A HISTORIAN AT HEART
Richard Holbrooke will always be remembered as his generation's premier diplomat and statesman -- a doer. But he also was a person who had a keen sense of the past and the role memory plays in defining today's world -- he was a historian at heart.
Holbrooke loved history. He loved books and arguments, stories and sweeping narratives. In that sense he shares so much with the historian-diplomat he deeply admired, George Kennan. Holbrooke had little tolerance for the instant policy books that dominate Washington's bookshelves (he described them as "glorified Foreign Affairs articles") and always pushed people to write history; something, he would say, that would last.
I learned this firsthand in the years I assisted him with his Bosnia memoir, as I watched him devour other great histories to help inspire his writing. In government, Holbrooke always infused his arguments with history (needless to say, Vietnam came up quite a bit in describing his most recent mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan) and he would circulate chapters from history books to his staff and colleagues. And history was at the core of his love for his wife Kati and her many books that explored the past in innovative and powerful ways.
In my last conversation with him, shortly before he fell ill, he mentioned that he'd been re-reading Orwell's 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language" and intended to distribute copies to his team. "There's so much bad writing in government," he said. In recent months, we had started to talk about the next book he wanted to write, which I believe could have been the greatest diplomatic memoir since Kennan's over 40 years ago. I will miss so many things about Richard, and only with deep sadness can I accept that we will never get to read that book.
Derek Chollet is principal deputy director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff.