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.
... 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.
... 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.
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.
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.
... 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.
... 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.