Speculation Flies Over Holbrooke's Last Words

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Head-scratching ensued this week at reports of the last words from Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. Initial interpretations were that he'd pleaded for an end to the war in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, a State Department spokesman took pains to clarify just what was said just before Holbrooke went into surgery for a torn aorta. NPR's Melissa Block talks to Joe Klein, a senior writer and columnist for Time magazine, who was a longtime friend of Holbrooke.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There's been quite a bit of discussion this week about the reported last words of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, as he was being prepared for surgery on Friday to repair his torn aorta. In its obituary for Holbrooke, The Washington Post originally reported that his last words to his Pakistani-American surgeon were: You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan. Speculation flew. Did that mean Richard Holbrooke opposed the war, doubted that it could be won?

Well, yesterday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley took pains to clarify just what was said.

Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (Spokesman, State Department): At one point, the medical team said, you've got to relax, and Richard said, I can't relax, I've got - I'm worried about Afghanistan and Pakistan. And then after some additional exchanges, you know, the medical team finally said, well tell you what, you know, we'll try to fix this challenge while you're undergoing surgery. And he said, yeah, see if you can take care of that, including ending the war.

BLOCK: And Crowley described this as humorous repartee. We're going to get the thoughts now of someone who knew Richard Holbrooke very well as a friend for 30 years, Time magazine senior writer Joe Klein, who has just come back from a reporting trip to Afghanistan. And, Joe, does that exchange sound like the Richard Holbrooke that you knew very well?

Mr. JOE KLEIN (Senior Writer, Time Magazine): Oh, yeah. And the most important thing to know about that is that there is no way on earth that Richard Holbrooke thought those were going to be his last words. I'm sure that he thought he was going to be operated on and was probably figuring on about a 15 or 20 minute recovery and then go back to work.

BLOCK: And P.J. Crowley went on to say that the exchange reflected Richard Holbrooke's relentless, that was his word, relentless pursuit of the policy he'd helped craft. And fittingly, he added this, it was Holbrooke who had the last word.

Mr. KLEIN: Yes. Well, he usually did have the last word. And it did reflect his obsession with the policy. But the notion that he, you know, he would, you know, have this cry of the heart at the very end and say, stop this war, is pretty much nonsense. I had dinner with him a couple of weeks before he passed and just before I left for my most recent trip to Afghanistan. And, you know, he really saw this as a very, very complicated, multination, regional problem that was going to be solved gradually. It wasn't something that you could just stop or end.

BLOCK: And he would've been, I think, the first person to say this cannot be won purely militarily.

Mr. KLEIN: Oh, no. He had grave skepticism about the military aspects of the war. For him, I think that the decision to move 30,000 more troops into theater over the last year was a very close call. He eventually sided with his boss, Secretary of State Clinton on it. But he really thought that the ultimate way to end this thing was diplomatically, by getting the Indians and the Pakistanis to stop vying for Afghanistan as a strategic asset.

BLOCK: Do you stop and think, Joe Klein, about what Richard would make of the speculation that this was some final, you know, dying word conversion on his part?

Mr. KLEIN: Well, he - this is the sort of thing that he would've loved to dissect. He would've gone on for, you know, for hours about different people's reactions to these alleged last words and how they were using them for their own, you know, ideological interests. It was the kind of thing that he would do with friends and that we all loved him for, because he was the most inveterate and close reader of the press. So I think he would've loved this kind of speculation.

BLOCK: Well, Joe Klein, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. KLEIN: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Joe Klein is a senior writer for Time magazine and a long-time friend of the late Richard Holbrooke.

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