You may have seen the news on June 4th that former U.S. Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger passed away in Charlottesville, Virginia.
I had the privilege of working with and for Eagleburger when he held the number two position at State from 1989 to 1992. Prior to this, I had much interest but very little (read, none) experience in foreign policy. However, I had worked on Bush 41’s two presidential campaigns in 1980 and 1988, and when then Secretary of State James Baker scrawled a blunt note in the margins of a cover letter that said simply, “Get this guy in here,” I abandoned the world of big law firms and never looked back.
Eagleburger embodied the best of the American Foreign Service; in fact, he was the only career diplomat who ever rose to the top job at Foggy Bottom. More than that, he was a man of uncommon common sense that reflected his midwestern roots, and a strong sense of history that served him well in difficult missions in the Balkans and the Middle East.
He was utterly without pretense, an exceeding rare trait in the city of monstrous egos. As is well known, he was well over his ideal playing weight, walked with a cane and chain smoked throughout the day, sometimes alternating drags on a cigarette with those on his inhaler.
He did not stand on ceremony or formality. At one tense meeting in his seventh floor office suite, I recall him taking a call from National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft as Brent was flying with the President on Air Force One while a room full of Assistant Secretaries and other minions sat cooling their heels. When he wanted the international law perspective on a particular point, he would simply shout out to the assembled group, “LAWYER??!!”
He was without peer as a witness on Capitol Hill during his years in office, probably one of the best ever. He disarmed critics with candor, with subtle analysis, and with an extraordinary sense of humor and sense of self, all of which manifestly conveyed credibility. Following the first Gulf War, I worked with his office to respond to a series of sweeping Congressional investigations that centered on our policy toward Iraq and Saddam Hussein before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Eagleburger defended our Ambassador and argued vehemently that the administration’s policies were well intended, while admitting that they did not work. “It was worth trying,” he said.
In 2002, we reconnected when he came to Wilmington to address the World Affairs Council. He was irreverent as ever, and concerned that we were preparing to again invade Iraq which he regarded as a huge mistake.
I saw him for the last time about a year ago in Washington, at a meeting of Republican foreign policy mavens (not I would consider myself a maven, but I was invited). He was in fine form, commenting on all manner of political and international issue, and waxing nostalgically for the days when Scoop Jackson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Sam Nunn and other realist Democrats were in the Senate. When the session ended, I went over to shake his hand and say good-bye. He looked at me and said, “You know, I noticed that you kept smiling as I was talking, what was so amusing?” I had to admit that it was just a spontaneous reaction as I was reminded once again how rare it is to listen to someone speak with stark, refreshing conviction without an iota of concern of what others may think.
Some may call his manner undiplomatic. I would say we could use more diplomats like him.