I was deeply saddened to hear of Warren Christopher’s passing this weekend. He was one of the last lawyer-statesmen of his generation within the Democratic party establishment – a veteran of World War II, with service in the Johnson and Carter administrations before being named Secretary of State by President Clinton. Jim Fallows’ has a lovely tribute here, which honors the local Southern California roots of Christopher’s public service and his engagement on the national and international scene. I had the honor to work as a junior assistant to Christopher during the first year of the Clinton administration, and came to admire him tremendously as a lawyer, statesman and mentor.
The press corps was not terribly forgiving of Christopher in those first months, which were marked by American hesitancy and perceived inconsistencies in approaches to the war in the Balkans (Christopher was initially reluctant to commit troops to the region), the attack on US Army Rangers in Somalia, and later the genocide in Rwanda. Many have faulted Christopher for not playing a stronger hand in guiding the young, inexperienced president through those rough foreign policy waters. In part, Christopher bore the brunt of the blame because he was the most visible face of a policy in disarray. I learned important lessons about the fickle nature of press coverage and the pressures of Washington politics in those first few months, and was constantly impressed by Christopher’s ability to remain focused on the job at hand and by his sheer energy and doggedness in shouldering the considerable burdens of the job. (He was in his late 60s when he took the position, which is remarkable in itself.) Working with Christopher and the attorneys he had brought with him from O’Melveny – including his then-Chief of Staff and Obama National Security Adviser Tom Donilon – offered a new window on problem solving and negotiation. Lawyers and career diplomats have much in common, but they come up through different training and apprenticeships, a difference which is reflected in their styles and methods of problem solving.
As many have observed over the years (including Christopher himself, who was refreshingly self-aware), he possessed neither a sparkling public persona, nor a compelling public speaking style. The latter was a major point of frustration for his speech writers and aides. He was, as Jim Fallows noted, the opposite personality type of the late Richard Holbrooke – with whom he crafted the 1995 Dayton Accords to end the war in Bosnia. Indeed, their opposite characteristics – Christopher was taciturn and discreet, where Holbrooke was flamboyant and constantly schmoozing counterparts and the press – served as useful complements in that process. Christopher’s diplomacy was in the model of the quiet, back-room negotiator which had made him a successful corporate lawyer. He said on more than one occasion that he was most proud of his own leadership of the quiet negotiation that led to the safe return of the U.S. hostages from Iran under the terms of the Algiers Accords.
He was unfailingly gracious and impeccable in dress and manner, known for his bespoke suits and ever-present pocket squares. I remember warmly his meeting with my family when they took a tour of the State Department; my father was both shocked and thrilled that the Secretary of State would take the time to meet them. On another occasion, en route to Capitol Hill to testify, I was carrying the briefing books and sitting in the tiny “jump seat” of the Secretary’s limousine. As he was being briefed by Tom Donilon, the Secretary quietly leaned over and gently adjusted the collar of my suit jacket, which was askew. There was something quite charming in that small gesture. When I made my own transition from the diplomatic corps to the law, Christopher was supportive and encouraging of a career path with a foot in both law and diplomacy. He believed in balancing service to country, to the profession, and to the community, and he leaves an impressive legacy in each. His was a model of the life well lived. My deep condolences to his family.