On December 13th 2010, my father Ambassador Richard Holbrooke lay dying in George Washington Hospital. His heart had given out three days earlier while he was in a meeting with his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and despite the dedicated surgeon’s best efforts, he was not going to make it.
In the lobby on the second floor of the hospital, our family and a few of his friends/colleagues had gathered for my father's last minutes. That group included some of the very upper echelon of the U.S. Government’s national security establishment: Admiral Mike Mullen (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff), Tom Donilon (National Security Advisor) and Hillary Clinton.
My father was the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan but his work had not gone well in the Obama Administration as he not only had to deal with a mercurial Afghan government but also an intransigent White House, which never really let him do his job. Generally considered to be the most brilliant diplomat of his generation, he could also be a difficult personality and never meshed well with President Obama, who was vastly different in generation and temperament. Navigating this challenging relationship was Hillary Clinton. As she said to me in an on camera interview for The Diplomat, a documentary I made about my father, “they were very different leadership approaches and they clashed.”
Hillary Clinton’s frankness is striking in The Diplomat. She is warm, thoughtful and caring in a way she has never really been on camera.
Countless people who have seen the film have told me that it made them rethink how they felt about her. I recently reread the transcripts of our interview and am struck once again, by how she is so clearly an incisive boss, a caring friend, and time and again, a total wonk.
Here she is on my father’s inability to build a relationship with the White House:
I would often times be in a meeting and I would see Richard making an important point about counter-insurgency, something he knew firsthand from the ground in Vietnam, and having his hard-won experience, you know, not understood. It just wasn't communicated in a way that broke through the resistance to talking about Vietnam in, you know, 2009. And that was very frustrating, it was frustrating for him to go through and frustrating for me to see. I must say, he was never deterred.
Here she is worrying - quite rightly - about my father's health:
I had known that he'd had some heart trouble and I had been somewhat chastising him. Well, the first time he went into the hospital I didn't know about it. The second time I did know about it and I questioned him pretty intensely about what's wrong. And he goes, Oh, nothing, nothing, my doctor in New York says I'm fine, all that stuff. I sent around a cardiologist whom I knew and asked that cardiologist to check up on him and by the time the cardiologist got to the room, Richard was gone. He had checked himself out.
Here she is on the intractability of Afghan President Hamid Karzai:
There were certain things though that President Karzai was unwilling to do that were just inexplicable. Here were are losing our men and women on the battlefield and he never asserted himself as commander-in-chief, he would rarely meet with Afghan soldiers who were being trained to try to defend Afghanistan. He was always more comfortable with the kind of inside political game and so it posed problems for all of. Now that doesn't mean we couldn't have tried different approaches, but it was difficult, it was difficult to reconcile what we needed to get done in order to help Afghanistan and by extension help President Karzai and what he was interested in.
That December evening at GW was wrenching. After my father died, we collected the detritus of our lives from living at the hospital over the weekend and went back to his house to mourn. However Hillary Clinton did not go home. What she did in the awful moments after his death has always stayed with me. She took his many staffers who were like family to him, out for drinks, leading even in this time of grief. Throughout this ordeal, she was there for my family and there for them.
Nearly six years after my father’s death, I look back on something Hillary Clinton said about him that I think in some ways applies to her as well.
You know, I adored Richard, he would be maddening, he'd be frustrating, he would drive me crazy, I loved working with him despite how much he drove me crazy. His creativity, his passion, his conviction about what was possible.
My father’s thoughts about what was possible were firmly rooted in the notion that America had a unique role and responsibility in this world. If Hillary Clinton had been elected President in 2008, my father would have likely been her Secretary of State. I think one of the reasons was that they shared a very patriotic belief in this country and it’s potential to ultimately be a positive force in this world.
I just wish he were alive to help her fulfill that vision.