My husband wrote this article about his experiences with Lawrence Eagleburger after learning of his passing yesterday. If another more touching memorial to Mr. Eagleburger has been written, I haven’t seen it, and I thought that it should be published. I hope Mr. E knew how much CandyMan appreciated him.
I first met Secretary Eagleburger in December 1998, when I was interviewed to be his assistant on a new commission he was heading (the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims).
He reminded me of my paternal grandfather (both of our families have German roots). As he walked in the lobby past me, the unmistakable click of his cane tapping the floor was a constant cadence of his walk.
We would soon become close friends. Our first trip together found me staying in a luxury suite in the Waldorf Towers in New York. I remember him laughing at me because I had gone all around his room counting the number of thermostats. It was my first exposure to luxury living.
Over the coming five years, we would visit the Waldorf Towers and many other fabulous hotels around the world (China, Italy, England, France, you name it, we went there).
My role began as his assistant, but as anyone who knows him will tell you, he rewards people who take the initiative. I quickly saw many vacuums in our commission and other areas of Mr. Eagleburger’s life. I stepped in to do what I could. Before long, he was including me in everything he did.
Of all the things I can say about Mr. Eagleburger, one of the most endearing is that he literally went out of his way to include me in high-level meetings. He said he wanted me to see how things worked, how he handled situations and problems. I learned incredibly fast just how the top brass of the world get things done.
Only one occasion do I remember being shut out of a meeting and that was due to a Senate member’s chief of staff closing the door on my face. I waited in the hall and when he emerged, the first thing he said to me was “that was a crappy thing for that guy to do.” He looked out for me constantly.
But, beyond the Secretary Eaglleburger that the media talks about, the praise for his commitment to country and his never ending list of accomplishments was a man that did not fit the role of a senior diplomat and statesman.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Eagleburger was a man who liked things to be simple. He didn’t like fancy restaurants. He hated “foo foo food” as he would call it. He preferred a nice steak. But always well done. He would say “I want a steak, but I wanted it really well done, like shoe leather.”
He also loved Chinese food. He asked the guy at the Peking Gourmet in Alexandria who carved the duck to do his heart surgery.
When we traveled, he preferred to have a no nonsense dinner with the AV technician at the conference and ask questions about local culture rather than listen to some stuck up politician discuss things he (Mr. E) didn’t care about.
He heavily salted everything he ate (even his pizza).
He loved to quote Ogden Nash, the five-second poet. I got him an entire book of Ogden Nash one year for his birthday. My children and I still quote from it. His favorite Ogden Nash poem was “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.”
Over the years we worked together, I constantly bugged him about writing a book about his experiences. He would not. He viewed it as a betrayal of his office. Not to disrespect Kissinger or others. Kissinger came from an academic background and Mr. E supported all that “Henry” wrote. He loved him. He kept a picture in his office of him giving Henry a hug on Henry’s last day at the State Department.
When we sat in meetings, he would doodle, but his doodles were always quite similar. They had loops and swirls. They looked like a fancy spider web.
He had a great sense of humor and was always dancing about (as much as he could) and he would sing songs.
But the side of Lawrence Eagleburger that I was privileged to know is the man who, despite his physical pain, tried very hard to treat people well and continue helping others.
There were days when he was in so much physical pain that any normal person would have stayed home and called in sick. If he was in anyway able of moving, he would. Notwithstanding his unstoppable drive, I found myself at his condo in Arlington, him in a bathrobe slowly moving around while I coordinated meetings, phone calls and faxes from the living room.
It was pleasure to work with him. I was the luckiest person in the world because I got individual time to learn from him more than anyone else.
Of the hundreds of times I helped him carry his brief case and all the junk he would lug around with him up to his condo at the end of the day, there was never a single time he did not say thank you. I think I learned how to say “thank you” from him.
As time passed, we spent a lot of time together on planes, trains and automobiles. My scariest adventure with him was driving him back to Charlotesville in my Geo Prizm. This was the smallest car he had been in in years. It was a manual transmission and as I shifted gears, he would smack my hand if I shifted the gears too early. He said I was driving it wrong. I needed to wind out the gears. For months I felt like Pavov’s dog every time I reached for the gear shift, but I wasn’t salivating, I was “gear shift” shy of being smacked.
One of the things we shared in common was a love for languages. He spoke several languages and would always chat with the shoe shine guys at the train station in DC in Spanish. He liked that fact that I knew about 10 languages at the time I worked for him. He could speak to me in Serbian and I could talk back to him in Polish and Russian. He would curse at me in German or whatever else came to his mind.
He had a phenomenal sense of people and their aspirations. He knew how to navigate personal politics. On one trip to Azerbaijan, he was meeting with the President. I was very excited to go, but he knew this was a meeting that I was not invited to so he very smoothly asked me if I would stay back to make sure his wife Marlene was looked after. I was bummed about missing the meeting, but immediately saw what he was doing.
In all my experiences, I have never worked for or know anyone who looked after their staff like he did.
Had Bush Sr. won re-election, he was going to clean up the State Department and get rid of those who weren’t worth their weight and didn’t do their job. He always regretted that he did not have the chance to do this.
Mr. E had an unusual repository of personal metaphors. He frequently told people they were dancing around issues doing some sort of “kabuki dance”, or my personal favorite that they were “bouncing around like a fart in a mitten.” I still have no idea what that one means.
While traveling from Geneva to London, he found out I had never been to Paris, so we changed plans and visited Paris for 2 days. I put on 7lbs on that trip alone as he would always scoop his extra food on to my plate.
While working on the Holocaust Commission, he was frequently attacked by numerous individuals and groups for taking a large salary. I can personally attest to the fact that he gave up multiple board positions and speaking engagements that paid far more and were significantly less work.
He made tremendous personal sacrifices to chair the Holocaust Commission and had to manage a process that was far more complicated than anyone ever predicted. During the first months of the work, he repeatedly said that he expected to wrap this whole project up in about one year. It took nearly nine years.
Numerous times, it was only his skill and personality that kept people and organizations from leaving the process in lieu of a class action lawsuit. He had to endure the ignorance of certain congressmen who cared nothing for Holocaust issues, but rather saw it as a political card to play.
Why did he agree to chair this commission? He always felt a responsibility for the anti-semitism that he said existed in the State Department. He wanted to repair some of the damage that he felt he never addressed while in office. He cared about people who had been wronged by the evil that bad governments did, especially when the power to do something was within his power.
Mr. Eagleburger hated Saddam Hussein because he invaded Kuwait while he was away visiting his home in Wisconsin (the only time he had ever taken off of work to go home for a birthday celebration). Mr. E’s birthday: August 1. Invasion of Kuwait: August 2.
He liked to buy things wherever he went. He couldn’t even stop for gas without picking up a couple magazines, trail mix or something to drink. His drinks had to be ice cold. Ice cold. I’ll never forget how happy he was when I strained his milk over ice cubes one time and it was freezing cold. Oh, the joy of simple pleasures.
He suffered from myasthenia gravis and the hotter it got, the more difficult it was to move.
He pronounced Gummi Bears with a long “u” sound and would always yell at me for getting into the stash of “Goomi Bears” he kept in his desk.
He couldn’t type well on a computer and was elated when I taught him some simple “cut” and “paste” shortcuts in Microsoft Word.
He loved his wife Marlene very much. She passed away almost one year ago unexpectedly. They traveled together on many of his assignments where I was able to learn more about Mr. E and hear countless stories that will never make it to the annuls of the State Department.
My favorite was a time when Mr. E was holding secret talks with Cuba and he told Marlene that someone would be calling their home for “Mr. Wilson.” Several weeks passed (by which time she had forgotten) when, out of the blue, a man with a squeaky latino voice called and asked for “Meester Weelson.” She told him that he had the wrong number and hung up. He called back and asked for “Meester Weelson” where upon she informed him again that he had the wrong number and hung up. A third time he called and asked for “Meester Weelson” and she again told him he had the wrong number, hung up and then horrified, remembered what Mr. E had told her a few weeks prior. Fortunately, he called back one more time and with a very timid voice asked one more time for “Meester Weelson”. She told him to hold on and she would get him.
Marlene was a horse lover. She rescued multiple horses and let them roam the fields around their home in Charlottesville.
He has tremendous respect for his good friend Brent Scowcroft and always commented that Bush Sr. had a phenomenal understanding of foreign policy issues.
He respected Roman Kent (American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors) so much that when he could not get Roman to agree on an issue relating to the Holocaust commission, he temporarily resigned from the commission. Roman, out of his respect for Mr. Eagleburger, came to an agreement with Mr. E. That was perhaps one of the most touching instances of diplomacy that I ever saw. It was done privately between friends, yet the future of the commission was determined by this quiet act.
When I resigned my position at the commission, it had never occurred to me the void that would surface in my life. I had been his constant companion for five years. He was perhaps my best friend during those years. He tutored me, trained me, prepared me and gave me opportunities to lead and direct projects that were well beyond my years of experience.
He loved his sons very much, and always wished he had spent more time with them when they were younger. He was proud of each of them for choosing their own paths.
Not without his faults, he was no god. He had his own list of shortcomings. He was not an office manager and relied heavily on those around him to make sure things moved forward. That is what I liked best. If he gave me an assignment, I could get it done without interference. He was a delegator.
He was a Career Ambassador, which is a term most people are not familiar with. This is a special title within the Foreign Service. He once told me that this was equivalent to a 4-star general. It is in fact.
I have never found another mentor like him, but I have lived his advice and counsel and repeated them to my family, friends and colleagues. I don’t get nervous around “big and important” people because let’s face it, I’ll never meet anyone who was more important than Mr. Eagleburger.
Since working for him, I have yet to meet anyone that motivates and inspires me the way he did. He was the best mentor I could have ever asked for and a good friend.
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