Much was made this week of the reported dying words of Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan: "You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan." It sounded like a ponderous, simplistic thing for a learned diplomat to say, a trivialization of everything he had tried - in various capacities, in many conflicts and with fearsome pragmatism - to do.
The moment of one's death is an odd time to start dictating something that sounds like a placard slogan for a protest rally. Besides, stopping the war in Afghanistan seemed an unreasonable request for Mr. Holbrooke to make of a group of Washington-based health-care professionals. I wondered if they told themselves, "Stop a war? There's no way that's covered in this guy's insurance plan."
Of course, the early reports seemed to imply that Mr. Holbrooke was addressing his request to the world at large, in his final breath. Or that these words boomed, Hollywood-style, across the room. I know he was important, but all this made him seem far too aware of it.
It turns out the early reports were inaccurate. Early reports usually are. I find myself imagining poor Ambassador Holbrooke up there on a cloud shouting, "Noooooo!"
He's standing, as I see it, next to Lord Nelson, who keeps saying to him, "Give it up, man. The damage has been done. Do you think I really said, 'Kiss me, Hardy?' "
"It was 'kismet, Hardy,' right?" says Mr. Holbrooke, wondering why this guy has latched on to him and what it says on his own Wikipedia entry right now.
"No. See? Why bother? Hardy wasn't even with me. And if I'd wanted to express that particular sentiment, I'd have said, 'Fate, Hardy.' I wouldn't have gone all foreign, would I?"
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley attempted to correct the record on the Holbrooke quote. He elaborated on the ambassador's words, which were apparently part of a lengthy exchange during which Mr. Holbrooke bantered with hospital staff.
"I can't relax. I'm worried about Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said, lightly, when the medical team asked how they could make him comfortable before his heart surgery.
After some additional exchanges, someone in the medical staff said, "Well, tell you what: We'll try to fix this challenge while you're undergoing surgery."
"Yeah," Mr. Holbrooke replied. "See if you can take care of that, including ending the war."
Was it a great joke? Not really. But it was a brave joke to make. Its author was brave to be joking at all. He knew the serious nature of the surgery he was about to undergo and he sought to lighten the mood for everyone around him.
Humphrey Bogart's last words were reported to be, but probably weren't: "I should never have switched from scotch to martinis." Oscar Wilde set the standard with, "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do."
I've always imagined that Wilde held onto that line for a long time. I hope that the thought of using it when the day came brought him some joy during the nightmares he endured.
Perhaps he even asked to be moved to a room with wallpaper beforehand. Wilde knew the value of his own great lines so well that if I were told that he looked at wallpaper samples for weeks, ordered the worst of them and then waited for the wallpaper to be delivered and hung before delivering that line and finally dying, I'd believe it.
There ought to be a mechanism for such moments: An official-last-words posted somewhere, waiting like a final Facebook update, to be used at the appropriate time, to avoid posthumous regrets such as, "Whatever they say, I didn't ask a sea captain of my own sex to kiss me."
Unless that's how one wants to be remembered. Some control over these things doesn't seem an unreasonable request.
Mr. Holbrooke was no Wilde, of course, and an acerbic liquor reference like Bogart's wouldn't have been a good choice for him. But it seems an injustice on top of another injustice (he was only 69) that his joke should be misremembered, quoted without context, to make less-than-nuanced points.
He spent his life sinking up to his neck in the biggest messes American foreign policy could create. He went out on a note of subtlety. Let him have that.