WASHINGTON – The only career foreign service officer to rise to the position of secretary of state, Lawrence Eagleburger was a straightforward diplomat whose exuberant style masked a commitment to solving tangled foreign policy problems.

“As good as they come,” recalled his immediate predecessor as America’s top diplomat.

Eagleburger, who died Saturday at age 80, held the job late in George H.W. Bush’s presidency, the culmination of a distinguished diplomatic career.

Over 27 years, he served in the Nixon administration as executive assistant to Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, as President Carter’s ambassador to Yugoslavia, and as an assistant secretary of state and then undersecretary of state in the first Reagan administration.

In subsequent years, he was available to offer advice to Hillary Rodham Clinton as she prepared for the job under President Obama.

Eagleburger died in Charlottesville, Va., after a short illness, said a family friend, Christy Reap. No further details were immediately available.

Tributes poured in immediately, from Obama and Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and two of Eagleburger’s one-time bosses, Bush and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Biden said “the post-Cold War world … is more stable and secure” because of Eagleburger’s service.

Eagleburger held the top post at the State Department for five months when Baker resigned in 1992 to help Bush in an unsuccessful bid for re-election

As Baker’s deputy, Eagleburger had taken on a variety of difficult assignments. With Baker often abroad, Eagleburger was left to tend to the home front.

Eagleburger told The Associated Press in 1990 that he operated “sort of by osmosis. You get a feel how he (Baker) would react to a situation.”

Born Aug. 1, 1930, in Milwaukee, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin. He grew up in a Republican family, once telling the Milwaukee Journal that “my father was somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan.”

Eagleburger remained a Republican, but of a more moderate stripe.

In a statement, Bush said that “during one of the tensest moments of the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein began attacking Israel with Scud missiles trying cynically and cruelly to bait them into the conflict, we sent Larry to Israel to preserve our coalition. It was an inordinately complex and sensitive task, and his performance was nothing short of heroic.”

Baker said his former colleague was “superb at divining trouble and heading it off. That’s why he became the first Foreign Service officer in history to rise to deputy secretary of state and later to secretary of state. Simply stated, Larry Eagleburger was as good as they come — loyal, hard-working and intelligent.”

In what may have been his last public appearance, a clearly frail Eagleburger last month regaled State Department officials, including Clinton and ex-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, with stories about his early days in the foreign service during the Kennedy administration.

It came May 18 at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the State Department’s Operations Center, the department’s 24-hour nerve center.

Eagleburger had many in the audience rolling with laughter as he recalled the confusion among Kennedy’s national security advisers during the Bay of Pigs invasion that led then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk to order the creation of a round-the-clock clearinghouse for data coming in from around the world.

“Larry believed in the strength of America’s values, and he fought for them around the world,” Clinton said Saturday. “He was outspoken, but always the consummate diplomat.”

For five years, before joining the first Bush administration in 1989 as deputy secretary of state, Eagleburger was president of Kissinger Associates, offering companies advice on international politics and cashing in on his connections, as did Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser.

The job paid handsomely. He earned more than $1 million in salary and severance payments in his final year.

After Bush’s defeat in 1992, Eagleburger took a similar job with a law firm headed by ex-Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn.

Eagleburger chaired the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, which sought to settle decades-old claims brought by victims of Nazi brutality whose right to insurance settlements had been violated during World War II.

Eagleburger served in 2006 on the Iraq Study Group, the blue-ribbon panel headed by Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., that called for a gradual troop pullback and stepped-up diplomacy to help extricate the U.S. from Iraq.

In 2008, he was a prominent supporter of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential candidacy. Eagleburger did tell an NPR interviewer that McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, wasn’t up to the task of taking over the presidency in a crisis but could become “adequate.”

He named each of his sons Lawrence — they use their middle names Scott, Andrew and Jason — and had a lack of pretension that was appreciated on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

“It was ego,” Eagleburger told The Washington Post about giving his sons the same first name. “And secondly, I wanted to screw up the Social Security system.”

Explaining Eagleburger’s rapport with Congress, then-Rep. Stephen Solarz, D-N.Y., said, “He always conveys the impression that he’s speaking bluntly and candidly.”

“He’s a thoughtful, behind-the-scenes operator who allows you to believe he’s open to your advice,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on another occasion.

During the Gulf War, Bush sent Eagleburger to Israel to counsel patience as Iraq landed Scud missiles on the Jewish state. The Bush administration did not want Israel to retaliate, fearing it would shake the coalition with Arab nations that had joined in the fight to liberate Kuwait.

Eagleburger surveyed bombed-out rubble, using a cane because of a muscle disease.

“I knew the Israelis. … (The missile attacks required) someone they know cares about them,” he said.

Eagleburger also made clear he’d hold to the American line even if they disagreed with it.

His greatest concentration in overseas assignments was on Yugoslavia, where he spent seven of his 11 years abroad.

In 1992, he likened the country’s dissolution, which began a year earlier, to a Greek tragedy and predicted “a lot of people are going to die.”

At the same time, he was not inclined to intervene militarily. “There are sometimes problems for which there is no immediate solution, and there are sometimes problems for which there is no solution,” the longtime problem-solver commented paradoxically.