Lawrence S. Eagleburger, the wisecracking, chain-smoking diplomat who charmed both Republicans and Democrats, handled tense assignments during the first Persian Gulf War and rose up the ranks to become secretary of State toward the end of President George H.W. Bush’s administration, has died. He was 80.
Eagleburger died Saturday after a short illness in Charlottesville, Va., a family spokeswoman told the Associated Press. No other details were given.
Eagleburger headed the State Department for about five months. He became acting secretary of State in August 1992 after the departure of James A. Baker III to run Bush’s re-election campaign. He was sworn in on Dec. 8, giving him full Cabinet status for the final six weeks of Bush’s presidency.
“He is Kissinger without his warts, in my view. Kissinger with a clearer moral compass,” then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden, D-Del., told The National Journal in 1992.
“Lawrence Eagleburger devoted his life to the security of our nation and to strengthening our ties with allies and partners,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “He helped our nation navigate the pivotal days during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.”
The pragmatic diplomat, who was plagued with health problems over his career, was known for overseeing delicate diplomatic assignments. One of his most memorable moments came in 1991 as deputy secretary of State after he rushed to Tel Aviv following an Iraqi scud missile attack on Israel during the first Persian Gulf War.
Standing with his cane atop rubble, supporting his bad knee, his presence was cheered by about 100 residents who shouted “Good for you!” Eagleburger successfully convinced the Israelis to not retaliate directly, which could have broken apart the fragile U.S.-Arab coalition against Saddam Hussein.
Eagleburger also had to defend the first Bush administration’s pre-Gulf War policy of being friendly to Saddam after the Iran-Iraq war. That policy encouraged economic relations to meet U.S. interests, including access to oil and warding the Soviets away. He told Congress, “It was worth trying.”
By many accounts, the heavyset Eagleburger was an unlikely secretary of State.
“The common image of a U.S. Secretary of State is that of Dean Acheson, Cyrus Vance, James Baker — a suave WASP lawyer, slender and urbane, who probably rowed at Yale or Princeton. But Lawrence Eagleburger, the new Acting Secretary, looks like the Michelin man with a cane,” Time magazine wrote in 1992.
Eagleburger was born in Milwaukee on Aug. 1, 1930, to a Republican family. But his disgust with Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist antics dissuaded him from politics.
He told The Washington Post that he might not have gone into diplomacy had he not been bored one day as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin and saw a sign about the Foreign Service test, which he took and passed.
After entering the Foreign Service in 1957, he landed posts in Honduras, Cuba and Yugoslavia, and later became special assistant to Dean Acheson, adviser to President Lyndon Johnson. After Richard Nixon became president, Eagleburger helped Henry Kissinger create the National Security Council.
During the Carter administration, Eagleburger became the U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia and he returned to the State Department after President Ronald Reagan was elected.
Eagleburger left public service in 1984 to become president of Kissinger’s private consulting business, Kissinger Associates, telling The Washington Post he was unhappy that presidents since Vietnam and Watergate suffered from an inability to maintain a consistent foreign policy. He said that the 1970s destroyed the credibility of the “foreign policy elite,” which he said set the param eters of debate on foreign policy.
He laughed at the suggestion he would get the top State Department job someday.
“Nobody is going to ask,” he told The Washington Post in 1984. “But if they did, I’d have to think about that.”
When Eagleburger returned to the State Department in 1989, he worked as deputy to Baker and was described as the behind-the-scenes man who got the job done.
He talked of how he gave each of his three sons the first name of Lawrence, forcing them to go by their middle names professionally — Scott, Andrew and Jason, according to the Associated Press. “It was ego,” he explained to The Washington Post. “And secondly, I wanted to screw up the Social Security system.”
Eagleburger was married to the former Marlene Ann Heinemann, who died last year. An earlier marriage ended in divorce, according to the Associated Press.