Remembering Leslie H. Gelb

Mentor to a Changing Foreign Policy World

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When word spread last weekend of the passing of Leslie H. Gelb—public servant, journalist, scholar, multipurpose éminence grise—foreign-affairs Twitter lit up with tributes, as much about his wit and indefatigable mentoring as about his ideas and achievements. 

One admirer, the national-security expert and author Micah Zenko, singled out a signature insight of Gelb’s. In a book he co-authored with Richard K. Betts, called The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, Gelb wrote, “Presidents have to make clear up and down the line that they want to hear criticisms and alternatives from their subordinates,” that “dissent should be institutionalized by rewards and promotions, not domesticated,” and that if a president speaks publicly and seriously about alternatives, it is easier for him to, if necessary, “change his mind.” 

The advice is good not just for presidents but for all leaders. And it goes to the heart of what made Gelb special. Funny, frank, down-to-earth, combative, affectionate—in short, complex—he was not only a creative thinker on the workings of power but a generous and effective mentor, even to many with whom he sometimes clashed. 

Gelb prioritized mentoring and raised it to an art form. It is hard to imagine how he had the time during an extraordinary career: at the Department of Defense, he oversaw the compilation of the internal report that became known as the Pentagon Papers. Then, among other things, he served as a national security reporter, deputy editorial-page editor, op-ed editor, and columnist at The New York Times. He headed the Council on Foreign Relations from 1993 to 2003. 

Yet along the way, he seeded the worlds of foreign policy, journalism, and government with younger people whom he empowered, including many women. He kept up decades-long relationships with people like me, whom he met as entry-level assistants or very junior colleagues and steered—not to say badgered—toward adventures and opportunities. 

Every Gelb mentee, it seems, has a particular gruff phrase to recall:

“Keep pissing people off.”


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