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Richard Holbrooke's last words

Veteran US diplomat Richard Holbrooke died yesterday after being hospitalized and going into heart surgery to repair a torn aorta, and today the newspapers are full of eulogies and obituaries. But I’m interested in reports of what his last words were. According to the Washington Post:

As Mr. Holbrooke was sedated for surgery, family members said, his final words were to his Pakistani surgeon: “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”

Already it’s a multiply searched term on Google; Google News turned up more than 4,000 hits. That’s because these last words are so portentous — it’s as if he knew that he might not survive this. It also raises the question: to whom was he speaking? He was saying it to his surgeon. But was this a message intended for someone, and who? I doubt it was the surgeon.

I’ve been so preoccupied lately with first words and haven’t given much thought to last ones. Yesterday I attended a wake for the mother of a friend who had died suddenly, talking to my friend who has two young boys, and I annoyed him by asking how his son had pronounced “car.” “I don’t know,” he said, irritated. Well, my son might have said /ka/, which matters to me, for lots of reasons I’ve gone into already. And under the circumstances it wasn’t the right time to ask what his mother’s last words were. It would have been like me to ask, How did she pronounce them?

I wonder if “last words” become significant to the degree that the sick or dying persons use the people present as an audience who are still within the flow of time — the speaker himself is leaving history, and anyone present is necessarily within it.


As I also suspected, the last words were much less clean than the historical script would have us believe (though it may be too late to keep this from passing into the annals as historical fact). As others are reporting, the exchange involved more back and forth, and it DID involve Holbrooke telling his surgeons to end the war. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley apparently said:

I should note that a lot of media coverage this morning about the interaction between Ambassador Holbrooke and his medical team as he was preparing for surgery for Friday – I’ve consulted with a number of folks who were in the room.

There was a, you know, lengthy exchange with Ambassador Holbrooke and the medical team, probably reflecting Richard’s relentless pursuit of the policy that he had – he had helped to craft and was charged by the president and the secretary with carrying out.

At one point, the medical team said, “You’ve got to relax.”

And Richard said, “I can’t relax. I’m worried about Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

And then after some additional exchanges, you know, the medical team finally – finally said, “Well, tell you what; 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.”

Jim Newell, Gawker writer, adds:

In other words, he didn’t grab the doctor’s lapels, let the room become dark and silent, and go, “THE HORROR! THE HORROR!” before expiring, leaving all Americans to grapple with these words of vast world-historical importance. He was more like, “Hey doc, since I have to go under, maybe you can wrap up this AfPak situation for me?”


Some late entries, this one by Joe Klein talking to NPR. Klein agrees with Crowley that this was Holbrooke’s humorous repartee, that “he thought he was gong to be operated on and was probably figuring on about a 15 or 20 minute recovery and then go back to work.” The interview brings up another point — which is an important facet of last words as a cultural category — that Holbrooke, in his last words, was stating a changed position or articulating a conversion from a diplomatic solution to a military one in Afghanistan.

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….