Part of the charm of the late, great Richard C. Holbrooke is that you could insult him to his face and he would take it as a compliment. He was not one for much self-reflection. More amazing was that those who knew him felt no need to dispute the slur—it was likely true. He did not embarrass and he was not restrained by humility or sentimentality.
Washington always attracted and encouraged men like him, confident, glib, and self-aggrandizing—bullet-proof. They befriend the important and flirt from high-profile issue to the next.
Holbrooke went from opening China to resolving Yugoslavia’s civil war to containing Afghanistan. He attached himself to Averill Harriman and Clarke Clifford (both men who had their own detractors). Holbrooke tagged himself as a problem-solver.
He was successful and influential, but never trusted. He was well-known and always available. He was everywhere. His greatest attribute was an ability to seek out and ingratiate himself to the famous, talented, and important.
Holbrooke instinctively knew how to separate the important from the unimportant people; whom to ignore or step on. He did not associate with the worker bees nor give them much credit. Despite all these “talents,” he never attained the position he most coveted, that of secretary of state. There was just something too untoward about him. Not every diplomat is a statesman.
Although there are many contenders for the “next-Holbrooke” (send me your list), one name is most often heard: Steve Clemons of the New American Foundation and blog, The Washington Note. He used be a Japan hand, but is currently an expert on Egypt.
A recent New York Times article “A Guy as Keeper of the National Guest List?” seems to promote Mr. Clemons as the next Holbrooke. Indeed, the article coyly refers to Holbrooke at the end of the article.
The Times White House reporter, Helene Cooper, interviewed a clearly bemused Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, as to his suggestions for the next White House social secretary, a position that has never been held by a man.
“How about Steve Clemons?” Mr. Gelb suggested, referring to the Washington foreign policy wonk and social butterfly whose “salon dinners” at Restaurant Nora in Dupont Circle are popular with diplomats, journalists and government types. “I’ve never heard of a meeting where someone didn’t tell me Steve was there,” Mr. Gelb said.Ms. Cooper then proceeded to interview Mr. Clemons over an expensive lunch:
Mr. Clemons, the director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, said no one from the White House has called him yet, but if they did, he’d jump at the chance for the job. “When I used to live across the street from Spago in West Hollywood, I’d say, ‘that’s what I want to be one day,’ ” Mr. Clemons said over lobster tails at BLT in Washington. “I wanted to be the D.C. maître d’ at Spago.”There you have it; ambition in Washington is simply being the maître d at the right venue. And not being embarrassed about it.