Ambassador A-List

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.”

As for Holbrooke’s current round of diplomatic dinners, his intent is to introduce key Washington officials to U.N. diplomats and throw New York glitz into the mix (at a recent dinner, he paired Robert De Niro – You talkin’ to me? – with national-security adviser Sandy Berger). “The purpose,” Holbrooke says with rare diplomatic understatement, “is to promote American policy interests.”

But Henry Kissinger, a frequent dinner guest, notes that Holbrooke makes a point of including journalists. “He works skillfully to use his Waldorf apartment to create various constituencies,” Kissinger says. “When you’ve been to dinner, you may not be so determined to go for the jugular without overwhelming evidence.”

With only a year or so left to the Clinton administration, Holbrooke has no time to waste in making his mark. He’s been globe-trotting to the world’s hot spots in recent weeks, stopping in East Timor in November, where he was shown worldwide on CNN barking at armed militiamen who balked at letting refugees return home. In December, he set off on the most thankless diplomatic itinerary of all, a trip visiting eleven different fractious African states. Arriving back on a Sunday afternoon after the 30-hour trip, Holbrooke was hoarse and nearly keeling over from exhaustion when he arrived at the Plaza two hours later for an American Jewish Committee dinner. Deviating from a prepared speech honoring civil-rights activist Morris Abram, Holbrooke had the look of a man who wanted to grab the well-dressed audience by the collar, speaking with anger about witnessing Africa’s twin scourges, constant warfare and the aids epidemic. “It’s easy for people to say, ‘That’s not our problem – Africa’s too difficult,’ ” he preached. “That may sound comfortable here in New York. But these problems have to be addressed.”

Afterward, U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, noting Holbrooke’s visible jet lag, asked with concern, “Did you pace yourself on the trip?” Holbrooke just laughed. “What does that mean – pace myself?” His staff has learned that their best chance to grab a minute is to ride with him between events, so there is always a line of people trying to squeeze into the backseat in his bulletproof Cadillac Fleetwood. Come along, and Holbrooke will eagerly discourse seriously on foreign policy but can’t resist mischievous asides (quipping after a Washington speech that the audience was filled with “envious former colleagues”) and entertaining anecdotes (such as the story about the frosty call he received this fall from Clinton, who was at the Waldorf suite and wanted to know why Ken Starr was on the speed dial. “This is the good Ken Starr, my accountant,” explained an amused Holbrooke). Improbably, this overachiever already has tangible accomplishments to show for his efforts. Back in September, he pushed the National Security Council into an all-night session to pass a resolution quickly to send peacekeeping troops to bloody East Timor. “He said, ‘We’re not leaving until we get this thing done,’ which is not the norm around here,” says Nancy Soderberg, U.S. representative for special political affairs. Annan is a fan of Holbrooke’s bulldozing style. “He’ll call you early in the morning,” Annan says. “He keeps calling, and he just keeps pressing until he gets it done. He pushes so hard that sometimes he irritates people. But he’s also capable of saying ‘I’m sorry.’ “

Sitting in his spacious corner office at the mission on First Avenue overlooking the United Nations on a November Thursday afternoon, Holbrooke is on the phone with a Bosnian leader, wrangling over the logistics for a new negotiating session. The ambassador’s conversation is alternately blunt (“That’s crap”) and conciliatory. “I apologize for yelling at you,” he says – then adds with a laugh, “but I’m sure I’ll do it again.”

Just days later, Holbrooke was browbeating the leaders of Bosnia’s three-headed government into submission in a Sunday-afternoon meeting at the Waldorf suite that lasted until 1:30 the next morning. The three Bosnian presidents (representing the Muslim, Croatian, and Serbian sectors), onetime enemies presiding over an uneasy peace, reluctantly agreed to issue a common passport for all residents of that war-torn nation and to create a common border-police force representing all factions. Perhaps his most difficult task this fall involved successfully lobbying Congress to pass a bill to pay the United States’ nearly $1 billion in back dues to the United Nations. America’s allies were enraged that the U.S. had become the U.N.’s biggest deadbeat. “It was becoming a huge problem,” says Annan. “The decision of the U.S. not to pay offended friends and foes alike.” But because Representative Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, attached an anti-abortion provision to the U.N.-dues bill, Clinton vetoed the legislation twice (most notably in the fall of 1998, to keep feminists happy as the president braced for an impeachment vote), and it was languishing once again in Congress. Becoming a regular on the 6:30 a.m. shuttle to Washington, Holbrooke tramped the halls of Capitol Hill, arranging official and on-the-fly meetings with more than 70 congressmen, framing the vote as a national-security issue. “He was the first person from the administration to come see me on this issue,” says Jim Greenwood, a Pennsylvania Republican, who supported the U.N. vote. “He has a good way of lighting a fire.” Tony Hall, an Ohio Democrat who has known Holbrooke since the Carter administration and has knocked heads with him in the past – “The ambassador can be abrasive as heck and charming” – credits Holbrooke with deft lobbying. “This was not a high priority with the State Department or the president. Holbrooke put it on the list.”

The end result was mixed. The White House cut a deal with the House Republicans to approve the $1 billion in dues that included a symbolic anti-abortion victory: a one-year ban on U.S. financing for international groups that promote abortion rights, mitigated by enough loopholes to assure the status quo. Women’s-rights groups howled with fury, and Al Gore and Bill Bradley promptly denounced the deal. But Holbrooke is nothing if not a pragmatist. “Hey,” he says, “we got the money.”

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 …”

For Holbrooke and Marton, both previously divorced twice, it wasn’t love at first sight – although perhaps, in hindsight, there were romantic glimmerings. Marton, a stylish, animated woman with a brilliant smile, is the daughter of two Hungarian journalists who were jailed – her father for a year, her mother for two – when she was 6 years old and later fled to the U.S., where her father became an Associated Press correspondent and her mother a French teacher. Brought up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, divorced after a brief marriage, Marton was working as an ABC-TV journalist in London when she met and married Jennings. By the time the anchor-couple moved to Manhattan in 1983, she had started writing books, which have included biographies of Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg and journalist George Polk. Walking with me through the sprawling, handsome Central Park West apartment she once shared with Jennings, Marton explains, in one of those classic small-world New York stories, that Holbrooke used to be one of her neighbors. He and Diane Sawyer were living together in an apartment in the same building, and the two couples socialized. “I remember Diane and Richard sitting in those chairs,” Marton says, pointing across the living room (Holbrooke and Marton live here, using the Waldorf suite for entertaining), “and Diane crumpling balls out of paper to throw to the kids.” (Besides their son, Christopher, Marton and Jennings have a daughter, Elizabeth, now a college sophomore.) “Richard was helpful to me on writing projects. Maybe once a year we’d have lunch.” But there was nothing between them. Holbrooke’s seven-year romance with Sawyer ended abruptly in 1987. As one of his friends tells the story, Sawyer came home one day and announced she’d had lunch with Mike Nichols, and said she thought it might turn into something. Soon after, Holbrooke moved out. (Searching through a box of photos in his office one afternoon, Holbrooke paused upon coming across several photos of himself and Sawyer. “I was going to throw these pictures out, but Kati said I had to keep them.” Why? “To show how open-minded she is.”)

The troubled Jennings-Marton marriage was tabloid fodder for years, replete with rumored infidelities on both sides, before Marton finally told the anchorman she wanted a divorce in the fall of 1993. By then, Holbrooke was ambassador to Germany. Upon learning that Marton was in Paris that Christmas (“I was as sad a sack as you can imagine,” she says), he tracked her down, and the two of them went off on a four-day road trip. “Our first stop was Chartres. Richard was really knowledgeable about architecture; we had something to talk about that wasn’t my situation. Occasionally I’d go off to the bathroom and have a good cry and come back. He was a great companion.”

What stunned Marton, however, was a scribbled document Holbrooke gave her after they began seeing each other seriously several months later. “Richard gave me a list of every time he’d seen me in nine years. He has a phenomenal memory. It included things like elevator sightings, large parties, small parties. I was so overwhelmed. Even if I wasn’t already half in love with him, that would have pushed me over, because of that sustained devotion and the fact that he never let on.” Mention this missive to Holbrooke and he growls, “I wanted her. But the point of the story is that she remembered those times, too. She was in denial – she didn’t realize she was irresistibly drawn to me.”

“I yell at my staff but not at negotiators,” says Henry Kissinger. “He’s probably nice to his staff but yells at the people he’s negotiating with.”

The two have more in common than overlapping social circles. Marton didn’t discover until she was researching her Wallenberg book in the early eighties that her grandparents were Jewish and had died in Auschwitz, a fact her parents, who raised her as Catholic and are still alive, chose not to disclose. Holbrooke, also the son of Jewish refugees, knew about his roots but was brought up as a Quaker. Married in 1995, they have spent a lot of time together talking about this unusual shared past. “I had a rift with my parents over withholding something so enormous,” Marton says. “Richard helped me put their decision in the context of this nightmarish period.”

For Marton, now researching a book on the complexity of presidential marriages, the United Nations has become the equivalent of a second full-time job. Joining Holbrooke on the Africa trip, Marton, a former director and current board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, skipped the typical spouse sightseeing to meet with journalists in Angola and Congo who had been tortured and imprisoned by their governments. Back in New York, not only can you see Marton at a United Nations Security Council meeting, sitting in the visitors’ gallery, but she also does the wife thing, planning menus and guest lists for their constant entertaining. “For both of us, this is a very happy time,” she says. “I’m completely addicted to him. And he never stops telling me, whatever he’s doing, he couldn’t do it without me.”

Friends who knew Holbrooke during his romance with Sawyer or his two previous marriages – to college sweetheart Larrine Sullivan (the mother of his two sons, Anthony and David) and to TV producer Blythe Babyak – say Marton has been a soothing influence on the ferociously driven Holbrooke. He rolls his eyes at this theory: “Did Kati transform me from an ugly duckling to something more presentable? She thinks she did, and that’s fine with me.”

On the top floor of the U.S. Mission, with its spectacular view of the East River, Holbrooke is circulating among diplomatic reporters at a meet-the-new-ambassador reception, introducing a short, dark-haired older woman by his side – his mother, Trudi Kearl. Including her in this gathering seems like the ultimate act of a thoughtful son, but when I mention that sentiment to him in an aside, Holbrooke confides, “I didn’t know she was coming.” Indeed, Mrs. Kearl cheerfully admits that she crashed the party. Alerted about the event by a German newspaper reporter, she decided to show up and surprise her son. “I didn’t know if Dick would be mad at me or pleased,” she explains, adding that since recently being widowed for the second time (Holbrooke’s father, Dan, died in the mid-fifties), she likes to get out: “I’m social.” Kearl, who was born in Germany and fled in the early thirties, as Hitler was taking power, to Buenos Aires and then New York, does a virtuoso proud-mother act. “Dick was always the best at everything,” she says. “That’s what the teachers told me.” (“Actually, I was not that good a student, but I had high college-board scores,” he tells me later.)

Holbrooke, looking bemused, quips to the crowd, “My mother is holding her own press conference in the back – and anything she says is off the record.” Holbrooke’s friends say he inherited his extraordinary confidence from his mother. As for his father, a refugee from White Russia who arrived in New York in the late thirties, Holbrooke describes him as a brilliant and compassionate doctor and the ultimate believer in the American dream. He became ill with colon cancer when Holbrooke was 7 and died eight years later. “He wanted me to be a scientist,” says Holbrooke.

Like many other immigrant parents, his father was intent on his son’s education, refusing to allow Holbrooke to cut classes to attend the greatest day in Yankees history, Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. The little boy in Holbrooke comes bursting out as he says, “The most famous game in history – and I could have been there.” Eager to Americanize themselves, the Holbrookes rarely spoke about their pasts. “They came to the New World full of idealism, fleeing a Europe in flames, and they didn’t want to think about it or talk about it,” Holbrooke says. “They didn’t teach me foreign languages, even though my father spoke eight or nine; my mother speaks six.” He and his younger brother Andrew, now a photojournalist, were brought up as members of the Society of Friends. “The joke at our Quaker meeting house,” Holbrooke recalls, “was, ‘Some of our best Friends are Jews.’ ” Only when Holbrooke became ambassador to Germany in 1993 did he belatedly become curious about his Jewish roots. James Hoge recalls Holbrooke’s describing his first visit to Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum: “I’ve never seen him so devastated.” In Germany, he made pilgrimages to concentration camps.

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.’ “

Biden ultimately helped secure the diplomat’s confirmation, and in partial thanks, Holbrooke recently threw a Waldorf dinner in the senator’s honor. That night, the living room was deep with media heavies: The New York Times contingent included columnists William Safire and Anthony Lewis and editorial-page writer Steven Weisman and his wife, City Hall reporter Elisabeth Bumiller; also there were Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter and Ed Bradley of CBS. “What amazes me is his relationship with the press,” enthused Biden the next day. “It’s a phenomenal asset. His contacts exceed those of most presidential candidates.”

As it happens, one of Holbrooke’s other guests that evening was Karenna Gore Schiff, the daughter of a presidential candidate. Holbrooke would certainly make the shortlist for secretary of State in a Gore administration. The ambassador and the vice-president go way back: Holbrooke stumped for Gore in New York back in 1988, the last time the former Tennessee senator ran for president, and now they talk frequently. The morning after Al Gore and Bill Bradley’s first debate this fall, Holbrooke was positively jubilant, proclaiming, “Al was really pumped up.”

Holbrooke, however, isn’t banking on an Al Gore presidency; he knows the future may not work out as planned. He often refers back to the horrifying accident in Sarajevo when his top aides were killed and he and Clark were shelled. “If I’d gone in the other vehicle,” he says haltingly, then adds, “if I’d gone on Ron Brown’s plane” – Holbrooke had helped in the arrangements for that fatal flight – ” … A friend told me I should have been dead twice already.” But then he sits up straight and insists that what-ifs and might-have-beens don’t keep him awake at night. “There’s no point in being haunted,” he says. “Isn’t life always a question of inches?”

Ambassador A-List