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Remembering the dynamic Mr. Holbrooke

By Richard Roth, Senior U.N. Correspondent
Holbrooke was the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. from 1999 to 2001.
Holbrooke was the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. from 1999 to 2001.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Holbrooke would have been a great TV news executive, or Hollywood producer
  • Holbrooke transformed the way the U.N. Security Council holds many of its meetings
  • Holbrooke was the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. from 1999 to 2001
  • Holbrooke's intellect, and charm, made me like him even after being admonished

(CNN) -- I still can't believe the news. When you are a long-time journalist you get used to bad breaking news. Maybe because Richard Holbrooke was a diplomat that I had spent some personal moments with, I find it hard to believe the news about his sudden death. I also just talked to him three weeks ago at the conclusion of a black-tie dinner in New York.

The Committee to Protect Journalists' annual dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, on November 23, was an event Holbrooke would have been proud to attend. His extended family included journalists and he fought hard for human rights around the world.

I saw him sitting at the next table. One of the winners, a Russian woman journalist who battled government intimidation and attacks, made sure with the light low in the grand ballroom to get seated for a few minutes next to Holbrooke.

At the end of the dinner there is usually a scramble to talk to the elite or just friends as hundreds of people stand up and prepare to depart.

I saw Holbrooke chatting with former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. I remember zooming over and trying to interrupt. I told Brokaw his master of ceremonies of duties were flawless. He raised his hand in protest and drifted away while I turned Holbrooke around and introduced him to two of my CNN colleagues, including producer Whitney Hurst.

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I will admit I wanted to speak with Holbrooke in person and also to allow my younger colleagues to perhaps see some of the banter I liked to engage in with the veteran diplomat.

I asked what President Obama had to do in the wake of a beating in the midterm U.S. elections. He said that Obama needed to communicate his message more effectively. I asked if he was returning to Afghanistan anytime soon, and he said not at this time. That's the last time I saw him.

Holbrooke would have been a great TV news executive, or Hollywood producer. I saw him at the Asia society in August turn a simple press conference into a "come on down!" one-hour assembly rally where every NGO or Pakistani singer could make their case for flooding relief and dollars in front of an armada of news media.

Holbrooke was a big fan of a program called "Diplomatic License" I hosted for 12 years. While a staple on CNN International, the program usually ran at 4 a.m. on CNN in the U.S. Holbrooke never lost an opportunity to let me forget that. I didn't mind. There was a small cult following for the show.

Even during an interview in August about the floods in Pakistan, I asked at the very end: "Do you have anything else you would like to say?" Holbrooke replied: "I wish Diplomatic License was back on the air at 4 a.m. in the morning on Saturdays so I could get up to watch it."

I am not sure he was ever up at that hour but overseas at different scheduled runs, he would see it. Of course, I would be fooling myself if I didn't admit Holbrooke would always like to be interviewed on such programs. I recall a comment someone made in the '90's during the Balkan wars. "What's the most dangerous place on earth? Standing at an airport arrival between Richard Holbrooke and a TV camera."

I liked Holbrooke because he was not your typical diplomat. I have seen hundreds of diplomats at the UN who were, how can I say, not ready for prime time. The typical envoy is close mouthed, secretive and avoids TV cameras like the plague. Many seem to have poor social skills and enjoy reading documents than learning about others.

Holbrooke was the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. from 1999 to 2001. He didn't live in the U.S.-owned apartment at the Waldorf, preferring to stay at his West Side residence with wife Kati Marton, no shrinking violet either.

Holbrooke transformed the way the U.N. Security Council holds many of its meetings. He initiated "theme" days or months of debate. Instead of closed-door discussions about AIDS or Congo, Holbrooke began a practice of open sessions in front of TV cameras. Other nations quickly followed suit.

Now a country will announce a special theme for their month in the council's presidential chair. Often I would hear "well Holbrooke started this." He made sure the council passed a resolution with the first reference to AIDS as a threat to peace and security.

Holbrooke got Israel to be included in the Western European bloc of nations so it could finally get the right to run for various U.N. posts.

Holbrooke would have loved to be someone's Secretary of State. I asked him once if he was hoping to be John Kerry's Secretary of state. Holbrooke, surprise, surprise, could have a very undiplomatic side. He told me that's the stupidest question he had ever been asked.

Holbrooke's intellect, and charm, made me like him even after being admonished. When I returned tonight to my apartment, I looked for a book Holbrooke once gave me, unrequested. "To End a War "was his post Bosnia tome.

I looked if there was anything in the book that he wrote to me. We aren't supposed to get autographs as CNN policy. I wasn't even there when he inscribed "To Richard Roth--a new book to go with your new kidney. With my very warm wishes for your health and our continued friendship."

Future diplomats would be well advised to put a little more Holbrooke in their portfolios.