Warren Christopher came from the humblest of beginnings. Born in 1925 in North Dakota, in a small prairie town settled by European immigrants around 1900, he watched his father and mother struggle there during the Depression. In Chances of a Lifetime, he wrote that he learned “the look and sound of dignity and stoicism in the face of adversity,” and the “human scenes I witnessed in the flat, dry North Dakota plains while at my father’s side may account more than anything else for the tilt of my social and political concerns in the direction of the unfortunate.”
His intelligence was intimidating. He graduated at age 19 from USC magna cum laude, served in World War II, and went to Stanford Law School, where he became the first president of the Stanford Law Review. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, joined the premier Los Angeles law firm, and eventually became its managing partner. He periodically left for public service: deputy attorney general under Johnson; deputy secretary of state under Carter; secretary of state under Clinton. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.
Here is a small but telling example of his integrity and intensity: he appointed the first Jewish ambassador to Israel, rejecting the traditional State view that it would be a “conflict of interest” for a Jew to serve in that position. He made 24 trips to Syria pursuing a Syrian-Israeli deal.
It was his conviction that the more you listened, the more people trusted you. He aspired, he said, to the standard of Shakespeare’s statesman, who could “hold his tongue in ten different languages.” Someone once asked how he managed to be so unflappable, and he replied he did not feel that way at all – he felt like a duck on water, calm on the surface but paddling furiously underneath to stay afloat.
His most famous public moment was leading the negotiations for the release of the 52 Americans held hostage by Iran, which he wrote about privately later. He was proud he had offered Iran no apology, no ransom, and no return of the Shah or the Shah’s assets, and he did not know until the last moment whether the negotiations would succeed. Iran’s acceptance came at 7 a.m. on his final day, and his recollection included a characteristic gesture of appreciation for the efforts of others:
I straightened my tie and went down to sign before a hundred cameras – in clothes I had not taken off for 48 hours. Our teams stood behind us, and one of the aides standing behind us fell asleep on his feet, teetered, and was caught by a colleague. I signed with a pen borrowed from Assistant Secretary Harold Saunders as a reflection of my esteem for his 14-1/2 months of dedication to the release of the hostages.
A few months later, he offered some thoughts on human rights in a commencement address at Bates College that are worth reading in light of what happened over the succeeding 30 years and is happening today:
Human rights is not a means to comfort our enemies by harassing our friends. Rather it is a strategy to identify America with the cause of human freedom, and to advance it wherever and however we can. … [F]or all of its complications, a human rights policy is one of profound importance to our long term interest in the world. It is not secondary to containing the Soviet Union, but essential to it.
Open political systems have a great practical advantage. They can absorb and reflect popular aspirations. In closed systems, grievances are likely to find expression in other ways – in radical politics and violent acts. … Unquestionably, communism and terrorism are enemies of order. But we deceive ourselves if we think human misery is not as great an enemy, for its gives the others places to flourish.
He began his life profoundly affected by the human misery he observed, and it guided him in his public service, together with a vision of the United States as exceptional — something he recognized in the story of his own life. At the conclusion of his Bates address he said:
The United States, unlike other nations, is not identified by common ethnic traits or cultural traditions. Instead, the United States, uniquely, is organized around an idea – principally a reverence for the inherent worth and the dignity of each human being.
We owe him a great debt of gratitude for a model of selfless service, emanating from small-town values and a large appreciation of his country, lived through an extraordinary career in which he worked until the last few weeks of his 86th year.