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book review

Absorbing life of a deeply flawed diplomat

Richard Holbrooke
Richard Holbrooke

It seems unpromising: a massive, sprawling biography of Richard Holbrooke, whose name you may dimly remember from the Bill Clinton years and his late-life efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A diplomat, you may vaguely recall. Big fellow, big ego. (Both indisputable.) Something about the Balkans. (And the peace he crafted in the unlikely environs of Dayton, Ohio.) Yesterday’s man. (With the fading interest of yesterday.)

But 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 come to understand that Packer knew the great man, in fact thought he was great: great of ambition, of character, of intelligence, of intuition, of impulse, and, above all, great of flaws, including betrayal. And 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.

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There never was a diplomat-activist quite like him, and there seldom has been a book quite like this — sweeping and sentimental, beguiling and brutal, catty and critical, much like the man himself. Packer interviewed 250 people who knew Holbrooke — he was at the center of a vast Venn diagram of thinkers, lawmakers, diplomats, world leaders, rogues and charlatans. And journalist Kati Marton, his last wife, though not his last lover, gave Packer access to a trove of documents, diaries, billets-doux. She imagined Packer would use them brilliantly, and he did, but she can’t have imagined the undercurrent of poignancy that runs throughout.

The driven Holbrooke achieved much, but his tragedy was that he never reached the commanding heights of American public life, never realized his dream of being secretary of state, and always was the reluctant, resistant, even rebellious hostage of some patron or other. Surely he must have contemplated Samuel Johnson’s definition of a patron as “a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.’’

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For this book is Holbrooke’s life unexpurgated, and unsparing. Here is laid out his treachery toward friends. The shabby way he treated his first wife. The impertinent way he talked to president-elect Jimmy Carter. The way he cheated with his best friend’s wife. The contempt in which he was held by Barack Obama and, by the end, almost everyone in power, except Hillary Rodham Clinton (who, like John Kerry, would’ve likely lifted Holbrooke up, had either moved into the Oval Office). Most of all, 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.

But it is also a story of luck. As a young man he ensconced himself in the family of his friend David Rusk, son of Dean Rusk, Kennedy’s secretary of state. He wangled himself an internship with The New York Times. There he came under the thrall of Gay Talese. He entered the Foreign Service. His first assignment, in the pungent year 1963, was a backwater called Vietnam. There he fell in with David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, the signature reporters of that early stage of the American war. He played tennis with General (and later ambassador) Maxwell Taylor. That was his entree to Taylor’s close friend, Robert F. Kennedy.

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That sort of thing happened to him repeatedly. He was an opportunist, to be sure, and often an obnoxious one. Packer sketches this life with authority and perception and, it must be said, with panoramic beauty. And with some sympathy and admiration. “He was exceptional from the start,’’ he writes, “not just because he was brilliant and curious and widely read, but because he was unafraid to face the truth, cared enough to act on it, and was willing to take the consequences.’’

Holbrooke, however, is not the sole focus of Packer’s mastery. He also brings to vivid life the age and the men, for they are mainly men, who ran the country (and thus much of the world). Early on, for example, Packer takes on a Massachusetts mastodon, barely settled in his Saigon embassy: Henry Cabot Lodge — “who had been in the country less than a week and admitted that he barely knew Vietnam at all . . . [suggested] over lunch at the ambassador’s residence that the primitive superstitions of the Vietnamese people made them hard to understand and their politics unworthy of serious respect, a plaything compared to the high level of American politics.’’

So what was Holbrooke’s appeal? That he was a curious mix of the intelligent and the indefatigable. That he was a master of the political arts — one of which was persuasion — and also of simply, in the vernacular, sucking up. It did not hurt that he was what Packer called “polychromatic company.’’ People liked to have lunch with him, which is a favored, valued skill in Washington. Sadly for him (despite all the sound advice he offered on Afghanistan that fell on ears made deaf by his pummeling insistence) people simply didn’t like him. It turns out that matters.

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OUR MAN:

Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

Knopf, 592 pp., illustrated, $30


David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.