In our column last Friday we mentioned how Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former National Security Adviser, insisted on refusing Richard Holbrooke’s participation in the negotiation between the United States and the People's Republic of China on establishing a diplomatic relationship. One of the reasons was that he was in an intimate relationship with Diane Sawyer, a journalist from CBS. Brzezinski worried that the details would have been disclosed to Holbrooke's girlfriend had he known any insights of the talks. Brzezinski's worries were not unreasonable at all.
It reminds me of that one day not so long after Ronald Reagan had been sworn into office, Bob Pierpoint, the CBS resident correspondent in the State Department, asked me if the hearsay was true that Taiwanese representatives in D.C. were allowed to have direct talks in the White House with advisers from the National Security Council. Pierpoint assured me that the information from his colleague Ms. Sawyer was absolutely credible. Hearing that, I made a phone call to Taiwanese Representative Hsia Kung-chuan, who later denied the news. I passed on the words of denial to Pierpoint, and Sawyer therefore drew back from reporting the news. Losing this “exclusive,” she still put on a smile when I saw her on a later occasion.
I later recalled that most of Sawyer's information was from Holbrooke, and there must have been some ulterior motives for him to tell her. Had such high-level contacts between Taiwan and the United States been reported in newspapers, the People's Republic would have strongly protested for sure. If the news were proven true, Hsia wouldn't be able to enter the White House anymore.
Holbrooke had three marriages in his life. His third wife, Kati Marton, had married late ABC anchor Peter Jennings. Marton was born Jewish-Hungarian. Her father, who was recruited locally in Budapest by the Associated Press as a resident correspondent in the 1950s, was arrested by the Stalinist Rákosi authority for espionage. Not until the Hungarian revolution in 1956 did he flee to the United States via Vienna; he became an AP journalist in the State Department until he retired. His scholarly looks and pipe-smoking habit also earned him the nickname of Dr. Marton.
Holbrooke's second wife, Blythe Babyak, was a TV producer. The hippie-like bohemian Babyak even wore jeans and nearly transparent skimpy tops when accompanying Holbrooke to the airport, greeting the Japanese Prime Minister on an official visit to D.C. This dress, perceived as humiliation to Japan, shocked the Japanese and became one of the D.C. scandals. The marriage, however, doesn't seem to have lasted long.
Holbrooke was a career diplomat. He was first at Vietnam when Henry Lodge, Jr. was the ambassador. He also served under senior diplomat William Averell Harriman. In addition, he was also a bosom buddy of the son of former Secretary of State Dean Rusk. These good connections, however, provided no fast promotions within the diplomatic system, so he decided to quit. What really pushed him back to politics was his later career as an editor at Foreign Policy magazine. When Foreign Policy began its publication in Washington D.C., Holbrooke held a celebration party. He invited many in the journalism industry, including me. It was the first time I saw Holbrooke, 30 or so years ago.
He had a career path similar to Winston Lord, the former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Lord was also a professionally trained diplomat. Both were later successful after leaving government positions and became influential. The only difference is that Lord was from a rich clan (more specifically, he was a WASP), while the Jewish Holbrooke lost his father when he was little. Comparing the two, Holbrooke is more shrewd and arbitrary.
There was one time Holbrooke went on a TV interview. When commenting on Deng Xiaoping, Holbrooke had a vivid word describing how much of a hurry Deng was in that he wanted the reform and opening-up of China along with his ideal of the “four modernizations.” From this interview we can tell Holbrooke was talented and indeed excelled as a diplomat, seeing through Deng's mind. However, Holbrooke's arrogance that he didn’t suffer fools gladly kept him away from the position of secretary of state despite his intelligence. In this aspect, he was not as smart as his also-Jewish senior, Henry Kissinger.