Tripoli, the capital of Libya, is on the Mediterranean Sea across from Sicily. On a clear, beautiful day there in late August three years ago, Randall Williams of Raleigh was eating breakfast at the Corinthia Hotel when he spotted Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador, talking with a journalist in the dining room.
Williams is a physician who has served on medical missions to Iraq and Afghanistan. When Stevens finished with the journalist, Williams and a colleague struck up a conversation with the ambassador.
About two weeks later on Sept. 11, Stevens and three other Americans were killed by a mob in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, about 400 miles east of Tripoli.
The security lapses that led to those deaths are under investigation by a U.S. House committee, which met last week. Its hearings have become so contentious, loud and politically charged that one could overlook each of the four Americans who died in Benghazi.
Williams won’t forget Stevens. He didn’t meet the other three Americans who perished but Williams did spend 20 minutes that morning at the hotel talking with Stevens.
The ambassador made a big impression on him, as he did on so many people who met him. Williams describes Stevens as “the best of America” and “a bright guy with a strong sense of duty and very gracious.”
“He really loved the Libyan people,” Williams, deputy secretary in the state Department of Health and Human Services, told me recently. “He really loved America. You could just tell that he really believed in what he was doing. I sometimes say the best way to make people think you care about them is to really care about them. And he really did. It was just obvious.”
That was a promising time in Libya. The brutal, terrorist-supporting Gadhafi regime, which had been in power since 1969, was toppled in 2011.
Williams was in Tripoli for a conference of physicians, who made recommendations to the new government for a new health-care system.
The buoyancy didn’t last. The chaos that began a few weeks later with Stevens’ death has continued as Libya has broken into factions and rival governments.
Williams said the people in Tripoli welcomed Americans. A runner (as was Stevens), Williams ran three miles through Tripoli every day he was there. Libyans there were grateful for the military support the United States had provided during the overthrow of Gadhafi.
Stevens, who was 52, was a former Peace Corps volunteer who had spent much of his career working in the Middle East, including two prior stints in Libya. Williams and Stevens’ conversation started in the dining room but moved outside into the sunshine.
“We just talked about how welcomed we’d been made to feel by the Libyan people,” Williams said. “The great irony was that our conversation was about how warm and embracing the people were.”
Stevens had been ambassador for only three months. It was a dream assignment for him and he’d thrown himself into the job fully.
“The happiest people I know are other-centered and feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves,” Williams said. “And that was Chris.”