Warren Christopher, the lawyer turned diplomat whose discretion and judgment earned him appointments under three Democratic U.S. presidents, including as Bill Clinton’s first secretary of state, has died. He was 85.
He died yesterday of complications from bladder and kidney cancer at his home in California, according to a statement from O’Melveny & Myers, the Los Angeles-based law firm where he was senior partner.
Reticent and unwavering, Christopher refocused U.S. foreign policy on the Middle East during Clinton’s first term. With Richard Holbrooke, who died in December, Christopher brokered the 1995 Dayton agreement ending the war in Bosnia. He restored diplomatic relations with Vietnam and pushed for the expansion of NATO to include countries of central and Eastern Europe.
“Warren was a diplomat’s diplomat -- talented, dedicated and exceptionally wise,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement today. “As well as anyone in his generation, he understood the subtle interplay of national interests, fundamental values and personal dynamics that drive diplomacy.”
President Barack Obama saluted him in a statement as “a resolute pursuer of peace.”
While Christopher’s half-century career earned him the status of elder statesman, critics viewed his reserved style and loyalty to Clinton as weaknesses.
Interviewed in November 1996, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland said Christopher had been “a man without an agenda of his own” who saw himself as “the president’s lawyer,” and William Hyland, the longtime editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, called the administration’s foreign policy “a jumbled mess.”
Regret Over Rwanda
In 2005, while visiting a Rwandan genocide memorial, Clinton expressed regret for his “personal failure” in preventing the 1994 killing of some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis at the hands of Hutu rebels.
In a 1981 commencement address at Stanford University, Christopher said: “Most talking is not glamorous. Often it is tedious. It can be excruciating and exhausting. But talking can also tame conflict, lift the human condition, and move us close to the ideal of peace.”
Again and again throughout his legal career, Christopher took time off to advise public figures.
In the wake of the 1991 beating of black motorist Rodney King by white Los Angeles police officers -- whose acquittal the following year would spark riots -- Mayor Tom Bradley appointed Christopher as chairman of an independent commission that undertook a broad review of the police department’s structure and practices. Voters overwhelmingly approved reforms of the department proposed by his commission, including the imposition of a limit of two five-year terms for chiefs.
After returning to Los Angeles in 1997, Christopher rejoined the international law firm of O’Melveny & Myers as its senior partner. He returned to the political fray in the weeks after the 2000 presidential election, serving as Al Gore’s top representative in Florida during the legal and political debate over recounting ballots. Gore would concede the election to Republican George W. Bush after the U.S. Supreme Court, voting 5-4, ended the recounting of ballots in Florida.
Christopher’s Republican counterpart in the Florida fight was former secretary of state James Baker. Five years later they joined as co-chairmen of a commission that proposed changes to the War Powers Act to promote consultation between the president and Congress before troops are sent into “significant armed conflict.” The recommendations have not been implemented.
Move to California
Warren Minor Christopher was born on Oct. 27, 1925, in the North Dakota prairie town of Scranton. He was the fourth of five children whose father, Ernest, managed the local bank during the Great Depression.
Christopher’s family moved to Hollywood, California, in 1939, two years after his father suffered a massive stroke. He graduated from Hollywood High School in 1942 and attended the University of Redlands on a debate scholarship.
He enlisted in the Navy in October of 1942 and reported to the University of Southern California’s Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps in 1944. He finished USC early, earning a degree in finance with honors in February 1945, then served aboard the aircraft-refueling tanker USS Tomahawk in the Pacific during World War II.
He graduated in 1949 from Stanford Law School, where he was president of its first law review and elected a member of the Order of the Coif legal honor society.
Clerk to Douglas
Christopher became Stanford’s first graduate to clerk for a Supreme Court Justice. Justice William O. Douglas’s advice that he “get out in the stream of history, and swim as fast as you can” helped propel him into a career straddling the worlds of law and public service. It also provided the title for Christopher’s 1998 book, “In the Stream of History: Shaping Foreign Policy for a New Era.”
After his clerkship, Christopher joined O’Melveny & Myers in 1950. He was made a partner in 1958 and later served as the firm’s chairman and senior partner.
He took leave from the firm to advise California Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown during his first months in office in 1959 and during the 1965 riots in the Los Angeles community of Watts.
In June 1967, he was named deputy attorney general, the Justice Department’s second-ranking official, under President Lyndon B. Johnson. He participated in the administration’s decision to send federal troops to Detroit to quell race riots. That October, he helped coordinate security at the Pentagon during a Vietnam War protest that drew more than 100,000 demonstrators.
Hostages in Iran
After another stint at O’Melveny & Myers, starting in January 1969, Christopher served from 1977 to 1981 as deputy secretary of state under President Jimmy Carter. He led negotiations for the release of the 52 Americans taken from the U.S. Embassy in Iran and held for 14 months of Carter’s one term. The hostages finally were granted freedom on the day that Carter turned over the presidency to Ronald Reagan in January 1981.
“I’ve never felt happier than watching those 52 people come down off that plane,” Christopher told Charlie Rose in a 2001 interview. “I had selected some of them to go to Iran, chosen them because I thought they were strong people, and I felt a special responsibility and I was kind of obsessed by it frankly -- getting them out -- and when they came out, I was so relieved.”
In his role as the No. 2 U.S. diplomat, he also helped to win ratification of the Panama Canal treaties, which pledged to return control of the waterway to Panama by 2000.
After the Carter presidency, Christopher served as chairman of O’Melveny & Myers from 1982 to 1992, when he was named co-chairman of the vice presidential search committee for Bill Clinton, the Arkansas governor who had clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. That search culminated in the selection of Gore, a senator from Tennessee.
Christopher went on to lead Clinton’s presidential transition team and was named the 63rd U.S. secretary of state. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that his goal was to define “a strategy for U.S. leadership after the Cold War.”
During Christopher’s tenure, from January 1993 to January 1997, the Clinton administration mobilized international economic support for Russia and the Ukraine, pressured China to improve its human-rights record and promoted NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, which aimed to add new members to the alliance without alienating Russia. The administration also helped restore Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1994 after an earlier coup.
Christopher won the trust of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who in August 1993 called him during his vacation in California to notify him of a breakthrough in peace talks with the Palestinians in Oslo, Norway.
Less than a month later, on Sept. 13, Christopher oversaw the signing of the Oslo accords between Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in Washington. The treaty, under which the PLO recognized the state of Israel and Israel acknowledged the PLO as the government of the Palestinian people, established a framework for achieving a lasting peace between the two sides.
Dignified and slow to anger, Christopher could also be quick to call a foreign leader’s bluff.
In his memoir, he criticized Syria’s Hafez al-Assad as having missed an opportunity to make progress toward a Syrian-Israeli peace before Rabin’s 1995 assassination because Assad was “immobilized by his ingrained mistrust of Israel.” He also described the late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic as a “wily tactician but dreadful strategist” who came to power by “playing to Serbian nationalism.”
For Clinton’s second term, Christopher was succeeded by Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. secretary of state.
Silence and Confidence
Known for his quiet demeanor, Christopher described the importance of being a good listener in his 2001 memoir, “Chances of a Lifetime.”
“Silence, once associated with discretion, begets confidence as well as confidences,” he wrote. “I learned that people also tend to read wisdom from silence -- even when silence means only that you know nothing about what they are talking about.”
He called his time serving in the Clinton administration “the greatest four years of my life.”
“I think we succeeded in doing some positive things. I think perhaps we left the country a little better than we found it,” Christopher told Rose in 2001.
He said world diplomacy played a role in the U.S. economic successes under Clinton, a president who “really brought an economic dimension to foreign policy in a way that nobody else has.”
Christopher is survived by his wife, Marie, four children and five grandchildren.