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In 'The Diplomat,' Filmmaker David Holbrooke Recalls Late Father's Career


In 2009, after Barack Obama was elected president, one of his first major foreign-policy decisions was to appoint the renowned diplomat Richard Holbrooke as the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. When he accepted the nomination, Holbrook made a joke to his wife and family about how demanding the job would be.


RICHARD HOLBROOKE: I also have to thank Kati, my two sons David and Anthony for coming down here today, and I hope that I'll be able to see you sometime the next few years.


MCEVERS: Richard Holbrook died after complications from a torn aorta almost two years later. His story is the subject of a new documentary called "The Diplomat." It's a personal film. It was made by his son David Holbrooke who retraced his father's footsteps from Vietnam to Afghanistan to the Balkans where Richard Holbrooke is best known for negotiating an end to the war.


R. HOLBROOKE: (As self) It's a tough peace, but it's a peace. Four years of hellish war - the three presidents agreed to an astonishingly comprehensive plan. It's a hell of a job. I think people ought to take a moment and say, this is something really historic.

MCEVERS: "The Diplomat" is also the story of an absent father. In one scene, David Holbrook tells his father's one-time girlfriend Diane Sawyer that he wasn't frustrated with his father when he was young, but...


DAVID HOLBROOKE: (As self) When I have my kids who wanted to see their famous grandfather, wanted to get a sense of that and he didn't have the time or the energy or the ability, that frustrated me more.

MCEVERS: I asked David Holbrooke if he still feels that frustration.

D. HOLBROOKE: No, I don't. I mean, I think I've gained so much from making this film. And it was therapeutic, in a way. Although, as I'd like to caution, you know, documentary filmmaking is a lot more expensive than therapy.

MCEVERS: David Holbrooke says that now he's OK with his father's absences because he believes Richard Holbrooke was doing good work.

D. HOLBROOKE: You know, a lot of parents are absent. Particularly, a lot of fathers are absent, and they're absent at the end of a bar or on a golf course. That wasn't him. You know, he was involved in something important, and I really appreciate that. And I think, for me, making this film is, you know, trying to live a life of meaning and trying to make work that has meaning and encouraging my children to do the same. And I think that's something that we picked up from him that he picked up from his own father who died way too young.

MCEVERS: You were able to get really incredible access to people in this film. I mean, you spoke to Hillary Clinton. You spoke to Bill Clinton, Al Gore, so many U.S. officials, I mean, prime ministers, president of Afghanistan. I mean, do you think you got that access because you were his son?

D. HOLBROOKE: It helped, of course. You know, people wanted to talk about him. They were intrigued by him, excited by him. He was - left an indelible mark on everybody that he touched, and that was really incredible. And I think people wanted to reflect on him. And I found a lot for myself. At the end of the interview, I could tell how the people who were interviewing were often disappointed that it was over because they enjoyed spending the time with him again.

MCEVERS: I wonder, though, also, if people maybe weren't as honest with you as they might have been because you were his son.

D. HOLBROOKE: I think it cuts both ways. And I think, you know, there were people that we really got access who gave us a different side of themselves - for instance, Hillary Clinton, who I don't think the American public has really seen her in the way they'll see her in this film. You know, she's unguarded. She's honest. She's open. There's no, you know, poll testing going on. There's nothing but, I think, a real clear affection and respect for her colleague.

MCEVERS: Another thing you get access to are some materials that, you know, haven't been published before, conversations your father had with journalist Bob Woodward, audio diaries that your father kept. And there's one - you know, he was already tasked with AfPak - Afghanistan, Pakistan in the Obama administration, but he was clearly at odds with the White House. And in this audio diary of his, that's what he's talking about. Let's hear that.


R. HOLBROOKE: That really is the way the White House thinks. They don't have a deep understanding of the issues themselves, but increasingly, they're deluding themselves into thinking they do.

MCEVERS: You know, he wanted a more diplomatic solution to Afghanistan where the White House was pursuing, in his mind, a more military solution. Were you surprised to learn how much he differed from the administration on its policy in Afghanistan?

D. HOLBROOKE: You know, the way I understand it from all the research I've done, all the interviews and so on is really that it came down to more - to personality. And my father had a strong personality. It was one that didn't fit into this administration. It was really unfortunate to me because he was never really given an opportunity to voice what he thought policy-wise because he was so out-of-step personally with the president and his team. And to me, it sounds facile, but I really think it's true and so unfortunate in the end if that's the case.

MCEVERS: This might be a strange question.

D. HOLBROOKE: Bring it, Kelly. Bring it.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) But in the film, you seem sad. And just I wonder - I mean, are you grieving for your dad still even though you weren't all that close throughout your life?

D. HOLBROOKE: I don't think I'm grieving for him, but there's not a day I don't miss him. And I think - and this is a weird thing to say, but that the world doesn't miss him, you know, that - what's going on in Afghanistan - look; this monster earthquake just happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he would have been on a plane, and he would've landed there. And he would've been trying to marshal U.S. supplies and aid to help the people in the region. Politics be damned. War be damned. He would have been trying to help people in need.

And that, to me, was how he saw diplomacy, often at its best. How could American exceptionalism, American might be used to help people who are less fortunate? And of course, it was much more complicated than that, but one of the real reasons I wanted to make this film was I felt he had something more to say, and I love that people are paying attention to him and his belief that diplomacy really matters.

MCEVERS: Well, David Holbrooke, thank you so much for your time today.

D. HOLBROOKE: My pleasure.

MCEVERS: That's David Holbrooke. His film about his father, Richard Holbrooke, is called "The Diplomat," and it airs tonight on HBO. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.