Fouad Ajami: Richard Holbrooke ... Kennedy Democrat

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Ajami is a professor at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.]

Richard Holbrooke, who died this week at age 69, loved epigraphs. They are strewn all over his writings—poems and passages from Euripides, W.H. Auden, Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, the diplomatist and historian Harold Nicolson.

An epigraph from Herman Melville turns up early in Holbrooke's remarkable chronicle of his experience in the Balkans, "To End a War" (1998). "With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts."

Holbrooke lived the life of his choice, driven by that itch. The Holbrooke story could have ended in the Mekong Delta, where as a young man he served as "pacification adviser." He could have perished, as three of his colleagues traveling with him did, in the summer of 1995, on the treacherous Mount Igman road to Sarajevo.

Holbrooke apprenticed, and quarreled, with the giants. He kept the company of such great American statesmen and presidential advisers as Averell Harriman, Clark Clifford and Cyrus Vance. He was introduced to diplomacy when he was an impressionable boy by Dean Rusk, who would serve John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as secretary of state.

He came into his own amid the stirrings of the New Frontier, when American power sat astride the world. In the preface of his Bosnian chronicles, he would recall that time: "Today, public service has lost much of the aura it had when John F. Kennedy asked what we could do for our country. To hear that phrase before it became a cliché was electrifying, and it led many in my generation to enter public service. For me, it was the Foreign Service which I joined right after graduating from college. Less than a year later I found myself in Saigon."

American patriotism and American liberalism were still tethered together as Holbrooke made his way...

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