Here Come the Holbrookes! The U.N.’s New Couple

When the Hamptons throw open the big white gates of posturing and hospitality to Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton this weekend, there’ll be an empty space on guest lists where Richard Holbrooke and Kati Marton would normally be found. Their friends–Hannah and Alan Pakula, Sally and Bob Benton, Liz Robbins–will miss them. While Bruce Wasserstein is hosting his $25,000-per-couple fund-raising dinner on Friday, July 31, and Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger host their blow-out “Summer Lawn Party” the next night to raise funds for the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Holbrooke, the U.S. Ambassador-designee to the United Nations, and his wife, Ms. Marton, author and human rights activist, will be lying low at their home in Bridgehampton, L.I.

Why? Partly because the summer has been tiring for them: Mr. Holbrooke got his appointment from President Clinton in June and continued to jump around Europe. Ms. Marton went to Telluride, Colo., with her son, then joined her daughter on the European trip she’d given her for graduation from the Nightingale-Bamford School, then flew to Turkey, where, as designated representative of Human Rights Watch she had arranged to visit newly jailed dissident writer Ragib Duran and attempted to intercede with the Government on his behalf.

“Calling from Ankara,” she said in one hurried message. “Spent the day with a man who has 13 bullets in his body, the head of the human-rights movement here, then I met with some people at the Foreign Ministry and told them about their shabby human rights record.”

Mr. Holbrooke and Ms. Marton have no plans to see the Clintons on their home turf, unless, Ms. Marton said, “we just get one of those spontaneous phone calls” from the Presidential sleep-over at the Spielberg estate. But the couple’s absence will do nothing to slow frenetic speculation about the position they are suddenly positioned to occupy at the peak of high-profile New York. Not since Adlai Stevenson was at the United Nations in the 1960’s has the ambassadorial post been as ready to combine social prominence and diplomatic influence. Since the city’s extended social life and its powerful pollinators abhor a vacuum, it’s a good thing that the Holbrookes were around. Their separate plot lines have knotted into the first New York-based U.N. ambassadorship since Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s. Other U.N. ambassadors have lived and entertained at the U.N. ambassador’s suite in the Waldorf Towers–but the Holbrookes get to stay in their apartment at the Beresford, new home to Jerry Seinfeld.

What’s more, the official U.N. residence where they will entertain may well transfer from the Waldorf Towers, leased for that purpose since 1947, to a larger place. Under consideration is a $27 million apartment in the Pierre Hotel, as well as space in Trump International Hotel and Tower, and the Trump World Tower. That rumor seeped after an assessment conducted by the U.N. Inspector General’s office apparently indicated that the Waldorf quarters are no longer adequate. The purported apartment upgrade–confirmed by Calvin Mitchell, director of communications at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations–seemed in keeping with the ambitious streak commonly associated both with Mr. Holbrooke as well as with Ms. Marton, who, during a tumultuous 15-year marriage to ABC’s Peter Jennings, stood by him straight to the top of the news anchor heap.

The Holbrookes have said they will stay in their apartment at the Beresford. Overlooking the park, now stuffed with Mr. Holbrooke’s collection of Asian art, it was part of Ms. Marton’s divorce settlement with Mr. Jennings; Mr. Holbrooke had already frequented the building during the period he co-habited with then-resident Diane Sawyer. The not-so-covert assumption regarding the official residence is that a grander space is desirable for a man driven to realize his tenacious dream of becoming Secretary of State.

Although his current professional incarnation is as vice chairman of Credit Suisse First Boston in New York, the Manhattan that matters has still tended to view Mr. Holbrooke as a creature of Washington, a Beltway peripatetic, a conversation topic at tedious Georgetown dinner parties, a traveling miracle worker from the Dayton Peace Accords to battle-roiled Kosovo. The U.N. appointment seemed to change all that. He and his wife of three years have become immediate candidates for the kind of gilt-edged couple encountered in one of his friend Ward Just’s Whartonesque Eastern Corridor novels.

“It’s as if they’re suddenly ‘the one,'” said a photographer intimate with the velvet-rope crowd, “for the inner sanctum.”

Not only that, Mr. Holbrooke’s appointment has positioned him to make the next step, as Madeleine Albright did. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be Secretary of State, although I’ve never heard him say that’s what he wants,” said James Hoge, editor of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Foreign Affairs magazine and probably Mr. Holbrooke’s best friend. “Dick’s a very strong-minded man with real commitments to what he thinks American foreign policy ought to be. He’s a believer that when it’s your time in history, you have to lead, and that it’s our time. He also holds with the idea that it’s individuals who shape history.”

That depends on a Presidential victory for Mr. Holbrooke’s ally Vice President Al Gore. And Mr. Holbrooke can help as a New Yorker and diplomatic agent. The waning years of the Clinton Administration–about which Mr. Holbrooke was insinuatingly critical in To End a War , his book on the Bosnia venture–is a good time for him to cultivate New York. “Dick’s never had a real New York base before,” said his friend James Goodale, the First Amendment lawyer, whose wife, Toni Goodale, recently began fund raising for Mr. Gore’s political action committee, “and now he’s going to be a very heavy hitter politically and socially.”

Others more reluctant to forgive Mr. Holbrooke the ambition they say combats his principles and humanitarian ideals, warn that he and Ms. Marton better prepare themselves for a bumpy ascent. “You can divide New York into two crowds,” said a journalist who knows them, “people who like Dick, or think they have to, and people who don’t. And Kati is his doppelgänger.”

If Mr. Holbrooke has often been described as brilliant but self-aggrandizing, a bombastic careerist and unctuous climber, characterizations of Ms. Marton suggest Elizabeth Taylor channeling George Sand. Indeed, practically from the day of Mr. Holbrooke’s nomination, Don Imus has been feasting on them regularly on the radio.

Throughout Mr. Holbrooke’s career, from diplomatic apprenticeship in Vietnam to the Carter State Department, a Peace Corps directorship in Morocco, foreign-affairs journalism, investment banking, his Clinton Administration postings and back to finance, he’s been cited for Machiavelliana, intellectual arrogance, opportunistic social mingling and self-promotion. He has been, and is, called “bully,” “user” and not a “team player.”

Now he is a team player, and the other member of the team is Ms. Marton. “They’re like two ambitions that met,” said a journalist, “across a crowded room.” Sympathizers prefer to call the partnership symbiotic. For every mogul he has made it his geopolitical business to befriend–Henry Kravis, for instance, is now a close pal–she can match him, tycoon for tycoon. During her two-year term, 1995-97, as chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, she was instrumental in bringing in enough corporate sponsorships to bankroll a small, oppressed country.

While Government colleagues have historically viewed his abrasiveness as antithetical to their cautiously bureaucratic ways, one longtime friend called the tall, hefty Mr. Holbrooke “a giant-size version of a garden-variety Washington narcissist.”

He has said that he lives by two lessons he learned from Henry Cabot Lodge, when he served on the Ambassador’s staff in Vietnam: (1) The guest list is the most important thing in life, and (2) always eat before attending an official dinner, because they’ll try to kill you.

Mr. Holbrooke, who could not make himself available for comment, will be more focused on living up to his own track record: as a notoriously ruthless negotiator, which even his detractors admit has resulted from his take-no-prisoners code of conduct. He earned one of his nicknames, “The Bulldozer,” for his habit of plowing through bureaucratic timidity and red tape. “He is not subtle,” said the novelist Ward Just, an old Foreign Service hand. “He’s a tough customer.”

In the past this was a liability. One White House source reported that President Clinton described Mr. Holbrooke as a combination of Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman, with too much Rodman in the mix. But now, especially in the wake of his perceived successes in Bosnia, the bluster is being enlisted to deal with the controversy swirling around the $2.1 billion in U.N. membership dues currently in arrears from the United States. “He knows what he wants and how to pursue it, relentlessly, one might say–his tenacity wears people down,” said Fareed Zakaria, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs .

Frank Wisner, the recently retired Ambassador to India now employed as vice chairman for external affairs at the American International Group, has been a Holbrooke watcher since they met as Foreign Service fledglings in Saigon.

“I know all the criticisms of Dick,” he said, “that he’s prepared to trample roughshod over feelings and to upstage everyone, and I’m not saying that they’re not in measure true. He angers a lot of people. But the pluses outweigh the minuses. He’s a man of huge intelligence, force of character and logic, with a deep, sustained concern for the nation’s foreign affairs.”

On a personal level, this has tended to translate, as many of Mr. Holbrooke’s other friends are delicately wont to do, into viewing him as a lovable creep. What can you say about a guy who used to ditch dates at the end of the evening for the opportunity to escort Jacqueline Onassis home? “He’s intellectually honest, but so blunt it can be disconcerting,” said Time magazine managing editor Walter Isaacson, who has socialized with him and Ms. Marton.

David Halberstam, another friend from East Asian days, said that Mr. Holbrooke “has a political radar and foreign-policy knowledge that is off the charts but hasn’t been as acute at reading the forces lying in wait for himself.” Mr. Holbrooke has conceded in To End a War that his foot-shooting obtuseness went a long way toward defeating his earlier chances of making Secretary of State. But Bosnia was a watershed in a post-Cold War world. “Dick has a genuine sense of America’s power,” Mr. Halberstam said, “and, because of Vietnam–the tempering by defeat and disillusionment–of its limitations. The great thing about all that ambition of his now is that it’s finally harnessed to something larger than he is, to a greater good.”

Kati Marton, many feel, has been in large part responsible for what one friend refers to as “the reinvention of Dick Holbrooke.” As with many of the women he was involved with in the past–Diane Sawyer, socialite decorator Mimi Russell, Condé Nast editor Sarah Giles–Ms. Marton initially appealed to Mr. Holbrooke, friends said, for the recognition and clout he discerned in the journalism world from her work and marriage to Mr. Jennings, and for her visible personal charms. In an acknowledged self-portrait in her 1987 semi-autobiographical novel, An American Woman , she wrote: “Ugly was not a word anyone had ever used to describe Anna…. At thirty-six she had just reached her prime, and she knew it. Her body was leaner, more mobile, and certainly more self-aware than in her twenties.… Anna frankly liked her looks and regretted not being able to see her own image.”

In addition, Ms. Marton’s social skills, friends said, have helped rein in some of Mr. Holbrooke’s behavior, which led, among other tensions, to friction between him and Secretary of State Albright. Last year, Ms. Marton wrote a moving National Affairs column in Newsweek , in which she drew on a discovery that her Catholic parents, who emigrated from Hungary to the United States in 1957, were converts from Judaism and then wrote about similar revelations concerning Ms. Albright. In it, she referred to the Secretary as “my friend Madeleine.”

The “humanizing” of Richard Holbrooke, as one friend put it, stems equally from Ms. Marton’s longstanding commitment to human rights, her passionate involvement with international press freedom, and an engagement with ideas that matches his own.

Flowing directly from her background as the daughter of crusading journalists who spent two years in Budapest’s Fo Street Maximum Security Prison during the 1950’s, they have also informed her writing: Her three other books are Wallenberg , The Polk Conspiracy: Murder and Coverup in the Case of CBS Correspondent George Polk , and A Death in Jerusalem: The Assassination by Jewish Extremists of the First Middle East Peacemaker . Her tenure as chair of the Committee to Protect Journalists was marked by her bar-elevating fund raising and publicity accomplishments, including the high percentage of A-list names she netted for its annual benefit, but also by her activism.

Yet her blurring of distinctions among the public, personal and political occasionally caused her to overstep the bounds of journalistic impartiality: After her introduction praising Mr. Holbrooke as one of the greatest public servants on earth in front of a black-tie committee gathering in 1997, several members considered drafting a letter of censure. Much of her writing, too, is of the enough-about-me, let’s-talk-about-me school–her highly personal introduction to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual report in 1996, for instance, stands in marked contrast to the next year’s survey, from current president Gene Roberts.

Nor has she hesitated to use her connection to Mr. Holbrooke to further her agenda, as when she met with Bosnian Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic to discuss press restrictions in his country and to urge the release of imprisoned American journalist David Rohde in 1995. To the fascination of seasoned diplomats, her technique under such circumstances, which helped secure Mr. Rohde’s freedom, closely resembled Mr. Holbrooke’s.

“She essentially browbeat Milosevic,” said a Committee to Protect Journalists colleague. Not long after Ms. Marton’s return from Turkey in July, Mr. Holbrooke was leaving a meeting with Defense Secretary William Cohen in Washington and found himself face to face with Turkey’s military strongman, Gen. Cevik Bur. “I have reviewed the minutes of the meeting [Ms. Marton had at the foreign ministry],” General Bur told him, “and I agree that this man does not belong in prison.”

Such energy, Ms. Marton’s friends said, appears to be the consequence of her feeling that she could finally come into her own after many years in Mr. Jennings’ shadow during their marriage, an increasingly unhappy relationship that engendered a flood of attention when Ms. Marton embarked on a drearily public affair with Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen–often chortled about on the air by Don Imus. “She has … grown in her sense of confidence about her ability to take the values she believes in and really do something with them,” said Linda Healy, the editor of her books. “And she’s done it in an arena more generally dominated by men.”

A man less dedicated than Mr. Holbrooke to the social side of power-brokering might feel nervous to hear Ms. Marton say, “I really want to help him without giving up my day job.” Instead, the inveterate striver in Mr. Holbrooke seems primed and ready to plunge into the United Nations’ social scene. Those who know him say he thrives on gossip and the larger issues it disguises. Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter recalled a taxi ride he took with Mr. Holbrooke following an International Rescue Committee gala in New York at which Mr. Holbrooke arrived to a standing ovation shortly after finalizing the Dayton peace agreement. “I rode with him over to Nightline ,” Mr. Alter said, “and instead of answering my questions about how he felt about this ‘historic moment,’ he wanted to talk about Newsweek having run a story on Frank Richardson and Kimba Wood … he had still managed to keep abreast what was going on in New York-Washington power, media and gossip circles.”

Mr. Holbrooke will have to work harder to win Wall Street’s general approval and to reawaken and expand its support for Al Gore. Fancier ambassadorial digs sparkling with celebrity, and diplomat-studded dinners, won’t hurt. Despite his long run at Shearson Lehman in the 1980’s and his experience at First Boston, Mr. Holbrooke is not exactly considered a financial district heavyweight, and, in the private sector his outsider status persists. “Dick’s job has been to make it rain,” said Steve Rattner, managing partner of Lazard Frères & Company, who first met Mr. Holbrooke when they were both Washington journalists. “As a rainmaker, he’s been able to make great use of the seniority he had in the public sector.”

His media-centrism goes deeper. Mr. Holbrooke’s diplomatic career was launched when the former editor of the college paper Brown Daily News was turned down for an entry-level job at The New York Times . He took the Foreign Service exam in a fit of pique and succeeded. Many of his friendships date back to those he made when he would hang out with the press corps in Vietnam, and he has added to his media connections since, but he has found it difficult to distinguish between professional and personal criticism. Thin-skinned or not, said James Chace, former editor of Foreign Affairs and author of a new biography of Dean Acheson, “Dick will be entertaining at the U.N., and the media will be entertained.” This goes a long way toward clarifying the lukewarm response to Mr. Holbrooke’s nomination from Madeleine Albright, who has never hidden her irritation with the way his grasping for attention can impinge on her own spotlight.

For that matter, Mr. Holbrooke and Ms. Marton are probably well quit of any direct Washington involvement except in the political stratosphere to which he long aspired and has now attained. They belong to New York not the least because of Mr. Holbrooke’s vaunted insufferability–what resentful erstwhile State Department associates have traditionally referred to as his coziness with the media, have obliquely described as his pushy behavior, and have ever so subtly criticized as his woeful lack of cool and genteel restraint.

Translation, anyone?

For years, the counterpart to this rap on Mr. Holbrooke has been that he closeted his Jewish background for the sake of appearing as WASP-y. The son of Dan and Trudi Holbrooke, raised in Scarsdale, N.Y., schooled at Brown University, he was a son of assimilated, upper-class Jews who fled Nazi racism. “I’ve been with him plenty of times when his Jewishness was obvious,” said his friend Stanley Karnow, the journalist and author, “and he jokes about it plenty, too. It just isn’t an issue with him, or Kati.”

His friend the journalist Frances FitzGerald almost hit the thickly carpeted floor of the Knickerbocker Club on June 26, when, she said, Mr. Holbrooke gave a funny, self-effacing, nostalgic toast at Ambassador Frank Wisner’s 60th-birthday party. It ended with the words “I love you”–at a gathering, no less, where many had feared that Mr. Holbrooke would manage to use the fresh news of his nomination to outshine the guest of honor. Others reported watching the televised White House ceremony at which the President had announced Mr. Holbrooke’s nomination with mounting astonishment as “the Bulldozer” reminisced about his father and his family history. Then he started to cry.

As for Ms. Marton, she has presciently written about imperfect but bold men dedicated to international politics and actually saving human lives, and she has ended up married to one. Taking life’s cues from history is a not unhelpful ingredient in the couple’s undeniable drive.

Four years ago, a year before her marriage, she wrote of the United Nations, “in the 1990’s the world body falters under the weight of a similar burden as its peacemakers and peacekeepers thread their way among ancient tribal enmities from the Middle East to Bosnia.” The new book she is working on may be as self-investigatory: It’s on the changing historical role of America’s First Ladies.

It’s called research.