Vernon Walters has died, and a hell of a man he was. He never went
to college, but he spoke 16 languages, many of them so perfectly
that natives took him as one of their own. He enlisted in the Second
World War, and worked his way up through the Army ranks to become
a two-star general. He served as deputy director of Central Intelligence
during Watergate, and emerged with honor. He became ambassador-at-large
at the State Department, and always got the toughest missions, whether
it was reading the riot act to difficult allies like, as he invariably
put it, "the mad Mobuto" in Zaire or killer generals in
Argentina. His last official post was ambassador to West Germany
during the G. W. H. Bush years, and he was apparently the first
American official to conclude that German unification was going
to happen, and we'd better get on board.
for five good men. And with Dick Walters you got a lot more. You
got real comradeship, a rare quality in the best of times, and especially
in recent years. You got someone who was willing to share his wisdom
with younger colleagues. You got a religious man, a devout Catholic,
who did not use the vulgarity typical of the military. And you got
the greatest speaker I have ever seen in American public life.
A few years
ago I heard him interviewed in front of a thousand businessmen and
women in Melbourne, Australia, and the interviewer gave him a great
question. "Tell me, General, in your diplomatic activities,
did you ever use flattery? And if you did, how did it work"
in a nanosecond: "Anyone who thinks flattery doesn't work obviously
has never had any."
was ambassador-at-large, I was, so to speak, ambassador-at-small.
He got the important missions, I got much less important ones. I
had never been in government, and he made it as pleasant as he could.
He found a proper secretary for me, one of those plain-speaking,
uppity types who would tell me when my instincts were bad, and,
so help me, refuse to type memos she thought would get me in trouble.
And then, from time to time, he took me along with him, so that
I could kibitz and learn how diplomacy could be done by one of its
It was a real
He had enough
stories to entertain you on the longest trip, and he was full of
great advice, some of which has crept into others' now-celebrated
guides to Washington life. My favorite, which every civil servant
should have on his wall: There is no limit to what you can accomplish
if you are willing to let someone else take credit for it.
One of the
greatest members of a great generation, he deserved great honor,
but got little of it. He was too down to earth to be impressed by
the intellectuals, and yet too well read and too cultured to fit
into the world of Joe Six-pack. He never married, but he took a
young naval officer under his wing, and made him his personal assistant.
Captain Lee Martini traveled the world with his general, thought
deeply about what he'd learned...and became a Benedictine priest.
And I'm sure that Father Martini will celebrate a most appropriate
mass today in honor of his friend and mentor.