started. Both said they hadn’t expected the conflict, which had stretched for more than three years, to last so long. By the end of the evening, she says, they were calling each other Alija and Slobodan.
If Dayton was Holbrooke’s apex, Afghanistan proved to be his nadir.
He was appointed in 2009 to be Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a daunting task that went poorly from the beginning. In the film, David Holbrooke interviews Afghan leaders who said his father’s tough style went over poorly, especially with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai.
As the months dragged on, Holbrooke was clearly falling out of favor with Obama, and frustrated that he wasn’t able to persuade the administration to negotiate with the Taliban. Holbrooke’s frustration with Obama is laid bare in clips from a secret audio diary that the diplomat was recording in which he says the administration was making political, rather than strategic, decisions in Afghanistan.
“That really is the way the White House thinks,” Holbrooke can be heard saying in the clip. “They don’t have a deep understanding of the issues themselves, but increasingly they’re deluding themselves.”
Holbrooke was also secretly meeting for deep-background Sunday-breakfast chats at the Georgetown home of author and Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, and he expressed his concerns about the administration’s Afghan troop surge.
“A lot of people thought that I was overly influenced by Vietnam,” Holbrooke says on the tape made by Woodward. “But it didn’t matter to me. At least I had some experience with that.”
On Dec. 11, 2010, Richard Holbrooke sat down at the State Department with Hillary Rodham Clinton, who at that time was not just secretary of state but also a sympathetic ear.
Clinton settled onto the couch in her elegant outer office for their meeting — she always saved the big chair for Holbrooke; the diplomatic eminence merited big-chair treatment in her State Department, even if his access to President Obama’s Oval Office was getting squeezed.
Holbrooke did not look well. He hadn’t been taking care of himself. His face turned a deep shade of red.
Clinton insisted that he see a doctor, and when she and her staff learned that the ambulance was headed to Sibley Memorial Hospital, she had it diverted to George Washington University Hospital, where Dr. Jehan “Gigi” El-Bayoumi, an internal medicine specialist who had treated Clinton’s mother, had been alerted and was waiting.
Holbrooke’s deputy, Daniel Feldman, rode with him in the ambulance, holding his hand and scribbling notes on the only piece of paper he could find: a receipt from a Chinese restaurant. (Meiwah, he confides later.) Feldman reads the notes on camera.
“Make sure that I don’t die here,” Feldman says Holbrooke told him. “I want to die at home.”
In an interview, Holbrooke’s widow, Marton, mentions something that didn’t make it into the film: He called her on the way to the hospital and she raced to the airport, arriving in Washington too late to speak with him while he was still conscious.
At the hospital, Holbrooke, who would die two days later after lengthy surgical efforts to address a torn aorta, kept repeating the same phrase, El-Bayoumi recalled in an interview: “You’ve got to end the war in Afghanistan.”
El-Bayoumi urged him to calm down. Think of something peaceful, she told him, something he liked, something like the beach.
“I hate beaches,” Holbrooke said, according to El-Bayoumi. “I like beautiful women. You’re a beautiful woman.”
David Holbrooke, the diplomat’s son, can’t help but chuckle a bit when he recalls hearing about that little quip, among the last words his father ever spoke.
He smiles, and says with a note of affection: “Flirting to the end!”