Creative Commons

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.”

“Always have a strategy. I never take a piss without having a strategy.”

“Too much of what passes for policy is wish lists.”

“Strike while the iron is hot—YOU. MUST. STRIKE.”

And, of course, the terse announcement of an unexpected opportunity: “Dick Holbrooke’s gonna call you.” 

Long before it was an institutional piety, Gelb particularly sought to hire, promote, and mentor women. His was a conscious effort to redress inequality in foreign affairs, and it came of the recognition that excluding women meant missing great talent. Recent public focus on bad male bosses makes Gelb stand out all the more. He hired a lot of young women staffers—for their brains.

Long before it was an institutional piety, Gelb particularly sought to hire, promote, and mentor women.

In the days since Gelb’s death, I have exchanged memories with some of these mentees. “I have a wonderful memory of sitting in a darkened room, as his eyesight failed, while he read me the riot act for not standing up for myself more, not owning my own authority,” said Heather Hurlburt, who runs a politics and policy project at New America and was executive director of the center-left National Security Network, whose board Gelb chaired. “He made me feel like I'd landed in a foreign policy remake of The Karate Kid.”

In the mid-2000s, Rosa Brooks, the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, took a surprising cold call from Gelb, who asked her to help organize a conference series. This work helped lead her to a job in the Obama administration as counselor to the under secretary of defense for policy. “Les just popped up in my life out of nowhere as a sort of guardian angel,” Brooks told me.

As for me, I was Gelb’s last editorial assistant at the Times before he moved to the Council, in 1993. I wasn’t supposed to get that job. How I did says a lot about Gelb. I cut out some of his foreign affairs columns and marked them up with a pencil, showing how I would have line-edited to make them read better. I was a 21-year-old English major. 

Reader, he hired me. 

Since then, he was a reference for, and adviser on, every job and fellowship I ever had. As a boss, he was open not only to teaching but to learning from the younger and lowlier. He encouraged dissent, resistance, even criticism, while still being decisive and exacting. He taught me much of what I value and try to emulate as a boss, employee, colleague, and mentor: being direct, clear, challenging, friendly, and respectful, while remaining open to change and to disagreeing productively and with a sense of humor. He had high standards and a passion for the subject and the mission at hand.

What made Gelb unusual for an expert wielder of power was his ability to change, absorb criticism, and listen. Once, 27 years ago, I was on my way to meet someone powerful. He “warned” me that she was a lesbian. I said, “Then you should warn me every time I meet a powerful man.” Right then he said that I was right, that he was out of line. 

Such was, if you will, the irony of Les. He inhabited and mastered the clubby, white, male, bipartisan foreign policy world of his day, but he sought to infuse it with new and different people. He retained what Hurlburt called some “prejudices typical to many of his peers”: at dinners in recent years, he’d typically demand, “What is it that’s wrong with Islam?” Yet he welcomed argument on that point, and encouraged and empowered people who explicitly challenged his preconceptions and even criticized him for them. Brooks called him, affectionately, “a totally unreconstructed old-school male,” and told me, “He would use random gendered metaphors for foreign policy, but he could always take it if you said, ‘Les, that’s totally inappropriate.’ It didn’t stop him from being a major champion for women.” 

What made Gelb unusual for an expert wielder of power was his ability to change, absorb criticism, and listen.

Gelb knew what it was to be an outsider. Raised by Hungarian Jewish immigrants who ran a deli in New Rochelle, he worked his way through college as a dishwasher and valet parking attendant. As the author George Packer noted in his biography of Richard Holbrooke, when Gelb made it to graduate school “he had no idea what his teachers were talking about.” 

When I showed up to work for Gelb, I loved international affairs, foreign cultures, and languages, but I knew nothing about the policy world where he was an insider. He probably saw right away that I hadn’t really heard of him. I hadn’t even known “Leslie H. Gelb” ’s gender when I applied, and when he told me to scan the Post every day I thought he meant The New York Post. But he took me seriously. He wanted my input from day one.

His best boss trick was to make me rise to occasions. He would hand out big responsibilities—having me not just line-edit but help to report and shape columns—making me want to deserve them. He wrote what seemed like extravagant recommendation letters that I strove to make true. He would spring a dead-on diagnosis of something I needed to improve or shoot for, but delivered with a twinkle that ensured support, in a manner that was totally disarming and motivating.

At the time, Gelb mostly worked from home in sweats, giving me his dark-wood Times office and old Rolodex, summoning me to Barney Greengrass or the Popover Café to brief him on my Bosnia or South China Sea research. Once, when he was in Seoul, I asked if he wanted research on local restaurants and cultural sites. He wasn’t interested. (He stuck with Greengrass, committed to his deli roots.) But he later saw, and valued, that my habit of cultural immersion made me a good international reporter. After all, he had diagnosed Americans’ lack of understanding of Vietnamese people as the cause of that disaster.

To the end, Gelb was Gelb. He pissed off many, as he would say, with his proposal to federalize Iraq. He supported the initial American invasion. But—rare in his circle—he accepted responsibility when things went wrong. He called the mistake “symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies” among experts to support wars “to retain political and professional credibility.” And with his forays into blogging and working groups on new approaches to foreign policy, Hurlburt noted to me, “He did better than most at changing with the times.”

Toward the end of his life, I saw Gelb only every few years. But I’d already spent enough time with him and his wife, Judy, at their warm, brainy gatherings to make them a model of family, social, and intellectual partnership. When Les got his dream job at the Council, the Gelbs even worried how the move would affect 22-year-old me: he’d just persuaded me to stay with him another year at the Times.

In my evaluation, he wrote that I would make a great Times reporter someday. I came back 15 years later, after stints in Moscow and Philadelphia and Boston and Baghdad and Jerusalem and Tehran and Kabul. At the Times I have covered Queens and Syria and the Middle East and now climate. I hope I made him proud. I know he still wanted more. (I’m working on it, Les.) He, too, surely had more to do. But he had a profound influence on many people, and in times of great uncertainty in international affairs, they are carrying on.

  • ANNE BARNARD, a former Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, covers climate and environment at The New York Times, where she served as Beirut bureau chief from 2012-2018. 
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