Warren Christopher, Mr. Diplomat

A speechwriter remembers life with the Secretary of State.

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The first time I met Warren Christopher was one of the only times I ever heard him make a wisecrack. We were at the first Summit of the Americas in Miami, sipping piña coladas on the veranda as our Tommy Bahama shirts flapped in the warm breeze.... Scratch that: It was a poorly lit hotel suite with nervous men and women in nondescript suits milling about, waiting for a meeting to begin. I was one of Christopher's speechwriters for two years, and Miami was my first road trip. Christopher sat down, and an over-perky Joan Spero, the Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs, chirped, "We have a great summit program for you, Mr. Secretary!" Christopher, who had just flown in from another multilateral circus in Europe, rubbed his eyes and groaned, "That's what they told me in Budapest." 

Christopher, who died yesterday, was the consummate American lawyer-diplomat, impeccably buttoned up and, beneath his bespoke suits and shirts, passionately dedicated to his country. The New York Times obituary touches on some of the thankless tasks he took on abroad and at home: the Iranian hostage crisis, the Panama Canal treaties, managing relations with Taiwan in the U.S. normalization of ties with China, dealing with riots and police brutality in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago, running Clinton's transition team. Bizarrely, however, the Times all but ignores his odometer-busting shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East during the 1990s, and his role in the negotiations to end the war in Bosnia (for all Richard Holbrooke's showmanship, the talks would not have succeeded without Christopher's tireless patience--and occasional, strategic bursts of anger). 

There are two raps on Christopher: that he was insufficiently geostrategic and that he was reluctant to recommend a resort to force over diplomacy. The first charge is the F1 key of armchair strategists; the second ignores the role of the secretary of state. But even if they're both somewhat true, the events of the last decade are a reminder that forceful geostrategy can be a blueprint for disaster. For my part, I saw a diplomat who was reluctant to make promises that America couldn't keep--his speech mark-ups routinely excised any "bear-any-burden, pay-any-price" rhetoric--and who was unfailingly willing to take hits (and given Bill Clinton's foreign policy learning curve, he took a lot of them). During one particularly rocky patch in U.S.-China relations, I remember Christopher's top advisers arguing over whether to announce high-level talks with the Chinese. "It'll get us front-page news," said Tom Donilon, Christopher's chief of staff and now Obama's national security adviser. "The Republicans will kill us," responded Jim Steinberg, the director of Policy Planning and now Hillary Clinton's deputy secretary of state. Christopher poked his head in through the paneled door leading to his office and settled the matter: "We talk to the Russians all the time. We should talk to the Chinese. It's the right thing to do." 

I never saw Warren Christopher "eat presidential M&M's with a knife and fork," as Clinton said in his farewell remarks for him. I did see him stroll through the Brazilian rainforest in cream trousers with creases sharp enough to cut through the jungle, and white, red-whoosh Nike sneakers that looked like they'd just come out of the box. Mr. Casual he was not. But as my colleague Jim Fallows has observed, he was more strong than dull. And not only was he loyal to his presidents, he was unfailingly loyal and decent to the people who worked for him. 

Back before public service devolved into a way-station for lucrative lobbying jobs, Americans like Warren Christopher kept this country strong. As he put it in his own penned-in words at Andrews Air Force Base, when he had the horrible task of receiving the bodies of three close colleagues killed in Bosnia (Bob Frasure, Joe Kruzel, and Nelson Drew), "the pursuit of American interests and principles in the world is not an abstraction, or accomplished by high technology and whirring computers. It depends on superb individuals." Like his quiet, unflashy hero George Marshall, Warren M. Christopher was one of them.
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James Gibney is a features editor at The Atlantic. He was a political officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, where he wrote speeches for Warren Christopher, Anthony Lake, and Bill Clinton.

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