There's a lot of talk about elites in the news these days — and it's the elite that springs to mind, over and over again, while reading George Packer's biography of Richard Holbrooke.
Whether it's the descriptions of Holbrooke's tennis-playing companions in 1960s Saigon, his cigar-smoking, back-stabbing investment banker buddies at Lehman Brothers in the go-go '80s, or his celebrity cocktail-party pals in New York in the '90s, the elite is ever-present in Our Man.
That might stick in your craw, were it not for Packer's energetic prose, which carries the reader easily through the three main acts of Holbrooke's diplomatic life: Vietnam, Bosnia and Afghanistan. Colorful anecdotes about Holbrooke — who died in 2010 at age 69 — abound: his bad feet, and his habit of putting them up on peoples' furniture; the time he raced into the most dangerous sector of the Mekong Delta without a military escort; the time he was trapped on a hotel balcony in Puerto Rico while his lover and her husband screamed at each other inside; the way he preferred the company of journalists and soldiers over his diplomatic service peers.
Holbrooke was a middling member of the elite — high school in Scarsdale, University at Brown — but he tended to spurn his tribe, and this made him unpopular with many members of the service that he strove to advance in. He was nicknamed "The Bulldozer," regarded as brash, and something of an unguided missile, and — justly — "a known leaker" to the media. As result, he was often kept out of the loop. He served in every Democratic administration since John F. Kennedy, and he played a key part in enabling the Dayton Peace Agreement in Bosnia. But he never got the job he wanted: secretary of state. He had friends — some of them quite powerful — but most of his political peers seemed to dislike him, Packer writes: Joe Biden called him "a pain in the ass"; one aide to Henry Kissinger said "there are people who won' sit in the same room as him"; Madeleine Albright distrusted him and thought he was out of control.
Holbrooke was certainly impulsive, sometimes recklessly so, Packer reveals: He cheated on all of his wives and abandoned his children. He was careless in his professional life. His own letters show his urge to be at the center of things, and his "instinct for action" drove him from one conflict zone to another: Cambodia; Kosovo; East Timor; the Pakistan-Afghan border. Anywhere there was something to be done. An adviser to the Obama administration once said, "There's almost an inevitability or gravitational force that pulls Holbrooke into relevant circles, because he makes himself indispensable." Yet, just like the American diplomat described with such disdain by Graham Greene in The Quiet American, Holbrooke rarely went far below the surface. "He fell for problems not countries," Packer says, and notes that he failed to learn any of the languages of the countries whose problems he attempted to tackle.
Our Man is impeccably sourced. Packer was given complete access to Holbrooke's papers by Kati Marton, Holbrooke's third wife. He also had remarkable access to Holbrooke's friends and associates, and conducted more than 250 interviews. Despite this, Packer fails to shed much light on the glaring inconsistency in Holbrooke's career trajectory — his move to Wall Street, and the world of lobbying and consulting. Why did a man like Holbrooke, who appeared so committed to public service and solving the world's conflicts, decide to hop on the money train? It's an irritating gap in the narrative, and it means that even though the book runs to more than 500 pages, it feels frustratingly incomplete.
Our Man is a perceptive title. Richard Holbrooke was often America's man on the ground, but he also embodied America's approach to foreign policy in the 20th century, and encapsulated America's sense of itself. American intervention around the globe was all about the responsibility that came with great power, Holbrooke believed, and the realization that without engagement, as Packer writes, "the world's suffering would worsen, and eventually other people's problems would be ours, and if we didn't act no one else would."
An old fashioned view, one might say today, but Holbrooke was an old fashioned man — in both good ways and bad.
Paddy Hirsch is a supervising editor for NPR's Planet Money. You can follow him on Twitter @paddyhirsch.