Every few months I try and catch up with one of the world’s great reporters, John Burns, who is presently the London bureau chief of the New York Times.
Read the whole thing, but here is our exchange on the late Richard Holbrooke:
HH: John Burns, I read with great interest your reminiscence of Richard Holbrooke, and just wanted to spend a minute. I didn’t realize you were that close to him, that you had worked side by side with him. And quite an interesting character and diplomat.
JB: Yeah, well as I said in that piece, it was always something of a mystery to me that Richard had quite a body of people in the State Department and other agencies in Washington who didn’t really like him very much, thought he was egotistical, selfish, sharp elbows. He was never like that with me. And most reporters who worked with him had an enormous regard for him, because of his manifest competence and range. I mean, he was arguably the most distinguished diplomat the United States has had probably since George Kennan, the author of the containment policy against the Soviet Union at the depth of the Cold War. But there was something else about him that we particularly liked, speaking for myself and I think for many in my profession, which was that we talk about using the shoe leather. That’s getting out and about, and going and experiencing things at first hand. It’s not easy for diplomats to do that very often in places of conflict. But Richard did this. He got out and about. And he got his hair mussed and his boots dirty. In my case, the part of my experience with him that I wrote about that weekend, was when at the worst part of the Bosnian war, the siege of Sarajevo, there was a knock on my door late one afternoon. And who’s standing at the door, this was just before Christmas in 1992, which was you know, the real bottom of the siege of Sarajevo, the worst moment – sniper fire, artillery fire, mortars, the city being reduced to rubble. And there’s Richard Holbrooke standing my door with a sleeping bag and a backpack saying can I sleep on your floor. By this time, he’d already had an extremely distinguished diplomatic career going back to Vietnam. And he went on to be the peace negotiator who brought an end to all of that mayhem in Bosnia with the 1995 Dayton agreement. So I think he’s going to be sorely missed.
HH: There are some people in history who never get to the top of their greasy pole as Disraeli…you think of Curzon, or you think of other people in the American foreign policy service, and Holbrooke and Kennan are two of them. Why is that? What do you think is it that keeps some people from getting their due? A lot of people thought he should have been secretary of state under Obama and before that, under Clinton.
JB: Well of course, in the case of Obama, we know what happened there, that Hillary Clinton took the job. And I think that that made it a lot easier for Richard, who had, there’s no doubt, felt that that would be the fitting end to his career, the apogee of his career. But I think that he understood first of all that Hillary Clinton was a manifestly qualified person for that job, and that she of course had political credentials that he did not. So I think he found that easy. And besides, he got this job, which is right at the cutting edge as the president’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. I suppose if you look back as to why he didn’t get the job of secretary of state under President Clinton, there was always this cadre of people who didn’t like Richard very much, or who felt as I said that his elbows were too sharp, or he was too egotistical. You know, what do they say? It’s the tallest puppy that gets their head cut off? It was a complicated story. But as it happened, in some ways, that played to his strengths. I mean, he was involved in negotiations over, you know, we don’t need to count them, enumerate them. But from Vietnam on, he was crucially involved in attempting to rescue, in many cases, America from a bleak situation indeed. And he was extremely good at that. He was very good at it in Bosnia. I think he was very good at it in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although there were plenty of people, we know that General McChrystal was one of the, who didn’t particularly like him. So in effect, you might say the same is true of many a correspondent I could mention who are excellent foreign correspondents, but wouldn’t necessarily make excellent foreign editors or managing editors.
JB: You know, and I can say of myself, I think that I’m a better foreign correspondent than I would have ever made an editor. And that’s the way my career has worked out. And I think in a way, things work out the way they’re supposed to work out, and Richard had a rich, and highly rewarding for himself, as for America, career. And you know, all evil shed away. If he were listening to this now, I think he’d say it was a life well lived.