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Ambassador A-List

U.N. ambassador Dick Holbrooke's hyperaggressive style has made him perhaps the country's most successful diplomat since Kissinger. And now he's using his glittering connections to bring the U.N. into the fabric of the city's social life.


The palatial suite the u.s. government keeps for its United Nations ambassador on the forty-second floor of the Waldorf Astoria is decorated with an eye more toward New York sophistication than toward Washington pomp. In the living room, there's a Jim Dine painting, an Alexander Calder mobile, and a grand piano, set off by overstuffed white couches and twinkling city views. In the past, the parties held here have tended toward the slightly stuffy diplomatic A-list, with a sprinkling of Council on Foreign Relations luminaries, New York Times eminences, and Wall Street honchos.

But Dick Holbrooke, who's been U.N. ambassador since August, has a different idea of what sort of people the suite should be filled with. Tonight, he's hosting a dinner for General Wesley Clark, the granite-faced, soft-spoken nato chief, who is leaving his post in April. Holbrooke and Clark were bonded in tragedy. In 1995, they were traveling in an Army Humvee in Bosnia when the next vehicle in the convoy slid off the mountainous track, killing two U.S. diplomats and an Air Force lieutenant colonel. The two later spent 21 days in Dayton doing a bad-cop-good-cop act with Bosnia's leaders, negotiating the accords that brought peace to the region.

By 8:30 p.m., in addition to the usual complement of ambassadors and diplomats, the living room is filled with an A-list New Yorkers might recognize. Super-agent Binky Urban is schmoozing with Time editor Walter Isaacson. Barbara Walters races in, apologizing for running late. Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen are on hand, having flown in from L.A. (Steenburgen's mother knows Clark's mom back in Arkansas).

Dressed in a formal pin-striped suit, crisp white shirt, and red tie, Holbrooke still manages to look comfortably rumpled -- his unruly hair is the secret to this effect -- as he banters his way around the room. Introducing Clark to billionaire financier George Soros and Canadian press lord Conrad Black, Holbrooke teasingly calls the general, whose formal title is supreme Allied commander for Europe, "The Supreme," then launches into a hummed rendition of "Stop! In the Name of Love."

Holbrooke's wife, the author Kati Marton, is equally adept at the art of the cocktail party. Dressed in an elegant white pantsuit, she ushers guests into the dining room, where four tables are set for a meal of crab cakes and sautéed duck. Marton and Holbrooke, who have been giving twice-a-week diplomatic dinners, have a carefully choreographed act. "I give the opening toast, which is unorthodox in the U.N. village," she explains. "Richard and I are making the point we're doing this together."

"Did Kati transform me from an ugly duckling to something more presentable?" asks Holbrooke. "She thinks she did, and that's fine with me."

In toasts after the meal, Holbrooke and Clark sound like Oscar-and-Felix-do-the-Balkans, ribbing each other about their explosive initial meeting that (surprise) featured tonight's host tongue-lashing the guest of honor over diplomatic strategy in Bosnia. Clark says that his toast is the "first time I've ever gotten the last word" with the loquacious Holbrooke. But then the general goes on to strike a serious note, expressing a sentiment shared by many in the room, calling Holbrooke "the most brilliant diplomat of this generation."

Brilliant, perhaps; controversial, absolutely. In the foreign-policy world, Holbrooke is known as much for his brash manner and unconventional style as for his foreign-policy expertise. "Most diplomats are low-key people who blend in," says Leon Fuerth, Al Gore's chief foreign-policy aide and a Holbrooke ally. "Dick is a dramatic personality who absolutely sticks out from the crowd and is very conscious of the media as an active ingredient in diplomacy."

Over the past year or so, the Washington Post has written in its news columns about his "knuckle-busting diplomacy," and the New York Times has called him a negotiator who can "outbully" anyone in the room -- and those are friendly papers. In fact, Holbrooke, who grew up in Scarsdale and Manhattan, is often tarred with the kind of demeaning adjectives that tourists from Topeka apply to most New Yorkers: arrogant, ambitious, pushy, relentless, argumentative, ego-obsessed, social-climbing, and just plain rude. Sure, Dick Holbrooke can be all that and more, but he is also charming, funny, seductive, surprisingly self-deprecating, and passionate about trying to save the world. Encapsulating the view offered by Holbrooke's many pals, his son from his first marriage, David, 34, a CNN producer, says, "I'm not going to pretend that my father doesn't have his foibles, but the bottom line is, he's trying to make a difference. He really cares, he's clearly saved lives, and that's pretty impressive."

Even Holbrooke's rivals admit, when pressed, that he is animated by a love for the diplomatic game and an intense commitment to the calling of public service. But what is telling at this moment in Holbrooke's long career -- which has included high-ranking State Department jobs, high-paying Wall Street stints, and such disappointments as being twice passed over for secretary of State by Bill Clinton -- is that never have the man and the job been so well matched. To be U.N. ambassador, a post held by such luminaries as Adlai Stevenson, Andrew Young, George Bush, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Madeleine Albright, means that you are the only professional New Yorker in a Cabinet of men and women from the provinces. Pulling the levers of power in New York, a city built on real celebrity (only Washington gushes over Trent Lott), requires skills that Holbrooke has in abundance -- sharp elbows, a keen understanding of the realities of money and power, and the kind of Rolodex that would make Bobby Zarem weep. "This is oxygen to him," says Tom Brokaw, a friend for more than two decades. "Dick is a public servant through and through."

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