Remembering Richard Holbrooke from High School and College

by Richard Kostelanetz (June 2012)


Be respectful of the dead unless they were important enough to warrant criticism, which then implicitly becomes posthumous flattery.


I knew the late sometime assistant secretary of state and “special envoy to Afghanistan” in high school more than fifty years ago, and he was also in my class at Brown University from 1958 to 1962. I can’t say I counted him as a friend; he didn’t sign my copy of our class’s yearbook at Scarsdale (NY) High. I had only one reason to count him as an enemy. My skeptical thoughts about him are more miscellaneous than coherent.

Though he was chief editor of the daily newspaper at Brown, having been the sports editor of our high school paper, I don’t remember seeing him at Brown. I’d written for other earlier editors at the undergraduate newspaper but not for him. Otherwise, he didn’t have much presence on the insular Brown campus, which, remember, is not in Providence proper but isolated atop a hill that opens to a suburb. I don’t recall Dick in the so-called IC or the honors classes that, as seminars convening in afternoons, socially separated some of us from most of our classmates.

Asking around I found only one classmate, Wilson B. Brown, who recalls meeting Holbrooke apart from newspaper business—in an International Relations class. “I knew Holbrook [sic] in a casual way and I didn’t know the sharp-shouldered side,” he wrote me recently from Argentina. “He was, at least as a junior, in the International Relations major.” Other sources report his major as history. Otherwise, Holbrooke’s time at Brown seems almost a mysterious as Barak Obama’s two years at Columbia College in the 1980s. Recall that not even Fox News sleuths could find anyone who remembered Obama there.

How someone so inconspicuous on campus became chief of the Brown Daily Herald mystifies me. The editor of the Brown Alumni Monthly told me, “His bylined stories from the BDH are surprisingly few.” He wasn’t much of a writer then. Maybe no one else wanted the job. One of our female classmates, Karen Kennerly, who had made an adult career of befriending everyone important, was surprised when I told her that Dick went to college with her (us).

The initial abundance of approving obituaries surprised me, since criticism of his activities had often appeared in print. Perhaps the most comprehensive was Marjorie Williams’s 1994 (October) investigative profile in Vanity Fair. Probably because she died before Dick, it was not reprinted in the posthumous book edited by her husband. As it doesn’t appear on the Vanity Fair website, her "Mr. Holbrooke Builds His Dream Job" is not easy to find. Remember libraries, kiddies?

It portrays Holbrooke as a monumental butt-kisser, shamelessly flattering those above him while brutalizing those below him, likewise shamelessly. The second truth I can confirm. From time to time over the past decades I’d hear around New York City second-hand stories about some abused underling. They didn’t seem fabricated. My only response was pity that, given Holbrooke’s reputation for bullying his charges, his victims should have expected otherwise.

Once the stream of initial obituaries trickles out, most of them written by people already ensconced in one position or another, whom Holbrooke had reason to impress and flatter at one time or another, some of them no doubt aware of his black side, don’t be surprised if more critical assessments emerge from those less powerful. Especially in this age of the Internet, which has eliminated communications gatekeeping, negative judgments get out and around. The Williams profile opens by describing a fiftieth birthday party in which the invited guests mostly trashed Holbrooke! Holbrooke was, in truth, important enough to warrant negative posthumous judgments.

To his high school classmates’ surprise Dick attended in 2008 our 50th reunion, which included not only weekend evenings at a local hotel but a remarkable Saturday afternoon in the unadorned school cafeteria where we had eaten fifty years before. In this less formal circumstance adult reserve was dropped, some of us telling stories that could not be heard in the formal evenings or, indeed, anywhere else. As our junior and senior high schools were combined into one building in the 1950s (later to be split apart), many of us had once known one another for several years.

Standing before some seventy of his classmates Holbrooke recalled that in this very cafeteria around 1957 he heard Dean Rusk, then president of the Rockefeller Foundation, give a talk about the Foreign Service. (Why that should be his subject then wasn’t clear, as Rusk hadn’t worked in the State Department since the Truman years.) Dick told us that Dean’s son David, likewise present at our 50th, was such a close friend of Dick’s that, when Dick’s father died around that time, the Rusk family sort of took him in, to his gratitude then and, so he told us, some fifty years later. Dick became its sports editor of the biweekly Maroon when David Rusk was its co-editor-in-chief.

After graduating from college Holbrooke hoped first to get a job at the New York Times. When that didn’t happen, he applied for the foreign service, recalling, Dick said in 2008, Dean Rusk’s talk in our cafeteria more than fifty years before. He then told us in passing that, the night prior to taking the oral exam, he had stayed at the Rusks’ family house, Dean having become JFK’s Secretary of State and thus the ultimate boss of the Foreign Service. So disarming was our unadorned school cafeteria that here in 2008 he revealed the strategy behind his spectacular success in bureaucratic climbing. Only in that place, on that afternoon, to those people (us), could that story be told. I was struck dumb; still am.

Afterwards in the cafeteria Dick and I shook hands, perhaps for the first time in fifty years. To whatever I said (and can’t remember), he replied, “You had your uncle” supposedly to jump start my professional career. In fact, my uncle the musical conductor Andre K, did nothing to support my writing career, absolutely nothing, not even my writing about classical music. I’ve told more than once about a commission I received from Time-Life records in 1966, less than a decade after leaving high school, to write a booklet about contemporary classical music.  And As I was finishing the job, I incidentally owned up to being my Uncle Andre’s nephew. My editors replied that they “asked around and found out that I wasn’t related.” They added that, had they known the truth beforehand, they wouldn’t have given me the job. Since my enthusiasms were very different from my uncle’s, that false estimate has not been uncommon, no less then than now, implicitly respecting my critical integrity, thanks.

Nonetheless, Dick assumed in 2008, much as he had fifty years before, that one needed an established patron to launch a professional career, rather than achieving success without one—solely on the strength of one’s work, whatever that was. May we suspect that this was advice Dick dispensed to younger people who toed his latest line? Not unlike other monumental butt-kissers, acutely aware of whom he had to please and whom he could offend, Holbrooke lacked principle.

Just as Dean Rusk launched Holbrooke’s diplomatic career, in later years he would latch onto other older VIPs who ushered him up, including Henry Kissinger, Pamela Harriman, Clark Clifford (on whose memoir book Dick collaborated), and the Clintons. Always Dick’s presence would depend upon powerful patrons and positions giving him power. Never an independent intellectual was he, though he may have pretended otherwise. I can recall discussing Holbrooke as a butt-kisser with McGeorge Bundy with whom I happened to swim at an NYU pool in the 1990s. A national security advisor during the JFK administration, Bundy once told me something condescending about Dick as a butt-kisser I wish I’d written down (and thus could quote now), but we were both buck naked at the time. Stupid me to be a writer so unprepared.

Somewhere in the back in my memory is a recollection of my college girl friend telling me that Holbrooke propositioned her, offering to make her editor of the Brown undergraduate newspaper if she would leave me for him. That didn’t happen. What makes this story credible is that this woman was then very attractive, by some measures the most impressive bright woman on the campus at that time. On the other hand, I have no recollection of her ever writing for the undergraduate newspaper or having any wish to do so. Indeed, the BDH had only one female staffer in 1962, because Pembrokers had their own paper, the weekly Record. Since this lady isn’t talking to me nowadays, for reasons having nothing to do with Holbrooke, she’ll need to comment on her own, if someone else seeks her out.

I recall Dick’s first wife as a year behind us at Brown, but doubt if I ever met her (perhaps for the same reasons that I didn’t know Dick there). I was surprised to read in the initial obituaries about a second wife about whom little is known other than her working at the time of their marriage (mid-1990s) for the McNeil-Lehrer Report. As neither of the earlier wives was quoted in any of the obituaries, the third wife, the author Kati Marton, had her benevolent say. (When the editor of the Brown Alumni Monthly asked me who could write about Dick for BAM, I recommended the first wife, incidentally the mother of his sons. A lawyer who has remarried, perhaps she will write sometime.)

Those aware of Brown University’s current reputation may find it incredible that among my classmates Holbrooke was uniquely successful in such a competitive biz. No one else from our years attained his level of prominence in diplomacy. No one. As Brown around 1960 was second-tier Ivy—below the first tier of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia—none of us expected great futures for ourselves. Our teachers certainly didn’t. Alumni aren’t much help I know from my own experience (and don’t recall Holbrooke thanking any older Brown alumnus for helping him), because they likewise suffered from an inferior complex. So even if Dick seemed at the time more ambitious than his classmates, and even if he exploited his friendship with David Rusk’s father to land his first job, credit him with overcoming genuine disadvantage as a Brown alumnus. After all, being editor of the Brown Daily Herald didn’t get him (or any of his predecessors in that position) hired at the New York Times.

Holbrooke claimed to have made millions of dollars in investment banking; but details about this aren’t available. Press releases about his purported financial achievements weren’t issued, his love of publicity notwithstanding. Try on the internet to find out what he actually did as an investment banker and nothing turns up. One mutual acquaintance thinks such deals were meant to be kept secret. As a “vice-chairman” he might not have done anything more than greet over-well-heeled customers who needed to be impressed by an in-house VIP and then collected his employer’s year-end bonuses. Who knows? What will they tell?

I was surprised by Dick’s purportedly late recognition of his Jewishness, because his parents spoke with telltale accents. Though his father died while we were in high school, his mother survived until 2009. One reason to hide their Jewish ancestry fifty years ago was that they lived in Edgewood, a section of Scarsdale that had at that time remarkably few Jews (in contrast, say, to the more prosperous Greenacres, Fox Meadow and Murray Hill sections). Consider that their Edgewood house might not have been sold to the Holbrookes in the 1950s if their seller or even the broker, not to mention neighbors, had identified them as Jewish.

Who will discover what his family’s surname was before Holbrooke? Not even the Wikipedia gossips know. (Could it have been more embarrassing than my parental grandmother’s maiden name of Dymshits?) Indeed, “Holbrooke,” with its concluding E, is so unusual, especially in contrast to other pseudo-Anglo names adopted by Jewish refugees, that the story behind it must be revelatory. Some problems with memory are evident here.

Dick’s principal diplomatic achievement was bringing peace to Bosnia in the former Yugoslavia. No one questions that. He wanted to be secretary of state when the Democrats returned to power in 2008. However, he initially supported a wrong horse in Hillary Clinton. When Obama won, she got that position he so coveted. Holbrooke’s booby prize, an offer he couldn’t refuse, was an assignment to oversee American problems with Pakistan and Afghanistan. A position on the Obama team kept him from being its public critic.

However, that was a dead end job, as American military intervention in both those unfortunate countries was doomed to fail. (Soon after 9/11, when I resided two miles away from the World Trade Center, I wrote in the monthly Liberty that the best revenge against Afghanistan would be the decriminalization of heroin in the West. That would have sabotaged its economy. Can we agree that such a nonmilitary move would have saved a lot of American money and, yes, lives?)

As a believer in American military omnipotence, which forced peace in the former Yugoslavia, Holbrooke finally goosed himself. No outside power save for Ghenghis Kahn ever conquered Afghanistan—not the polite British or the ruthless Russians. (None has ever conquered Switzerland, which it resembles not only topographically.) In the last Afghan elections, Holbrooke supported another bum horse, his judgment bumptious. This wrong move prompted the surviving, dubiously elected Afghan prime minister, Hamid Karzai, to refuse to see Holbrooke, thus making Dick a lame American operative. His earlier successes in Yugoslavia could not be duplicated.

Newspapers reported that Holbrooke collapsed soon after leaving Hillary Clinton’s office. This doesn’t happen often, even for someone fragile, even if he had gained weight in previous years and looked fatigued. What happened in that meeting? Who else was present? No one has reported yet. Probably he was reprimanded for failure; perhaps he was even fired. Or perhaps he learned that Obama, loyal to a younger generation, mostly from Chicago, wanted Hillary to fire him?

Whatever happened apparently raised Holbrooke’s blood pressure, prompting him to feel dizzy in her office and then collapse in the hallway. An ambulance took him directly to a hospital. Before he could publicly resign, no doubt ending his diplomatic career, he didn’t return from the hospital to which he had committed himself.

Richard Kostelanetz survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.

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