It was somehow fitting that it took two presidents, a vice president, a secretary of State, a Joint Chiefs chairman, two heads of state, and 20 foreign ministers to pay tribute today to Richard Holbrooke, a man of boundless energy, unbridled ambition, and maddening contradictions.
Amid the splendor of the Kennedy Center, the bull-headed diplomat who tried most recently to solve the puzzle of Afghanistan and Pakistan was remembered as an indomitable force who often had little time or patience for niceties of domestic life.
The two-hour service had an upbeat, gently humorous tone sprinkled with superlatives, as if trying to match the spirit of Holbrooke, who died last month at 69 from a ruptured aorta. There was deep affection embedded in the accolades.
Bill Clinton allowed that Holbrooke could "make you feel like you had an IQ in double digits if you didn't agree with him." And: "He would overdo all this flattery when you knew he basically didn't mean a word of it."
Hillary Clinton described the "Holbrooke treatment": calling her 10 times a day, waiting outside her office, walking into meetings uninvited. Once, said Clinton, he followed her into a ladies' room in Pakistan. "There was no escaping him," she said.
Praising his “coupling of realism and idealism,” the president said: “Richard possessed a hard-headed, clear-eyed view about how the world works.”
President Obama spoke of "an extraordinary life," saying Holbrooke "made a difference… speaking truth to power." Praising his "coupling of realism and idealism," the president said: "Richard possessed a hard-headed, clear-eyed view about how the world works." Recalling a meeting in the president-elect's transition office, he said Holbrooke "teared up when he began to talk about restoring America's place in the world."
Despite Obama's generous words, Holbrooke was not a presidential favorite and essentially served as an "AfPak" troubleshooter for Clinton, whose presidential campaign he advised in hopes of finally winning the job she holds now.
In Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward reports that Holbrooke "learned definitively how much the president didn't care for him." After the diplomat asked Obama to do him a "great favor" by calling him Richard and not Dick, the president told others he found the request strange, and Holbrooke was "horrified" when he learned that Obama had spread the word around.
Woodward also quoted Vice President Biden as telling Obama that Holbrooke was "the most egotistical bastard I've ever met"—but that he could be right for the job.
Leslie Gelb, a longtime friend and Daily Beast contributor, has written that "the chemistry didn't work" between them because while Holbrooke "flattered Obama excessively," he also "lectured" the president, who does not take kindly to lectures.
But if Holbrooke was at odds with the White House, he was unusually close to Hillary Clinton—not that he couldn't drive her crazy as well. "He was my trusted colleague, occasionally he was my biggest headache, often he was an inspiration, and always," said the secretary of State, "he was my friend."
During the half hour before the ceremony began, a screen behind the stage had a giant projected portrait of Holbrooke, from the shoulders up, in a circle of light that almost looked like a halo. He looked as if he was mid-diplomacy. A number of State Department and military officials milled around. In one group, Madeleine Albright spoke with Janet Napolitano and Christiane Amanpour. Biden and Patrick Leahy also made the rounds, as well as dozens of other high-profile media and diplomacy figures.
Holbrooke's career, dating back to his service as an embassy aide in Vietnam and a Lyndon Johnson assistant who wrote one volume of the Pentagon Papers, spanned several wars and eras. He was an assistant secretary of State for two presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and an ambassador and U.N. envoy for the latter. His crowning achievement, of course, was as chief architect of the 1995 Dayton Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia. Former President Clinton on Friday credited Holbrooke with "ending the worst killing in Europe since World War II."
An outsize figure in the press as well as in life, Holbrooke assiduously courted journalists, while dating one (Diane Sawyer, who was quoted on Friday as likening life with him to "being in the eye of a hurricane") and marrying another ( Kati Marton, his third wife).
Marton offered a more personal reflection, smiling broadly before choking up: "I tried to domesticate him. Good luck with that."
She recalled accompanying him around the world, adding, "Richard made me feel that whatever I was working on… was as important as what he was working on."
Anthony Holbrooke said his father was often absent, even when his own baby was born, but noted: "How many sons can say their father saved lives and made the world a better place?"
Another son, David Holbrooke, echoed that theme: "I wanted so much more of that man for my children, but their grandfather was not a normal grandfather."
Appraisals that might have seemed insulting if applied to others drew knowing laughter in the auditorium, depicting a man of excess, sometimes lovable, sometimes infuriating.
"Richard was the quintessential Washington know-it-all," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He envisioned a book that the not-so-diplomatic diplomat might have written: "How to Win Friends and Tick Off Everyone Else."
Acolytes joked about Holbrooke's legendary bluntness. "As an editor, he decimated our prose," said White House aide Samantha Power. "When I complained he was repeating himself, he said, 'There's no indication you're retaining what I told you, so I'm trying again.'"
Clearly, the man did not lack for self-confidence. Over a drink in the early 1990s, Bill Clinton recalled, Holbrooke "interviewed me to determine whether I could suitably run for the Democratic nomination for president." Holbrooke became so aggressive that "I thought he was going to finish with his hands on my throat."
Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, spoke of Holbrooke's international importance: "Richard was the American who came in peace, however well-disguised that sometimes seemed."
During his remarks, Obama announced a more lasting memorial: the creation of a Richard C. Holbrooke Award to honor diplomatic excellence.
— Daniel Stone contributed to this report.
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.