From the award-winning author of The Unwinding—the saga of the ambition, idealism, and hubris of one of the most complicated figures in recent American history, set amid the rise and fall of U.S. power from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
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.