The Unlikely 60-Year Friendship of 2 Preeminent US Diplomats


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WASHINGTON - Students from widely different cultures who became influential Americans shared a deep love for family, sports and foreign policy over 60 years of friendship.

The friendship between Winston Lord, who was born to wealth and privilege, and Leslie Gelb, who was not, started when Lord's wife and Gelb were students at Tufts University in Massachusetts. It ended in August when Gelb died.

"We go back 60 years. He was quite a man," said Winston Lord recently, reflecting on Gelb, who passed away at 82 in August. "He was my best friend."

"They collaborated on a history project, both procrastinated and put off until the last minute, and they had to scramble," said Lord of Gelb and his wife, Bette Bao Lord. "Of course they got an A."

Foreign policy track

All three grew successful and powerful careers in foreign policy. Bao Lord became famous for writing about the Chinese American experience and contemporary Chinese society. She has been a champion of human rights, having served at Freedom House and Broadcasting Board of Governors. And she was Lord's capable partner as he rose through the ranks of American foreign service, becoming ambassador to her native China.

Gelb earned his master's and doctoral degrees in government from Harvard University in Massachusetts, taught by foreign policy heavyweights like Henry Kissinger, who became President Richard Nixon's national security adviser.

Gelb taught at Wesleyan University for a couple of years before being tapped for positions in the Pentagon and the State Department, working on U.S. policies toward Asia and the then-Soviet Union. Described by some as disillusioned with bureaucracy and politics, he exercised his knowledge and expertise on foreign policy and government by serving as diplomatic columnist and editor for The New York Times.

Later, he devoted 10 years to preside over the Council on Foreign Relations, one of the most well-known think tanks, the decade after Lord had served in the same role. He also wrote books on foreign policy along the way.

"I call him unique because of his excellence in all these different areas," said Lord, who went on to become Kissinger's deputy in negotiations with China and on Southeast Asian affairs. He later became U.S. ambassador to China and assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific.

But while Lord was born to a wealthy family in New York City that was part of the Pillsbury flour empire, Gelb grew up in the suburbs to an immigrant family. Lord admits that on the outset, judging from the two men's backgrounds, one might wonder how they could become the best of friends.

"We have a saying in America: born on the third base," Lord says of their divergent beginnings. "I was born on Park Avenue, with a silver spoon in my mouth." His friend, meanwhile, had come from a poor immigrant family who worked at his parents' grocery store, and as a parking attendant and a dishwasher while in college.

"I think we both did quite well, but he started out with no advantages, whereas I started out with tremendous advantages," Lord said.

Mutual interests

Reflecting on what drew them together, Lord points to their mutual centrist interest in American foreign policy. And the importance of family.

"We both put family above every other consideration as the most important, starting with our wives," Lord said. "Then, of course, we're both sports fans!"

Except they were fans of competing teams.

"He loved the Yankees. I hate the Yankees! I like the New York Mets," Lord said. As if to affirm that some common ground existed between the two even in the competitive arena of sports, he added, "We're both Washington Redskins football fans."

Gelb married his wife, Judith, in 1959, despite her parents' reservations about his lackluster roots. He dedicated his last book, "Power Rules" published in 2009, to "Judy, Judy, Judy."

Lord remembered his friendship with Gelb as a "uniquely American story. It shows the strength of America."

"I don't want to be pompous or exaggerate, but I believe our strength is diversity, including the strengthening of our society through immigrants, the fact that people from different economic, ethnic and social backgrounds can not only live together but become, in our case, extremely close friends," he said.

"This man had every conceivable physical ailment toward the end, yet he never complained," Lord said, sending his friend off in a note of admiration.  "He was in constant pain, he couldn't see very well, and yet he always looked at the positive side of things."