I’ve been reading a lot of obituaries of the recently deceased Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke. This man is a. ma. zing. Seriously. He had been involved in every major foreign policy situation since Viet Nam. A graduate of an Ivy League university, he worked at USAID, the State Department, the UN, every Democratic White House since Kennedy, and for major private sector companies. He was one of the authors of the Pentagon Papers. He brokered the Bosnian peace accord in 1995. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 7 times. And I once saw him sing with Willie Nelson on Stephen Colbert’s show. True story.
I’ve known vaguely who Holbrooke was since the 1990’s when he was part of the Clinton foreign policy cabal but I don’t have any specific recollections of things he said or did, apart from the Dayton Accord and that he was US Ambassador to the UN. And now I’m wondering, why the hell didn’t I know more about him? This man was a mental giant, knowledgeable about the world and how people interact in ways that I can’t even fathom. I am literally salivating as I think about what a course in the History of the World According to Richard Holbrooke would sound like. Listening to him talk about his work and his worldview would have been fascinating.
It’s likely that Holbroooe will be remembered as the greatest diplomat of the 20th century and would have held the same title for the 21st if he hadn’t died this week before he could complete his mission of ending the conflict in Afghanistan and broadening positive US relations with Pakistan. I’m ashamed that I wasn’t more attentive to him during his life. And I’m ashamed that the mainstream media was almost as unattentive as I was.
We live in a time when we get quotes on every subject under the sun from people who know little and do less and those empty soundbytes are treated like fodder for intelligent discussion. But nothing being handed down by Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann or Sarah “Putin Rears His Head In Alaska” Palin is even close to on par with what Richard Holbrooke would have had to say on any subject at all. The mainstream media pundits are acting as spokespeople for our entire national policy portfolio but these are people who have never made significant policy. Olbermann has a background in sports casting. Glenn Beck was a stand-up comic. Sarah Palin quit her most serious policy position to become a reality tv star. And while nothing about any of those resumes disqualifies people from talking about policy intelligently, particularly if they, like Olbermann, have a staff who does significant research and fact checking (Palin and Beck do not have as much regard for facts, it appears), but c’mon. They’re talking heads. They’re not the great thinkers of our time.
Holbrooke had a once-in-a-generation mind and we can’t sit around waiting for his like to come again but, all across this country, there are people with minds nearly as good toiling away in obscurity. I know a lot of people working in government and I’m always comforted by the knowledge that for every half-baked elected official or pundit reading talking points on tv, there’s an educated, experienced, thoughtful, compassionate, career public servant doing a good job at an agency. But it’s tragic that those people, the good minds of our era, the true servants of the public good, are silent. I don’t want to know what Sean Hannity’s opinion on government inefficiency is because he’s so far removed from any government program that he might as well be on Mars. I want to know what the people working on the ground think could be improved in the programs they administer. I don’t want to know what a half-term governor thinks about foreign policy. I want to hear from career State Department employees who’ve been to the parts of the world where the US has interests. I want to hear from the dedicated students of policy who work at universities and think tanks and foundations. I want to hear from the smartest of the smart.
It seems like the only place I ever hear from the really smart people who are experts in policy fields is CSPAN3. That’s where I can find broadcasts of think-tank sponsored issue panels, Congressional hearings with expert witnesses, and other serious discussions of major issues. But be honest here: how many of you think that I’m making CSPAN 3 up like it’s ESPN 8 “The Ocho” in Dodgeball? No one watches this stuff except dorks like me. Instead of seeking out the places where smart people go, we seek out the places where the pretty people go, namely the mainstream news and they are failing us. They give us half the story at best.
It’s time to stop glorifying attractive commentators who seem to say more than they kn0w. Instead it’s time to turn to the Holbrookes out there who know more than they say. It’s time to glorify intelligence again.