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Ambassador A-List


When Holbrooke's mother came to visit him in Germany, her first trip back in 61 years, she told him the family stories she'd repressed for decades. Holbrooke made a point of prominently displaying a photo in his official office of his grandfather, a leather importer, wearing a distinctive twenties German Army hat. "The German reaction was unbelievable," he says proudly. "Chancellor Helmut Kohl looked at it, didn't say a word, and walked away." At a time when American foreign policy has become increasingly isolationist -- note Congress's refusal to pass the nuclear-test-ban treaty -- Holbrooke passionately believes America has a responsibility to intervene. In October, Holbrooke spoke at the Holocaust museum in Washington during a conference on preventing genocide. "Why didn't the world prevent Hitler? Stop the Khmer Rouge?" he asked. "Why did it take four years to get together on Bosnia? These are not mistaken people who had bad childhoods. Our task is to recognize that evil exists and to denounce it, and match our rhetoric with resources."

Ask Marton what drives Holbrooke, and she theorizes, "Because he lost his father, he was always looking for father figures." He's found an impressive group of them: Dean Rusk, Averell Harriman, Clark Clifford, Cy Vance.

As a 19-year-old student at Brown University, he joined the Brown Daily Herald and wangled his way to Paris in 1960 to write about the U.S.-Soviet Summit, where Nikita Khrushchev stormed out after the downing of America's U-2 spy plane. Ingratiating himself at the summit with the New York Times reporters, Holbrooke was hired as a temporary $10-a-day copyboy and landed a summer job at the Times the next year. "I took to him very much," says Abe Rosenthal, who was then posted in Europe and recently retired as a Times columnist. "I never thought of him as a kid but rather as a smart young man. Later, he was called pushy, but I never saw that." For Holbrooke, the Paris trip was riveting -- the high-stakes drama, the Cold War climate, watching history unfold. When a job at the Times did not materialize after graduation, he took the foreign-service exam with encouragement from an extremely well-connected family friend. "In one of those extraordinary accidents of proximity," Holbrooke says, "my high-school best friend's father had just become secretary of State -- Dean Rusk."

Sent to Vietnam in 1962, Holbrooke went first to the rural Mekong Delta, reporting back on the political situation, then to Saigon as an assistant to ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, who passed along tips of the diplomatic trade. "He gave a group of us these little lessons, such as, the most important thing you'll ever do at the embassy is the guest list and seating," Holbrooke recalls. "We were in our early twenties and thought it was amusing." Now, of course, he takes such things seriously.

Holbrooke was later a junior member of the American delegation at the failed 1968 Paris peace talks. Frank Wisner, who worked in Vietnam with Holbrooke, says, "Dick was uncommonly bright, keen to move ahead, absolutely certainly he could see those moves ahead on a chessboard, fascinated with people in power, wanted to know what makes a McGeorge Bundy and a Robert McNamara tick."

Henry Kissinger, then merely a Harvard professor consulting on Vietnam for Henry Cabot Lodge ("I wasn't Henry Kissinger yet," he says), remembers watching a parade in Saigon from Holbrooke's apartment, after having his pocket picked en route. Kissinger was impressed enough by the twentysomething Holbrooke to stay in touch. "I thought it was worthwhile talking to him," Kissinger says. "Interesting analysis, inquisitive mind, requisite amount of cynicism." As for Holbrooke's approach to diplomacy now, Kissinger says, "His style is to get the other party to submit to what he wants. I yell at my staff but not at negotiators; he's probably nice to his staff but yells at the people he's negotiating with."

Holbrooke's résumé spans many countries and disciplines -- Peace Corps director in Morocco, managing editor of Foreign Policy, assistant secretary of State for East Asia under Jimmy Carter, investment banker, and assistant secretary of State for Europe under Clinton. In his best-selling book about the Bosnia peace negotiations, To End a War, Holbrooke refers most often to Vietnam in explaining his actions in the 1995 talks, from insisting that Washington give him reasonable autonomy to constructing the right-size table for the warring leaders. The book, optioned by HBO, tells a swashbuckling story of Holbrooke and his team's hurtling back and forth through the dangerous Balkans. In marathon negotiations in Dayton, he cajoled and threatened Bosnia's leaders -- Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic, Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, and others -- into halting the fighting. "Dick's name will always be linked to finding a solution to the Bosnian war," says Leon Feurth. "In the Bosnian negotiations, you needed an emotional bulldozer, someone whose emotional temperature could match the heat of the other participants. Most of the time I've dealt with him, he's silky." This past winter, Holbrooke was the U.S. point man again on the Balkans, unsuccessfully threatening and trying to reason with Milosevic in seven high-anxiety meetings to stop the "ethnic cleansing" of the Albanians in Kosovo. Holbrooke's final grim-faced task in March was informing Milosevic that nato bombs were on their way. He still sounds frustrated that his well-publicized advice -- that nato go in earlier -- wasn't followed. "We had fighter jets on the runway in October, we had targets picked, we had Milosevic under pressure, but we didn't ask to introduce nato forces," he says. "By the time we reached the March crisis, the margin for persuasion was over."

Many an ambassador has gotten a post by giving money. Holbrooke, too, had to pay up, to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars -- in legal fees. (Mind you, he's not hurting; he and Marton have a net worth in the double-digit millions, thanks partly to his investment-banking years; the couple has vacation homes in Bridgehampton, Telluride, and Washington, Connecticut.) Holbrooke's nomination as U.N. ambassador was initially derailed in July 1998 by an unsigned letter to the State Department accusing him of ethics violations in his contacts with embassies after leaving his government post as assistant secretary of State in 1996 to join Credit Suisse First Boston. The letter launched a long, largely fruitless investigation into virtually every aspect of his professional life. Holbrooke reluctantly agreed last February to pay a $5,000 fine to settle, stipulating that he was not admitting guilt. "It was absolutely the only way to bring this thing to an end," says Richard Beattie, his lawyer, "and get the confirmation process going."

No sooner were those charges settled than another controversy erupted, over whether Holbrooke, while an unpaid special State Department envoy to Bosnia, had made paid speeches on the topic. And after he was cleared of those charges, Republican senators decided to hold up the appointment to make policy points unrelated to his fitness. Holbrooke sought solace during this period by indulging in his lowbrow passion for escapist teen flicks. "My father likes to see youth movies I would never think of going to on my own," says his son David, citing I Know What You Did Last Summer, 10 Things I Hate About You, Austin Powers, and Election.

Angry that his integrity was being questioned, Holbrooke tried the patience of his allies, losing his temper, making frantic 2 a.m. phone calls. "He'd call me 50 times a day," says Senator Joe Biden, an influential member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He wanted to litigate everything. I had to tell him, 'Shut up, I'm not listening.' "

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