When he took over as secretary of state in the Clinton administration at age 68, Warren M. Christopher said he didn’t expect to travel much. He went on to set a four-year mark for miles traveled by America’s top diplomat.
The attorney-turned-envoy tirelessly traveled to Bosnia and the Middle East on peace missions during his 1993-1996 tenure – including some two dozen to Syria alone in a futile effort to promote a settlement with Israel.
After his work finished carrying out the Clinton administration agenda abroad, the longtime Californian returned home for an active life in local and national affairs and with his law firm.
Late Friday, the 85-year-old statesman died at his home in Los Angeles of complications from bladder and kidney cancer, said Sonja Steptoe of the law firm O’Melveny & Myers, where Christopher was a senior partner.
President Barack Obama said Saturday that he mourned the passing of a man who proved to be a “resolute pursuer of peace” and dedicated public servant.
“Warren Christopher was a skillful diplomat, a steadfast public servant, and a faithful American,” the president said in a statement.
The loyal Democrat also headed Bill Clinton’s vice-presidential search committee, recommending Al Gore for the party’s 1992 presidential ticket, and he also supervised the contested Florida recount for Gore in the 2000 presidential election. The Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote, decided for George W. Bush.
Clinton said Saturday that he was saddened by Christopher’s passing, calling him a public servant who “faithfully and effectively advanced America’s interests and values.”
“Chris had the lowest ratio of ego to accomplishment of any public servant I’ve ever worked with,” Clinton said in a statement. “That made him easy to underestimate, but all Americans should be grateful that, along with great ability, he possessed the stamina and the steel to accomplish things that were truly extraordinary.”
Clinton praised Christopher’s work in the Middle East peace process and in helping to end the war in Bosnia.
While Christopher’s efforts with Syria didn’t bear fruit, he was more successful in the negotiations that produced a settlement in 1995 for Bosnia, ending a war among Muslims, Serbs and Croats that claimed 260,000 lives and drove another 1.8 million people from their homes.
While Christopher often preferred a behind-the-scenes role, he also made news as deputy secretary of state in the Carter administration, conducting the tedious negotiations that gained the release in 1981 of 52 American hostages in Iran.
President Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. “The best public servant I ever knew,” Carter wrote in his memoirs.
James A. Baker, who was a rival of Christopher’s during the 2000 Florida recount battle, said he admired him as a thoughtful diplomat and man of integrity.
“Regardless of whether he was an adversary or an ally, Warren Christopher always exhibited utmost integrity, sincere courtliness and a noble nature,” Baker said. “His character was special and exemplary in the dog-eat-dog world of politics.”
In private life, Christopher also served. Among many other things, he chaired a commission that proposed reforms of the Los Angeles Police Department in the aftermath of the videotaped beating by police of motorist Rodney King in 1991. When four officers arrested for beating King were acquitted of most charges the following year, Los Angeles erupted in days of deadly rioting.
Numerous reforms were eventually put in place, including limiting the police chief to two five-year terms and having the chief appointed and supervised by a civilian commission.
Christopher’s travels became the stuff of diplomatic legend.
In the skies over Africa and approaching his 71st birthday in October 1996, Christopher set a new mark for miles traveled by a secretary of state over four years, the normal length of a presidential term: 704,487.
Christopher overcame sleep deprivation, difficult negotiations with the likes of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad and nagging ulcers to keep his eye on American interests.
Always crisp, modest and polite, he drove home an agreement in his last year on the job to halt fighting in Lebanon between Israel and extremist Shiite guerrillas.
“We have achieved the goal of our mission, which was to achieve an agreement that will save lives and end the suffering of people on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border,” Christopher said in Jerusalem, his weeklong mission a success.
Madeleine Albright stepped in for Clinton’s second term and Christopher returned to his law firm of O’Melveny & Myers with Clinton’s “deep gratitude” for his service and with the president’s playful description of Christopher as “the only man ever to eat M&Ms on Air Force One with a fork.”
Although critics complained that the Clinton administration’s foreign policy lacked dramatic initiatives, the poised and cautious Christopher indicated he was pleased with the results, especially with what he called the “triple play” of a NAFTA trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, the APEC expansion of U.S. economic ties to Pacific Rim nations, and the GATT accord on international tariffs and trade.
In 2008, Christopher was co-chairman of a bipartisan panel that studied the recurring question of who under U.S. law should decide when the country goes to war. It proposed that the president be required to inform Congress of any plans to engage in “significant armed conflict” lasting longer than a week.
He is survived by his wife, Marie, and had four children in two marriages: Lynn, Scott, Thomas and Kristen.