Remembering Richard Holbrooke

After Richard Holbrooke died in December 2010, several of his friends and colleagues were sharing stories about him over email when they decided to turn their recollections into a book. 

The result was “The Unquiet American” — a collection of essays by and about Holbrooke, edited by Derek Chollet and Samantha Power, set for publication on Nov. 8.

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The goal of the book, as noted in its introduction, was to “produce more than a memorial or celebration of [Holbrooke’s] life; it was to assemble a book that offered fresh insight” into a man who dedicated most of his life to public service.

The Hill spoke to Strobe Talbott, Holbrooke’s longtime friend who helped conceptualize the book and wrote its first essay, about how “The Unquiet American” came into being and what Holbrooke would want to be remembered for.

Q: What was your role in this, and why did you decide to participate?

Talbott: It was simple — Richard was an exceptional person and an exceptional public servant, and there’s a lot to miss with his passing. I had known him since the ’70s. I first met him when he was the editor of Foreign Policy, then got to know him better when he was assistant secretary of State for [East Asian and Pacific Affairs] in the Carter administration. And we saw a lot of each other over all of those decades. We worked closely together, particularly on the Balkans, in the 1990s in the Clinton administration. When I came into the State Department, I was a novice diplomat and policymaker — and he was not just a friend, but a real mentor and guru to me. 

Q: Is there a particular essay in the book that’s a favorite of yours?

Talbott: [Laughing] You mean other than mine?

Q: Of course.

Talbott: I think that [Holbrooke’s wife] Kati Marton’s opening is very appropriate and powerful. I think Derek’s piece on peacemaking in the Balkans is strong, too. Samantha’s on mentoring, which was a major theme in Richard’s career. It is impossible to overstate the loyalty and appreciation and admiration that younger diplomats, foreign service officers, had for Richard. And that was largely because, well, first of all, he had several qualities that they admired and wanted to emulate. But also he was just great with them. He always had time, no matter how busy he was.

Q: What do you want people to take away from the book? His force of personality and his style?

Talbott: Well, more than that. In my own essay I try to get at this. He was a prodigious intellect. And he really understood, was fascinated by history. He was a voracious reader. He understood the historical moment.

Q: Do you think there is a particular accomplishment he’d want to be remembered for?

Talbott: He had every reason to be particularly proud of what he accomplished in Bosnia. But I think one of the things that all the authors got at one way or another is that Richard’s whole career was a testament to his breadth of knowledge, his unbounded energy. He never met a problem that he didn’t think was amenable to the intelligent use of American power. He was an original.