I last saw Larry a month ago. He came to the State Department to join in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Operations Center, which truly is the nerve center of the State Department. We met with many of the young watch officers who work grueling hours to keep what we call Ops, and as all of my predecessors know, running around the clock. And this turned out to be the kind of event that Larry loved. And I so appreciated him, because he rarely passed up an invitation to speak with the next generation of the United States Foreign and Civil Service.
Now on this occasion, Larry was not in the best of health. Andrew was there with him and others. He had two canes at the time. And he sat on the stage with the rest of us who were going to be speaking, and I was a little worried because he didn’t look well. But that disappeared as soon as he stood up and he got to that podium. The moment he took the microphone, he had everyone in that room in the palm of his hand, and he spoke with such great gusto, without a note, and as usual, with no qualms whatsoever about saying exactly what was on his mind.
I think in the years since Larry Eagleburger was Secretary, this town and many of us have become much more edited. So it was quite a treat for me to be sitting where I was sitting, looking at the faces of all of these young men and women turning to each other and saying, “Did he really say that?”
He shared a story that encapsulated a great deal of what made him so special. He told all these young Foreign Service officers that one of his earliest jobs in the Foreign Service was with INR, the intelligence bureau, and his beat was Cuba. One morning in 1961, he came to work early and discovered that something big had happened in Cuba overnight, what we now know was the start of the Bay of Pigs invasion. And Larry thought it was his job to try to report on what was happening insofar as he could figure it out.
So he collected up all the facts available and he wrote up his analysis. Someone, he wrote, was trying to overthrow the Castro government and they were going to fail. A few hours later, he discovered he was supporting the invasion, senior officials of the United States Government, and he discovered how they felt about his analysis. He was summoned to the White House, and for several hours he was chewed out by one big shot after another.
Now, Larry was, in his own words, a junior, junior, junior officer, and plenty of people in those circumstances would have softened or moderated or even reversed their position, but not Larry. He just kept explaining his point of view repeatedly, never backing down. And eventually he was issued a warning never to cross paths with the Kennedy Administration again. And he was sent back to the State Department bloody, but unbowed.
That was Larry then, and that was Larry a month ago in the State Department, unimpressed by all of the pomp and circumstance, unafraid to put forth an unpopular opinion if he was convinced he was right. And often, as with the Bay of Pigs and on many other occasions, he was right.
Listening to Secretary Eagleburger tell stories at the State Department last month was not only a treat for the young Foreign Service officers, but for all the rest of us. It was thrilling to hear him, and it meant so much to those young men and women. And just watching them hang on his every word was worth it to me. Because to them, Larry was kind of a demigod, although I’m sure he would take issue with the prefix -the only FSO ever to serve as Secretary.
It takes a special commitment to join the Foreign Service, a willingness to live and work in far-off places, to learn languages like Serbo-Croatian, and it’s a commitment not only by officers, but by their families. And I’m very grateful to Larry’s family for their support during his long service to our country. He served in difficult places, including the former Yugoslavia, he served in tumultuous times, and he constantly raised the bar for everyone else. Through it all, he served with integrity. He was devoted to the State Department and believed that his devotion meant being honest, both about its strengths and its weaknesses. And he pushed everyone – his staff, his superiors, the entire bureaucracy – to be better, more effective and more strategic.
Now, the State Department is called “the building,” and it seems to have a life of its own. It’s like this creature from somewhere that is never tamed and can only be slightly known, understood, and occasionally managed. But for Larry, he loved every part of it, but he always expected more than people even thought they were capable of delivering.
And he wasn’t always, even as America’s top diplomat, very diplomatic. When as Deputy Secretary, he saw his renovated office for the first time, he said he thought it looked like a Moroccan whorehouse. And that comment prompted a complaint from the Moroccan ambassador.
I was also told about that trip to Israel when President Bush sent him. He and the other members of the American delegation there in 1991 were told that they would be participating in a drill, and they would all have to wear gas masks. Now of course, you know the story. Everyone dutifully put on his or her gas mask except Larry. He lit a cigarette instead. And when his colleagues protested, he pointed out they could not claim that the smoke was bothering them with their gas masks on.
So Larry was by no means a typical diplomat. And in a Department that is certainly in a town that can be preoccupied with protocol and hierarchy, he didn’t have much use for either. And as anyone who enjoyed a conversation with him knows, he could be, shall we say, somewhat profane, but always funny and always clear about what it is we were trying to achieve together.
I also heard stories that day about his kindness to everyone who worked around him. Once at the end of a long day of official travel in Vienna, he stopped to chat with the people staffing the control room, which was his custom. He told some jokes, he made conversation, and then he headed off for bed. And as he left, a young woman turned to Larry’s staff and said, “When they sent me over here, they said I would never see anyone important, but that was the Deputy Secretary of State.”
He knew those small gestures of friendship meant the world to FSOs and civil servants because he’d been there. He didn’t parachute in from somewhere else; he worked his way up to all the positions that we have now described him as holding. And he knew that the work that people like those of us who have had the privilege of speaking today do can only succeed because of the talents of those around us who are doing the constant backup work and the support that makes it possible for the rest of us to make that speech, to attend that negotiation, to go to that conference. And so for this and all other reasons, he was the pride of the State Department.
And to Larry’s sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren, thank you for sharing this great and good man with all the rest of us. And thanks, too, to your mother and grandmother, Marlene as well. She’s remembered with great fondness at the State Department for being a warm and wonderful partner to Larry throughout his years at State and, on a personal note, for wearing pantsuits.
Last month, when it came time for Larry to finish his remarks at the State Department, he did so in typical fashion, saying, “Someone just said that 50 years from now, the work of the Ops center will continue. Well, I don’t know how he or anybody else would know that because none of us will be around then.” Everyone burst out laughing, and then he said, “Thank you, and God bless you,” and went on his way.
Fifty years from now, many of us will no longer be here, but at the State Department, I am confident people will still be telling stories about Lawrence Eagleburger – the Foreign Service officer who rose all the way to the seventh floor as Secretary of State, the diplomat who helped presidents and secretaries and America lead through times of crisis, the man who traveled with briefcases full of cartons of cigarettes, who always made time to talk with the junior officers. His time as Secretary was brief, but his service was long, and his impact will endure.
Thank you, Secretary Eagleburger, and God bless you.