Former Secretary Of State Eagleburger Dies At 80

Originally published on June 4, 2011 6:33 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, host: We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

And we're remembering Lawrence Eagleburger, whose long diplomatic career included a brief stint as secretary of state under George H.W. Bush. Eagleburger died today at a hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was 80 years old, and had a heart attack earlier in the week. Lawrence Eagleburger worked directly under at least four presidents from both political parties. His trademark was blunt talk, and he wasn't afraid to give an unpopular opinion - as he did in a January 2003 interview with NPR's Scott Simon, two months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq.


LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER: Those hairy-chested tub-thumpers that think it's all over in two days because Saddam is so evil that everyone will overthrow him, I don't really believe them. And I don't believe them when they say there are all these Iraqi democrats just waiting to come in and govern the country.

MARTIN: Leslie Gelb has heard a lot of Eagleburger's tough talk - and was charmed by it. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and he covered Eagleburger, and the State Department, for the New York Times.

LESLIE GELB: Knew him pretty well since about 1966. He was a career Foreign Service officer, and not exactly the type of a career Foreign Service officer. He was very blunt but filled with enormous charm. And he was the kind of character you rarely see in the foreign policy field; people are so cautious. He could make decisions. He wasn't afraid.

MARTIN: Give me an example of a tough decision that he made.

GELB: Back under Secretary Jim Baker, Larry Eagleburger wrote a memo to all embassies overseas - literally, the first time this was done - saying, hey, economics and promoting American businesses is part of your job; get to it. It was short and very Eagleburger-esque.

MARTIN: You talk about how blunt he could be and that that is sometimes revered in Washington, but it could also backfire. Do you remember - can you recall a time when his style, his straight talk didn't work out so well?

GELB: Usually, you would think not only wouldn't it work out well, but it would get you fired.

MARTIN: You'd think.


GELB: People don't like to have someone around who was in their face, and calls things black and white. And he got away with it. And he did, in good part, because of his kind of assertive charm. The charm saved him.

MARTIN: He was also able to navigate one of the biggest bureaucracies in the country, really. What made him good at navigating that?

GELB: Well, you're quite right. The State Department itself is enormous bureaucracy. And he essentially navigated it by not trying to navigate it. He would sort of blast through it. And he had the kind of relationships with the secretaries of state, be it Henry Kissinger or Jim Baker - two very strong characters themselves - where they would back him up.

You know, as long as he was taking the heat for what he was doing, they were delighted to have him in close proximity, making the decisions which otherwise, would filter to the very top.

MARTIN: Les Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks very much for remembering Lawrence Eagleburger.

GELB: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.