AN EDITOR TO THE END
Working for Richard Holbrooke was an education, in the true meaning of the term. He was a brilliant thinker with an uncanny ability to express complex ideas in lucid ways, and he never failed to dazzle those who ventured into his office with the depth and breadth of his knowledge.
A few weeks before he passed away, he summoned a few of us to his office. Notepads in hand, we arrived, prepared to discuss the business of the day. Instead, he asked, "Have you read George Orwell?" We all said yes. "What have you read?" he continued. We cited the familiar titles: Animal Farm, 1984, and Down and Out in Paris and London; but none of those was the work he had in mind.
Finally we gave up. He asked if we had read "Politics and the English Language" -- an essay Orwell wrote in 1946. He went on summarize Orwell's argument that bureaucracy was the enemy of the English language: Jargon, convoluted phrases masking the plain truth, and the irrepressible urge to use the passive tense all made for unreadable memos and papers that did nothing to improve policymaking. He had thought of Orwell while reading a particularly incoherent memo the previous night, and had decided that the old master's advice was as relevant now as it was in 1946. By the end of the day, every member of our SRAP team had a copy of Orwell's timeless essay.
Richard Holbrooke was an editor at heart, and he was good at that trade. He valued clear prose, and liked sentences that were lucid and got quickly to the point. His style evoked Hemingway: simple declarative sentences and no flowery clauses. He never saw a text he could not improve upon, and spent a good deal of time, sometime in the midst of meetings and phone calls, making sure that what SRAP produced stood up to his test of good English.
Vali Nasr was senior advisor to the late special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Amb. Richard Holbrooke.