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Ambassador A-List

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Actually, the most explosive politics was within the administration over the most important issue of all: Who gets the credit? In the midst of fragile negotiations with Congress, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright won a page 1 headline in the Times -- albright offering to take criticism for a deal on u.n. -- an overt move that outraged Holbrooke's staff. Although often aligned ideologically, pressing for a more interventionist foreign policy, Albright and Holbrooke have long had a notoriously prickly personal rivalry. Remember, Albright had Holbrooke's current job during Clinton's first term, and in the second term, they both vied for the top job in Foggy Bottom.

Right after the Times article appeared, Jamie Rubin, Albright's spokesman and a master Washington spin doctor, made his side's view clear, subtly diminishing Holbrooke as he told me in a phone interview, "Secretary Albright and Mr. Holbrooke's tag-team diplomatic efforts are paying off. Mr. Holbrooke has pursued things as far as he can in New York, and then handed off the baton." As for Holbrooke, the not-always-diplomatic ambassador is currently eager to stress that he can work and play well with others, insisting repeatedly that he and Albright have a good relationship. "I talk to Madeleine every day. There is no feuding at all," he says. "That's an old story line. But every journalist is waiting for it."

In New York and Washington, Holbrooke remains a polarizing figure: The mere mention of his name evokes either vituperative reactions (off the record, given his current prominence) or gung ho praise. "When you reach a certain eminence," says Henry Kissinger, "you attract a certain hostility." At the State Department, career bureaucrats resent the way Holbrooke has leapfrogged his way to the top -- moving repeatedly back and forth from ever-higher government posts to lucrative Wall Street jobs -- but complain in particular that he hasn't always been kind to the little people. "Dick has a way of letting you know you're not an equal," one ex-Washington colleague dryly notes. A classic Holbrooke story: When he was named ambassador to Germany in 1993, he tried to oust, by phone, a woman he'd never met -- Rosemarie Pauli, a Foreign Service officer who had just been transferred to Bonn by the State Department. Urging him to give her a chance, she met Holbrooke at the airport upon his official arrival. "Here comes this guy with tousled hair, and I'm thinking, How am I going to tell him he needs a haircut?" recalls Pauli. "I introduced myself by saying, 'I'm here to run your life.' To their mutual surprise, she says, "we just clicked." Now one of Holbrooke's most trusted aides, Pauli is his U.N. chief of staff.

"What amazes me is his relationship with the press," enthuses Biden. "It's a phenomenal asset. His contacts exceed those of most presidential candidates."

Utterly confident on issues of foreign policy, Holbrooke can be brusque and impatient when others dare to disagree. "Dick can't brook argument. He's right, you're wrong," says James Hoge, editor of the influential magazine Foreign Affairs, who quickly adds, "He's one of the most loyal friends I know."

For many years, one of the much-joked-about spectator sports in two cities was watching Holbrooke maneuver at cocktail parties, pointedly chatting up every important figure in the room. Frank Wisner, a former ambassador to India and Egypt who befriended Holbrooke in Vietnam nearly 40 years ago, takes a more nuanced view. "He's gifted with an extraordinary mind, and it's Dick's ambition to use that mind to the fullest, which can play out as an instinct to move ahead roughshod," says Wisner. He then adds, "What's irritating at a cocktail party is a strength in another context -- the ease with which he can pick up the phone and reach virtually anyone."

The unmarked official car is speeding down Park Avenue, taking Holbrooke from the Grand Hyatt, where he's given one dinner speech, to the Plaza, where he's supposed to give another, an accidental double booking. Holbrooke, who's been up since 5 a.m. and flew to and from Washington for the day, has been on the phone every free moment dealing with one crisis after another. Mary Ellen Glynn, his press aide, and I have crammed into the backseat of the car with Holbrooke and Kati Marton, who is perched precariously on his lap. "Richard, did my Christopher reach you today?" Kati asks, speaking of her 17-year-old son with ABC anchorman Peter Jennings, her ex-husband. He shakes his head no. She explains, "He's got this paper due on East Timor." Holbrooke launches into a fake-stentorian monologue: "Well, Christopher, according to the Security Council resolution . . ."


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