This article first appeared in the Brown University Alumni Magazine, February/March 2011
Richard Charles Albert Holbrooke ’62 (the Albert would later disappear) loved his wife, his family, his friends, his country, his work—and Brown. In the course of our thirty-five-year friendship, rare was the extended conversation in which he didn’t circle around to our shared alma mater, always with fondness.
He arrived at Brown at seventeen—precocious as always—fresh from Scarsdale (NY) High School and with the help of an Alfred P. Sloan Scholarship. At Brown, he played on the freshman tennis team and joined the Outing Club as well as “The Sphinx,” an organization devoted to discussing “intellectual problems.” He must have loved those meetings!
But within the Brown constellation, Richard had specific affection for the Brown Daily Herald, of which he, like me, served as Editor-in-Chief. Back then, we thought it was the best job we would ever have; for both Richard and me, it played a key and lasting role in our futures.
As BDH editor, he exuded the youthful idealism and occasional intemperateness that characterized many student journalists (myself included). “The Administration of Brown University is still, needlessly, almost wholly out of touch with the student body, and often badly out of touch with itself,” he pronounced in a May 1962 speech that was given lavish coverage in the Herald.
Richard was never accused of being out of touch; he was, in fact, incessantly in touch with everyone, from the lowly and the young—whom he adored mentoring—to the mighty, whose relationships he valued.
I first met him in 1974, when, as a newly minted Brown graduate and lowly news clerk in the Washington bureau of the New York Times, I summoned the chutzpah to seek him out. Even then, Richard loomed large in Washington.
Following his graduation from Brown and inspired by President Kennedy, he had joined the Foreign Service and quickly dispatched to Vietnam, which became a transformational experience for him. He saw the futility of war firsthand, including as part of the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace talks and as author of a volume of the Pentagon Papers.
The war behind him, Richard spent two years as the Peace Corps director in Morocco and then became managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine. It was on this esteemed perch that I found him, still only in his early thirties. True to what I would later discover to be his form, he received me graciously, and we began what became a lifelong friendship. We didn’t see a lot of each other in those early years— in the Carter Administration he became the youngest Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs in history—but my time with him was memorable.
In the early 1980s, our careers intersected at Lehman Brothers, where Richard had landed as a senior adviser after the demise of the Carter Administration and which I had joined as a junior associate in search of a new career. True to his enveloping form, when Richard discovered me toiling away in the recesses of the firm, he promptly invited me to lunch. At the appointed moment, I appeared at his office and followed as he led the way. Suddenly, I realized that we were about to enter the partners’ dining room.
“We can’t go in there,” I said nervously to Holbrooke. “You’re not a partner.”
“They don’t seem to mind,” he responded nonchalantly. In we went. Either no one minded or no one knew that he wasn’t a partner.
While he appreciated the financial security that he derived from working on Wall Street between Democratic administrations—he also did stints at First Boston and Perseus—Richard never understood why anyone would work in business other than for the money. To him, public service was the only meritorious calling.
Once Kati Marton became Richard’s wife (she quickly changed his first name from Dick to Richard to give him a bit more gravitas) and Maureen White became mine, we grew to become fast friends, sharing dinners in Manhattan and summer weekends at the beach. As my boys grew older, Richard and I started a tradition of father-son ski weekends at his house in Telluride. His interest in my kids was heartwarming, and in return, they adored him.
He had a distinctive, dramatic way of speaking. Nearly every event was “the most extraordinary thing imaginable” or of “incalculable importance.” Our kids were amused by this and we began speaking “Holbrookese” around our home. For a time during the Bush Administration, Richard wrote a monthly column for the Washington Post, which reflected both his excellent training at the BDH and his colorful speech. Maureen and I would often read the more vivid passages to each other, adding the vocal points of emphasis that we knew he would have included.
Our purely personal friendship took on a professional element in mid-2009 when my wife Maureen went to work on humanitarian issues in the Obama Administration’s “Afpak” group, which Holbrooke headed as the SRAP (Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan). Her affection from him as a friend expanded to include enormous respect for him as a professional. His energy was extraordinary; his commitment to trying to solve this terrible problem was unwavering; and his support of his team quickly made him a beloved figure to all. Notwithstanding the exhaustion of traveling with the indefatigable Holbrooke, Maureen loved their trips to the scarred region.
At a jammed memorial gathering at his New York apartment a few days after his death, I surveyed the multitude, sure that all couldn’t possibly be genuine friends. But then, as I mentally moved from guest to guest, I realized that all of them were people with whom Holbrooke had broken bread or shared memorable experiences or whose career he had worried over, as he had mine.
The reports from the hospital said that Richard’s heart failed him but that was not possible. His heart was his greatest strength.