Review–George Packer on Richard Holbrooke, the Last Great Freewheeling Diplomat (Togo)

Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 1962-64)

Richard Holbrooke, and the End of the American Century by George Packer (Togo 1982-83)

Reviewed by Walter Isaacson
The New York Times
May 9, 2019

Richard Holbrooke was a large man with gargantuan appetites — for food and women and movies and acclaim and, above all, diplomatic and undiplomatic maneuvering — appetites that struggled to feed an outsize ego that was matched only by his insecurities. As the last great freewheeling diplomat of the American Century, Holbrooke, with his turbocharged zeal and laughable lack of self-awareness, earned fervent admirers and fevered enemies, including a few longstanding colleagues who fell passionately and paradoxically into both camps. In fact, Holbrooke himself was caught in this duality of being his own most fervent admirer and worst enemy (although when someone once commented that he was his own worst enemy, a national security adviser he had worked with snapped, “not as long as I’m around”).

I doubt that any novel, not even one co-written by Graham Greene and F. Scott Fitzgerald, could have captured Holbrooke fully, and I certainly thought that no biography ever would. But now one has. George Packer’s “Our Man” portrays Holbrooke in all of his endearing and exasperating self-willed glory: relentless, ambitious, voracious, brilliant, idealistic, noble, needy and containing multitudes. It’s both a sweeping diplomatic history and a Shakespearean tragicomedy, with Holbrooke strutting and fretting his hour on the stage.

Richard-C.-Holbrooke-at-the-gate-of-the-Vietnamese-Embassy-in-Paris-1977.Credit Bettmann Getty-Images.jpg

Perhaps intentionally, the book emulates the rollicking cadences, lapidary character descriptions and exhaustive reporting of “The Best and the Brightest,” by Holbrooke’s close friend David Halberstam. (Packer on Halberstam: “Jewish and middle-class, with thick-framed glasses and big hairy hands and violent gestures and moral certainties, with his gift for dramatizing everything, including himself.”) Informed by complete access to Holbrooke’s intimate diaries and letters, along with almost 250 interviews, the book overflows with the trait that was Holbrooke’s saving grace: an in-your-face intellectual honesty that is not tainted, as Holbrooke’s was, by his manipulativeness. The result is so bracing that “Our Man” not only revitalizes but in some ways reinvents the art of journalistic biography.

Packer, a staff writer at The Atlantic and former staff writer at The New Yorker, pulls no punches, and the complex shadings of the all-too-human personalities — including Holbrooke’s widow, Kati Marton; his lifelong frenemy Tony Lake; his patron Hillary Clinton; and his nemesis Barack Obama — are painted with vibrant complexity. They will likely wince but then nod as they read. So too, I think, would Holbrooke himself, who died in December 2010 when his heart exploded from the strain of unappreciated diplomatic exertions. I can almost hear him howling at Packer from the grave, berating him for the brutal passages and then, after realizing how brilliant and brilliantly he has been portrayed, pouring on his flattery and ham-handed charm. (Full disclosure: When I was a journalist, I fell into the camp of his alloyed admirers, and he would do all of that to me, albeit while looking over my shoulder to see if there was someone more important to flatter and berate.)

Packer establishes a Holbrookian intimacy by talking directly to the reader at times. “Holbrooke?” he begins. “Yes I knew him. I can’t get his voice out of my head.” And a few pages later, “Do you mind if we hurry through the early years? There are no mysteries here that can be unlocked by nursery school.”

The key to the mysteries, instead, begins with Vietnam. When Holbrooke arrived in Saigon in 1963 as a newly minted Foreign Service officer, America was not yet waist-deep in a quagmire. His role as a rural affairs adviser was to help win “hearts and minds” in “strategic hamlets” as part of the “pacification” program, before napalm and Zippo lighters had imbued those words with an ironic and then sinister stench. He and his colleagues read Graham Greene’s Vietnam novel “The Quiet American,” but they did not yet fully appreciate Greene’s deft description of his title character: “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

Holbrooke was among the first diplomats to harbor doubts about the war. “I sometimes think this first year in Vietnam was the best of Richard Holbrooke,” Packer writes. “His ambition still had a clean smell, and youth was working in his favor — physical courage, moral passion, the boundless energy and enthusiasm and sheer sense of fun, the skepticism, the readiness to talk straight to ambassadors and generals.”

In Vietnam Holbrooke became best friends with Tony Lake, a fellow Foreign Service officer who “kept his ambition more tightly wrapped,” a talent that came naturally to someone born into the WASP establishment that Holbrooke, the son of Jewish refugees, hungered to join. The intensity of their friendship and then their falling-out provides one of the many wrenching plots in the book. They play tennis, invent games, party, smoke pot and travel together. But when they return to Washington, Holbrooke’s social-climbing among the Harrimans and Alsops of the Georgetown elite turned Lake sour. “Friendship with Holbrooke had acquired a whiff of the instrumental,” Packer writes. Eventually almost all of Holbrooke’s colleagues, even the admiring ones, came to feel used.

Also at times abused. With his appetites, Holbrooke couldn’t help himself. In one of the most egregious examples, he decided to pursue an affair with Lake’s wife. “Holbrooke’s betrayal,” Packer writes, “would stay secret from almost everyone, while the acid it released would take years to eat silently at the bonds of youthful ambition and Vietnam and tennis and American greatness that had held the two men together.”

Holbrooke’s compulsion for cheating on or with women — and also Packer’s willingness to report with gusto the psychological and physical details involved — would seem shocking were these passions not so interwoven with the neediness and drive that was at the core of his professional life. Holbrooke was perpetually in heat. Chapters recounting fevered statecraft are interspersed with those chronicling Holbrooke’s three marriages and multiple affairs and romances, including one with Diane Sawyer, all featuring the same detailed reporting and sharp personality portraiture.

The most intense (and intensely described) relationship was with his last wife, Kati Marton, who gave Packer exclusive access to Holbrooke’s papers. A vibrant reporter and writer of several highly acclaimed books, including an extraordinarily powerful memoir of the family betrayals and secret love affairs that accompanied her parents’ escape from Nazi and then Communist Hungary, Marton ascended during periods when her husband languished. This was not a recipe for marital harmony. Each had dramatic affairs, but they were tethered by ambition. “She became what he’d never had,” Packer writes, a “climbing partner.”

The peak of Holbrooke’s career came under President Clinton, when he shuttled around the Balkans cajoling Bosnian warlords and Serbian war criminals to make peace. His work culminated with three weeks of negotiations in November 1995 at an Air Force base near Dayton, Ohio, where he pushed the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and others into a peace agreement. “Let’s give him his due. He ended a war,” Packer writes. “Diplomacy, real diplomacy, is not for the short of breath.”

President Barack Obama and Richard Holbrooke, Jan. 22, 2009.Credit Ruth Fremson The New York Times

True to form, Holbrooke personally led his own lobbying campaign for the Nobel Peace Prize. He wrote letters extolling his accomplishment and pressed others to sign them. He also repeatedly found excuses to travel to Oslo, where he made a point of meeting several times with the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel committee. “He campaigned so hard for the Nobel Prize that that’s probably one reason he didn’t get it,” Clinton remarked.

He also did not get the other prize he wanted. After Dayton, Clinton passed him over for secretary of state and gave the job to Madeleine Albright. Even though (or perhaps because) they agreed on most major issues, Holbrooke’s contempt for Albright, which mixed sexism with rivalry, oozed out regularly. On the back of a menu card at a lunch she hosted, he jotted his unfair opinion of her: “MKA — very articulate, even eloquent on values — weak on process, policy + diplomacy — uneven, unpredictable — charming + mean — insecure — her biography was her career — very strong will.” In this universe, particles of like charge are destined to repel each other.

When Barack Obama was elected president, Holbrooke again lobbied hard to be secretary of state, but the incoming president became allergic to him. Obama, who took as much pride in telling people he hadn’t read their books as Holbrooke did saying that he had, was disdainful of Holbrooke’s compulsion to flatter and be flattered. When the president called him Dick at their first meeting, Holbrooke stopped him and, as Marton had instructed him to do, asked the president to call him Richard instead. “If Holbrooke had tried to repel him in their first minute together he couldn’t have done a better job,” Packer reports.

Instead, Obama recruited Hillary Clinton to be secretary. Bravely defying intense resistance from the White House, Secretary Clinton appointed Holbrooke as her special representative to handle Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unlike the no-drama Obama crowd, she understood that what made Holbrooke a handful also made him effective.

Holbrooke’s tenacity as he whirled through the region might have, if he had been given time and support, allowed him to cajole and browbeat the prideful warlords there as he had done in the Balkans. But it soon became clear he was completely lacking in support from the president.

Obama thought Holbrooke was “disruptive,” and Holbrooke thought, as he told a young woman he had an affair with, “Obama has ice water running in his veins.” The problem was they were both right. When Obama made a surprise trip to Kabul in November 2010, he didn’t invite Holbrooke aboard Air Force One or even let him know about the trip in advance.

Not long after, exhausted by his missions and drained by his tumultuous commuter marriage with Marton, Holbrooke barreled into the White House, sweating and pasty-faced, to make yet another effort to wrangle a private session with Obama. He was rebuffed. He then dashed to the State Department for a meeting with Secretary Clinton. Suddenly, his face turned red, his legs collapsed. An aneurysm in his heart had burst, ripping a hole in his aorta. When he arrived at the trauma bay of the hospital, the doctor told him to relax. “I can’t relax,” he replied. “I am in charge of Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Three days later on Dec. 13, he died.

His multiple memorial services were packed with friends and enemies. Marton later took pride that she had choreographed the one at the Kennedy Center so that Obama had to sit through two hours of testimonials. “I could never understand people who didn’t appreciate him,” Bill Clinton said in his eulogy. “Most of the people who didn’t were not nearly as good at doing.” At a service a few weeks later in the United Nations General Assembly chamber in New York, Tony Lake, with a gray beard, sat alone in the balcony, feeling conflicted as always.

The overriding theme of Holbrooke’s life, detailed with unnerving accuracy in this book, was ambition. He was relentless in forcing his way into meetings to which he wasn’t invited and clambering into motorcades where he wasn’t manifested. During the Carter administration, when Holbrooke was an assistant secretary in the State Department, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s personal aide had to send him a memo. “Henceforth, you may not insert yourself as a passenger in the secretary’s car unless this office has specifically approved,” it said, adding that the security detail had been given instructions to enforce this edict. As Packer notes, “Holbrooke, undeterred, had the memo framed.”

“Ambition is not a pretty thing up close,” Packer writes. “It’s wild and crass, and mortifying in the details. It brings a noticeable smell into the room. … Because of Holbrooke’s psychological mutation of not being able to see himself … he let us ogle ambition in the nude.” Lurking in this description is a more subtle point. It wasn’t just Holbrooke’s ambition that hobbled him, it was his inability to cloak his ambition like the more polished members of Washington’s striving elite.

The difficulty in writing biographies of grand players, as I know from trying to do it with Steve Jobs, is to be honest about their rough personalities while guiding a reader to the conclusion, which is as true for Holbrooke as it was for Jobs, that their unvarnished drives were part and parcel of their greatness. “I don’t think I run roughshod over people, but if something sucks, I tell people to their face,” Jobs once said. “I know what I’m talking about, and I usually turn out to be right. Maybe there’s a better way — a gentlemen’s club where we all wear ties and speak in this Brahmin language and velvet code-words — but I don’t know that way.” Or as he put it more poetically: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

In corporate as well as governmental realms, leaders often prefer, as Obama did, teammates who are low-maintenance. But as Packer shows, there can be a payoff for those able to harness a Holbrooke. “Don’t forget that inside most people you read about in history books,” he writes, “is a child who fiercely resisted toilet training. Suppose the mess they leave is inseparable from their reach and grasp? Then our judgment depends on what they’re ambitious for — the saving glimmer of wanting something worthy.”

Why such a mammoth book — and such a long review of it — about a midlevel diplomat whose only major achievement was helping settle a war in a faraway place with unpronounceable names? Because if you could read only one book to comprehend America’s foreign policy and its quixotic forays into quicksands over the past 50 years, this would be it. You have to begin in Vietnam, as Holbrooke did, and understand that American involvement there was a complex mix of sincerity and blindness and idealism and hubris. Likewise, our subsequent interventions, including Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan, have involved good intentions, outsize ambitions and a deficit of humility. Just like Holbrooke. “Our confidence and energy, our reach and grasp, our excess and blindness — they were not so different from Holbrooke’s,” Packer writes. “He was our man.”

Our man, our man in full. “I still can’t get his voice out of my head,” Packer concludes. “One day I know it will start to fade, along with his memory, along with the idea of a life lived as if the world needed an American hand to help set things right. By this point you’re familiar with its every failing. But now that Holbrooke is gone, and we’re getting to know the alternatives, don’t you, too, feel some regret? History is cruel that way. He loved it all the same.”

Walter Isaacson, a professor of history at Tulane, is the co-author, with Evan Thomas, of “The Wise Men” and the author of biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci.

FYI: According to Jerry Norris (Colombia 1963-65) Holbrooke was Peace Corps Country Director in Morocco for one year, 1970-71. At the time Joseph Blatchford was  the Peace Corps Director, appointed by President Nixon in 1969.

One Comment

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  • For anyone who encountered Holbrooke in the Foreign Service (I am a retired Foreign Service Officer), there remain lasting stings from his “it’s all about me” persona. There are many diplomats who feel the hubris of being indispensible, but with Holbrooke it oozed out of him like some gooey “I’m in charge” egotism. There was no room in Holbrooke’s world for the rest of us who thought we were part of a team but were actually just an audience he was playing to.

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