Leslie H. Gelb, an iconoclastic former American diplomat, journalist and prodigious commentator on world affairs, died Saturday at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. He was 82.
The cause was renal failure brought on by diabetes, his wife, Judith Gelb, said.
Leslie Gelb was 30 years old when in 1967 he took day-to-day charge of the team that compiled the secret Pentagon Papers, which had been commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.
He later worked as an editor, columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for The New York Times, the newspaper that had overcome a court challenge by the Nixon White House and in 1971 published the papers, which revealed a damning evolution of Washington’s intervention in Vietnam.
Gelb served as assistant secretary of state and director of the Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs during the Carter administration from 1977 to 1979. He was president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the prestigious New York-based think tank peppered with policy experts and former officials, from 1993 to 2003.
“Les Gelb was a unique star in American foreign policy,” said Winston Lord, another former diplomat and one of his predecessors at the council. “He was a patriot in its noblest definition who devoted his senior years to helping veterans and mentoring coming generations of policymakers.”
Having grown up in an insular Jewish family of parents who operated a small delicatessen in suburban New York, he was discovered at Harvard by professor Henry M. Kissinger and went on to defy the stereotype of Washington diplomatic doublespeak.
“Politically, he was a centrist and a realist,” George Packer wrote in “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century” (2019).
Growing up against the background of the corner store where his parents worked 14 hours a day bnever left him. “It gave him a kind of immunity to the temptations and deceptions of power,” Packer wrote.
Holbrooke, a former assistant secretary of state, was one Gelb’s many acolytes.
“Les was a giant of mentors,” said his friend Richard I. Beattie, a lawyer and civic leader. “So many people, in addition to Holbrooke, looked to Les and wanted to know what Les thought. He was the go-to guy.”
Leslie Howard Gelb was born March 4, 1937, in New Rochelle, New York, to Max and Dorothy (Klein) Gelb, Jewish immigrants from Hungary.
“He was a poor boy with bad eyesight and a sly, full-lipped smile,” Packer wrote. “The Gelbs read no newspapers and owned two books — the Bible and ‘The Rothschilds.’ They were loving parents with the worst lives of anyone Les knew.”
He graduated from New Rochelle High School and received a bachelor’s degree in government from Tufts University in 1959 after working his way through school as a valet parking attendant and dishwasher.
“He was so poor that his bride Judy’s parents refused to bless the marriage and so smart that he got into Harvard’s graduate school in government and so badly educated that he had no idea what his teachers were talking about,” Packer wrote.
Gelb earned a master’s and a doctorate in government and developed a fervor for international affairs in graduate school, where, Packer wrote, “Prof. Henry Kissinger picked him out and Gelb began to rise.”
Kissinger, who was one of the professors reviewing Gelb’s thesis and with whom he had an on-again, off-again professional relationship during his career, said in an interview Saturday: “I thought he had an unusual perception of the intangibles that make the difference between success and failure in foreign policy. I respected him greatly whether he supported me or criticized me.”
In 1959, Gelb married Judith Cohen, who survives him, as do their children, Adam, Caroline and Alison Gelb; and five grandsons.
Gelb tried to enlist in the military several times but was rejected because of poor eyesight, colorblindness and flat feet.
Gelb was executive assistant to Sen. Jacob K. Javits, R-N.Y., from 1966 to 1967; director of policy planning and arms control for international security affairs at the Defense Department from 1967 to 1969, where he won the Pentagon’s Distinguished Service Medal; and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution from 1969 to 1973.
After a stint as The Times’ diplomatic correspondent from 1973 to 1977, he returned to government during the Carter administration and won the State Department’s highest honor.
In 1981, he rejoined The Times to serve as national security correspondent, deputy editorial page editor, editor of the op-ed page and columnist, and played a leading role on the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism in 1986 for a six-part series on the Reagan administration’s Star Wars Strategic Defense Initiative.