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 ... 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.
It’s Packer’s book, so it must be him—but the voice is not quite 100 percent Packer’s. This prologue is a risky start. Its writer doesn’t cite anything that Packer in his diligence has not learned for himself, but he knows it the way a guy at the next desk, or an early boss, or a sometime rival for a big job might know it. We may think of this writer—this narrator—as the kind of person, perhaps even a composite of all the people, who told Packer what he knows ... Holbrooke was not without blemish. He could be abrupt, dismissive, vain, and self-absorbed. Packer is frank about all that but remains in thrall. His Holbrooke is a man who wins, who holds and returns regard ... Packer’s hundred pages on the American failure in Vietnam tell the story as forcefully as any hundred pages ever written about the war ... No book could achieve the intensity, completeness, and narrative depth of Our Man without the author’s belief that he had been put on this earth to do it. The strength of the book is its focus on Holbrooke’s character, which Packer pursues much as James Boswell pursued the human truth of Samuel Johnson.
Through his reporting, writing and brilliant personal digressions, Packer delivers a pitch-perfect portrait of Holbrooke the diplomat ... So, too, Packer captures Holbrooke’s personal failings as a husband and in his treatment of friends and rivals. Packer’s asides about Holbrooke’s brilliance are overwhelmed by the lengthy descriptions of the flaws and weaknesses that defined his professional and personal lives ... But by the end of the book and of Holbrooke’s life, the reader almost understands why, despite the diplomat’s obvious shortcomings, thousands of mourners, including Presidents Obama and Clinton and scores of ambassadors and CEOs felt compelled to attend memorial services in Washington or New York for a man who never attained a Cabinet position. What is harder to accept are the assumptions implied in the book’s title, Our Man, and its assertion that Holbrooke’s life and death symbolize 'the end of the American Century' ... everything about the book makes clear that Holbrooke, unlike most of us, was so much larger than life that his brilliance, his ambition and his blind spots were singular in nature.
I was hooked after the first paragraph—maybe after the first sentence ... Packer’s writing is lively and quick, packed with voice and with asides to the reader that only add to his credibility. Read it for the first 150 pages alone—the best primer on Vietnam you’ll find.
... by the end of the second page, maybe the third, you will be hooked. You’ll come to understand that the author, New Yorker writer George Packer, understood Holbrooke, understood power, understood America in its eclipse at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st ... you’ll realize that Holbrooke, who died nine years ago, was central to what was central to much of postwar American life, and that in a terrifying way his story is America’s story ... there seldom has been a book quite like this—sweeping and sentimental, beguiling and brutal, catty and critical, much like the man himself ... [an] undercurrent of poignancy that runs throughout ... this book screams a lesson about the perils of substituting ambition for the true distilled idealism of youth. It is a treatise of loyalties abandoned, chances squandered, promise wasted.
Our Man is one of the most fascinating dissections of US power—its strengths and serious weaknesses—I’ve read. Holbrooke represented muscular liberal interventionism in human form—a person and an argument whose power peaked in the 1990s and disintegrated in the first decade of the 21st century, as the world changed around him.
... rich and racy ... Who is the 'you' [Packer] repeatedly addresses? This self-consciously intimate approach to the task of writing a biography of a major public figure, who died as recently as 2010, has irritated and even offended some readers; so has his tendency to interrupt his narrative with intense little meditations on the state of the American nation in the period from the second World War to the present ... Yes, Packer certainly takes risks, but many of them pay off handsomely. This is a new way of writing about a person in history, in recent history, and an attempt to enrich the craft of historiography through the use of a highly personalised voice and some of the devices of mainstream fiction. Our Man is not quite a non-fiction novel, but as an alternative title, In Hot Blood would not be inapt. No one’s blood was hotter than Holbrooke’s, and the stuff running in Packer’s veins is pretty warm too ... The book is frank about Holbrooke’s awfulness ... a fine, adventurous and vastly entertaining book. The subject of it was no saint, but he did the state, and the world, some service.
George Packer leaves little doubt that his biography is also an act of mourning ... This emotional register would be a natural one to adopt in an intimate memoir of a loved one, but in Packer’s hands it comes across as exhibitionistic bathos. Nowhere is this more evident than in Packer’s decision to insert himself into the book as its narrator and, further, to yoke this authorial 'I' to a second-person-singular 'you' to whom he addresses himself at crucial points, though the exact identity of this reader is something he never really makes clear ... There are many things wrong with this approach, but the first and most obvious is its breathtaking provinciality and self-absorption, which is not a little morally offensive, particularly in a writer whose cosmopolitanism is beyond dispute and who would certainly consider himself an internationalist. Perhaps Packer felt that the conventional biographer’s obligations did not apply to him ... Packer is content to sum up Holbrooke by deploying the fuzzy category of 'almost great'—which, despite Packer’s attempts to flesh it out, ultimately obscures more than it clarifies ... There are not just more truthful but also more interesting ways of writing an obituary for the American Empire.
...Packer’s mesmerizing biography is an elegy not just for his subject but for the vision of American power that he represented ... Packer...establishes Holbrooke as metaphor from the outset ... [an] insightful and beautifully written book[.]
... strange ... In some ways, the author hero-worships the world-bestriding personality who, at times, bent huge forces to his will. Packer exhorts us not to judge Holbrooke for his manifold sins ... Yet, to his enormous credit, Packer then dwells on those sins, equipping us to condemn Holbrooke if we so desire ... Packer believes one needn’t be good to do good things, and he is openly romantic about it ... Packer is a pleasant guide with a conversational tone. He endeavors to see his subject from the same distance as his readers...Sometimes, though, Packer can’t help but draw too close ... Writers are supposed to show, not tell. Packer tells us constantly how great Holbrooke was. This guy’s virtuosity is supposed to be self-evident — or clear from his journals, some of which we read here. His genius is an article of faith. But, redeemingly, Packer truly shows Holbrooke’s ugliness. It is everywhere, and it’s revolting. If that was an authorial choice, it was a brave and intellectually honest one ... make[s] a case for Holbrooke’s place in the pantheon, showing that there was real idealism and skill buried beneath the layers of self-regard.
This isn’t a book you’re supposed to dip into piecemeal, searching for information; it’s best appreciated like a novel, consumed whole. Much like Holbrooke himself, who died in 2010 at 69, Packer’s book is charming, brilliant, cocksure and exasperating ... Our Man makes some high-minded noises about how Holbrooke’s death marked the definitive 'end of the American century,' but the reason to read this book is less for Packer’s wistful tributes to American exceptionalism than for his consummate skills as a storyteller.
Our Man takes the measure of America’s lost illusions, even though Packer’s sympathies tend to lie with those who long indulged them ... Holbrooke gave his own account of the negotiations [during the Bosnian Civil War] in To End a War (1998), and Packer draws heavily on it. He keeps his cynicism at bay, and suspends hindsight, as he grants Holbrooke his glorious moment ... Whatever credit is due to Holbrooke as a broker among regional potentates, Packer’s book, in its Balkan chapters, becomes a handmaiden of the humanitarian ideology it purports to be dissecting ... fortune cookie adages...appear throughout Our Man ... Packer skates over Holbrooke’s support (and his own) for the Iraq War in 2003 ... For [some], the only interesting question that Holbrooke’s career raises is how to account for such deeply ingrained mendacity. Packer provides no answer, but in spite of itself Our Man may be the most vivid tour of America’s foreign delusions that has been offered since the Vietnam War.
Our Man exhaustively documents Holbrooke’s not-quite-greatness, from his egotism and striving to his failed relationships to his inability to understand himself. In addition, the book unintentionally documents that Holbrooke, in addition to being not quite great, was not quite interesting ... The interesting voice in Our Man belongs to Packer, not Holbrooke. Packer constantly asserts his authorial presence, not just as narrator, but as witness, moralist, one-man Greek chorus, and mourner. He is anguished over the breakdown of the post–World War II consensus, and Our Man is a long attempt to explain that breakdown and give it meaning. There is a boyish quality to his writing. Analogies to sports or adventuring proliferate ... He criticizes a lot about American foreign policy over the past fifty years...but he cannot bring himself to question America’s motives ... This belief in both the universality and the benevolence of US interests is false, and it is blinding Packer...and most of the Democratic presidential field to reality ... The question facing many of us now is whether an economy and society organized around exploitation both at home and abroad can be replaced with something better. If liberals like Packer...remain unwilling to participate in the debate on these terms, they will have no constructive role to play going forward.
The book has all the qualities of a nonfiction novel ... As a snapshot of the revolving doors of finance, media, and diplomacy, Packer’s anatomy of power is not new, but the vividness of the detail makes it compulsive reading ... The moral heat that Packer applies to his subject falls on some odd places ... The way that women move through this book is perhaps worth some comment on its own. Packer takes Holbrooke to task for his sexism, yet each time a woman appears in Holbrooke’s life, Packer has to size her up like a wingman ... If there is one current in Holbrooke that Packer consistently seizes on, it’s his sense that some action is better than no action at all ... What is curious is that instead of criticizing Holbrooke’s restlessness, Packer consecrates it. The reason seems to be that deep in Holbrooke is something that appeals to Packer, a commitment to humanitarianism that claims to transcend ideology, and that focuses on intentions instead of outcomes ... For future historians, Our Man will be a valuable artifact from the period when militant liberal internationalism became too weary to bother with reasons, and instead took comfort in the gut of a famous man.
George Packer has delivered a deeply affecting and ultimately tragic biography of a distinguished diplomat ... Packer brilliantly describes Holbrooke’s personal journey through each episode, exploring along the way how these wars came to shape him — and how Holbrooke applied his considerable guile, fortitude and intelligence to shape the course of the conflicts ... In many ways this book is also a collective portrait of that generation who came of age during the Vietnam war. This terrifically talented and fantastically flawed cohort of men come to life in these pages ... This book is a complex rendering of a complicated man ... In an elegant and thoroughly accessible fashion, Packer has taken pains to tell Holbrooke’s story fully and fairly.
... every bit as bluff, garrulous, and unconventional as its subject ... Holbrooke, needless to say, would have loved this kind of writing about Holbrooke ... The wistfulness is loud and clear, here and everywhere in Our Man, perfectly reflecting the ‘ah for the good old days’ late-night attitude of the man himself and constantly dramatized in anecdotes that subtly (or not) vilify just the kind of squeaky-new backstabbing teachers’ pets who privately infuriated Holbrooke whenever he let himself think about subjects so small. Packer is extremely, almost alarmingly good at putting such moments before his readers ... the portrait Packer has crafted of him is a bizarrely hypnotic thing, equal parts cynicism and hero-worship, always managing to be both vastly friendly to its subject and brutally assessing ... captures the man as no book is ever likely to do again; this is an accomplishment and also a precaution.
Mercifully, George Packer...is such a masterful narrator—and Holbrooke such a vexing subject to portray—that this story is both gripping and surprisingly pacey, its wheels greased by revealing excerpts from Holbrooke’s personal letters and the private reflections he recorded to tape. Added to this is Packer’s arresting thesis: that his brash but erudite and driven subject symbolizes something about America’s engagement with the world following the Second World War that will never be recovered after Trump ... To Packer, despite all these flaws, he was 'that rare American in the treetops who actually gave a shit about the dark places of the Earth.'
... strange ... In some ways, the author hero-worships the world-bestriding personality who at times bent huge forces to his will ... Packer exhorts us not to judge Holbrooke for his litany of sins ... Yet, to his enormous credit, Packer then dwells on those sins, equipping us to condemn Holbrooke if we so desire ... Packer is a pleasant guide with a conversational tone. But writers are supposed to show, not tell. Packer tells us constantly how great Holbrooke was. But, redeemingly, he also shows Holbrooke’s ugliness. It is everywhere, and it’s revolting. If that was an authorial choice, it was a brave and intellectually honest one ... This is the kind of biography (massive, detailed) by the kind of author (respected, experienced) reserved for great books on great men. Packer doesn’t show that Holbrooke’s life is an allegory for the 'end of the American century' — the title oversells — but he does make a case for Holbrooke’s place in the pantheon, showing that there was real idealism and skill buried beneath the layers of self-regard.
Our Man is a great, exuberant read, gossipy and thoughtful ... There is a brutal cataloguing of [Holbrooke's] personal weaknesses, his swagger, the lack of introspection, his emotional neediness. Nobility is there too ... George Packer makes out of Holbrooke a kind of Philip Roth hero ... Packer displays his talents as a master of narrative reconstruction ... What emerges is...an extraordinary life, lived to its limits.
... a deeply researched, compelling biography of Holbrooke ... taken in its entirety, Packer’s detailed, graceful account of Holbrooke is not unsympathetic. It shows him, for all his vanities and insecurities, dedicating most of his life to grappling with how the US could and should do the right thing in the world ... not just a portrait of a fascinating historical figure, it is a contemplation of a half century of US foreign and security policy and its most intractable challenges ... Packer strives, and mostly manages, to shrug off the heavier conventions of biographies of the good and the great ... a reminder that, in a world where such men are consistently put in the driving seat of world events, it should be no surprise that the most disastrous mistakes are the ones most often repeated.
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 ... 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.
A diplomat’s professional life and his bedroom pursuits aren’t normally considered all part of the same story. But they are for George Packer...who spends as much time focusing on the details of Holbrooke’s relationships with women as on his diplomatic escapades ... Packer details the shenanigans of the Holbrooke-Sawyer Manhattan power couple enterprise (starting in 1981, Holbrooke took a break from diplomacy to make money in consulting) with inflections of lascivious delight ... By the time Kati Marton, who would end up being Holbrooke’s last woman, arrives toward the end of the book, both the reader and Richard Holbrooke are a bit fatigued ... Holbrooke may have gotten away with a patriarchal, self-serving, and largely shortsighted view of the world before him, treating one and all like the gaslit wife. One cannot but rejoice that the century of such men is past, even if their bullish escapades have left the world losses that weigh heavy and deep on the shoulders of the present.
Packer, who knew Holbrooke personally, celebrates the man’s larger-than-life qualities while remaining clear-eyed about his profound flaws. And by the end, he convincingly argues that Holbrooke’s passing signifies the loss of something larger still, a sense of American possibility, now seemingly out of reach.
... scintillating ... Drawing on Holbrooke’s fascinating diaries and his own memories of the man, Packer makes him a Shakespearean character—egomaniacal, devious, sloppy enough to make presidents deny him the prize of becoming secretary of state, yet charismatic and inspiring—in a larger-than-life portrait brimming with vivid novelistic impressions ... In Holbrooke’s thwarted ambitions, Packer finds both a riveting tale of diplomatic adventure—part high drama, part low pettiness—and a captivating metaphor for America’s waning power.