"Portrays Holbrooke in all of his endearing and exasperating self-willed glory...Both a sweeping diplomatic history and a Shakespearean tragicomedy... If you could read one book to comprehend American's foreign policy and its quixotic forays into quicksands over the past 50 years, this would be it."--Walter Isaacson, The New York Times Book Review "By the end of the second page, maybe the third, you will be hooked...There never was a diplomat-activist quite like [Holbrooke], and there seldom has been a book quite like this -- sweeping and sentimental, beguiling and brutal, catty and critical, much like the man himself."--David M. Shribman, The Boston GlobeRichard Holbrooke was brilliant, utterly self-absorbed, and possessed of almost inhuman energy and appetites. Admired and detested, he was the force behind the Dayton Accords that ended the Balkan wars, America's greatest diplomatic achievement in the post-Cold War era. His power lay in an utter belief in himself and his idea of a muscular, generous foreign policy. From his days as a young adviser in Vietnam to his last efforts to end the war in Afghanistan, Holbrooke embodied the postwar American impulse to take the lead on the global stage. But his sharp elbows and tireless self-promotion ensured that he never rose to the highest levels in government that he so desperately coveted. His story is thus the story of America during its era of supremacy: its strength, drive, and sense of possibility, as well as its penchant for overreach and heedless self-confidence. In Our Man, drawn from Holbrooke's diaries and papers, we are given a nonfiction narrative that is both intimate and epic in its revelatory portrait of this extraordinary and deeply flawed man and the elite spheres of society and government he inhabited.
Our Man Review
- January 1, 1970MurtazaThis is a fitting elegy to an iconic statesman of the late-American empire, but it is also a book about the virtues and flaws of the United States during its brief period as lone superpower. George Packer is a writer I greatly admire and he was probably one of the only people able to write this book. He had access to some of the most powerful people in the world and their perspectives come across here. Some of it felt like elite inside-baseball, but in fairness this is what the history of power This is a fitting elegy to an iconic statesman of the late-American empire, but it is also a book about the virtues and flaws of the United States during its brief period as lone superpower. George Packer is a writer I greatly admire and he was probably one of the only people able to write this book. He had access to some of the most powerful people in the world and their perspectives come across here. Some of it felt like elite inside-baseball, but in fairness this is what the history of power tends to be. I was struck by the mix of glamour and power that characterized Holbrooke's life. Holbrooke was equally at home in the White House, among A-list movie stars and on Wall Street. His life crossed through all the major centers of American power (except for the newest one: Silicon Valley) and brought him around types of power and prestige I can scarcely imagine. The book made for uncomfortable reading at times. The easy money and lurid behavior mixed with life-and-death power politics that characterizes American elite life is surreal and disturbing. At times I felt as though the book was about to call security on me and have me escorted from the premises.Holbrooke was sentimental, arrogant, brilliant, self-absorbed, brutal and compassionate all at once. In other words, he was the embodiment of American foreign policy in the latter half of the 20th century. The post-WW2 world had been created by men like MacArthur, Acheson, Kennan and Harriman. Holbrooke was a page from the same book. However he came of age during a time when American power was at the start of its long relative decline. By the time he died, it seemed to be entering its twilight. I'm not sure if the United States of the next few decades will be able to satisfy the ambitions of people like him, though it may still surprise us. As a diplomat Holbrooke experienced both Vietnam, a disaster, and Bosnia, a qualified success, and those experiences colored his view on the world up til his death. This is not a traditional biography of a man, which I appreciate. It's more like a sympathetic biography of American liberal empire, with Holbrooke's life used as a thread. I can't help but feel that if Americans had been more careful and fastidious, their "century" might have lasted a bit longer than the fifty or so short years that it did. America was often ugly, Packer doesn't hide from this, but the vision of world order coming next might make us nostalgic for it. Holbrooke was not a monster, though you could say he was a jerk. He had a heart and was awake to the sufferings of others. Perhaps if men like him had been more personally conservative and less inebriated by the glamor and wealth that came along with American power they would have done a better job marshaling it. Flitting in between investment banks and government offices while hanging out with Robert DeNiro does not sound like the behavior of world-builders who will sit at the apex forever. It sounds like decadence.Packer is a great writer. While this book is long, the pages fly by thanks to his exhilarating prose. The chapters on the Balkans, which I have a keen interest in, were captivating. Holbrooke was an anti-hero who did some good and some bad, but above all wanted to be a Great Man in the way that his heroes were. He came up just short, but did well enough that people were writing books about him after his death. I'm sure he would've been pleased by this one.4.5/5more
- January 1, 1970AagaveOur Man is a warts-and-all bio of Richard Holbrooke, of one of the few modern diplomats who understood American power through the lenses of both Wilsonian moralism and Kissingerian Realpolitik.I loved Packer's The Unwinding, but in The Unwinding he was an observer with empathy reporting on stories that merited the reader's empathy. Here, Packer inserts himself as a narrator who knew Holbrooke, who can deliver a more personal view of the subject, and who wants to tell a more populist story than t Our Man is a warts-and-all bio of Richard Holbrooke, of one of the few modern diplomats who understood American power through the lenses of both Wilsonian moralism and Kissingerian Realpolitik.I loved Packer's The Unwinding, but in The Unwinding he was an observer with empathy reporting on stories that merited the reader's empathy. Here, Packer inserts himself as a narrator who knew Holbrooke, who can deliver a more personal view of the subject, and who wants to tell a more populist story than to get bogged down in the boring details of a diplomat's life or diplomatic efforts. And Holbrooke is not a subject who evokes empathy (and it is not clear from the biography that empathy was something he craved; rather, he wanted to be heard but also involved in, if not leading, the policymaking of Democratic Administrations ). The upside of that approach is that the book is an entertaining read, which is no easy feat given that as much as Holbrooke could be entertaining, he could also be unreliable and bombastic. Packer effectively paints a portrait of these various sides of Holbrooke well, and then colors in the rest. He deftly maneuvers between biography and novel (as Les Gelb had advised him might be the best format). The downside of that approach is that Packer is a narrator with obvious biases. Those biases not only distract from his storytelling, but they blind him to obvious takeaways that the storytelling delivers. And that makes him an unreliable narrator, which is positive in the sense that it mirrors Holbrooke's unreliability, but hurts Packer in other ways. For instance, there are many first-person mentions about "American decline", which in the context of The Unwinding helped to frame stories of success and failure in America over the years, but in the context of a biography of Richard Holbrooke, fails to accurately reflect the problems with post Cold War policymaking he describes in the book (meaning, it is not a symptom of American decline that Clinton or Obama struggled with foreign policy making, or hired poorly for it; those were weaknesses of those leaders).It also means the Packer turns a blind eye to contradictions in his observations: for example, there is naked fanboy love for President Obama - like when Packer imagines Obama listening intensely with a finger on his cheek - but a glossing past of facts which paint an objectively negative picture of the former President (a technocrat who was not a good governor (but brilliant campaigner), who hired poorly for his foreign policy staff, who ran policy meetings that were intensely legalistic in their structure but did not seem to produce any policy, and who was quick to sideline the experts, like Holbrooke, if he didn't like them). And also problematic are the moments when he tells us that he "could" tell us more about other successful initiatives of Holbrooke's, but he wants to keep the story going. And at times, like the Bosnia section of the book, a rich and complicated history gets boiled down to storytelling around key events in Holbrooke's life, at the expense of that history (worse, it neglects to describe just *how* horrified the world was to witness genocide on European soil 50 years after WWII, and with international legal mechanisms in place) . So, with this approach, Packer not only exposes himself to critiques with reasonable questions about decisions he made as a narrator, but also whether the history of what he is describing is being accurately captured.It is also a sad book - Holbrooke is brilliant but is often sidelined and peripheral. Part of that is because the majority of Administrations in his career were Republican, but also because Democratic policymakers did *not* like him. He was not perceived to be a team player by Clinton or Obama or anyone who served under them or with Holbrooke. And his personal life reads tragically dysfunctional.So, in the end, the biography, like Holbrooke, reveals deep flaws about both its subject and its author. Which is a completely surprising outcome. I understand why Packer chose this approach - a standard political biography would be too technical and boring to capture the dynamics of Holbrooke's restless energy and showmanship, and how it played out in Bosnia- but Packer's biases are exposed, too. And those biases become "warts" which compromise integrity of the historical record he aimed to leave for Holbrooke.That said, for the same reason, it would hard to imagine anyone who did not know Holbrooke delivering a similar outcome to this book. Because with the principle of "bodies in rest vs. bodies in motion", to that person Holbrooke would be a body in rest, something static to be analyzed. But here he is a body in motion, very much alive, forcefully bullying his way into history, because that is how Packer observed him. That makes the biography an unusual accomplishment for a biography, and therefore for Packer, but it does not hold up to Packer's writing elsewhere, as in The Unwinding and his New Yorker pieces.Last, a disclaimer: in 1998 I wrote my senior essay on Holbrooke (was it the first biography of Holbrooke...?). It was focused on the Dayton Accords, and how his career had helped to shape the outcome. I was able to interview him for the paper, we stayed in touch, and even, for a brief moment, was in talks for a job working for him and his staff at the UN. The question that always fascinated me was *why* Holbrooke succeeded in delivering peace to the former Yugoslavia when other big names in diplomacy (Lord David Owen, Cy Vance) failed, and when other approaches (e.g., negotating a democracy for Bosnia in democracy without first securing the peace) played out as naïve and idealistic. My hypothesis was that Holbrooke had a unique understanding of how to leverage American Realpolitik to achieve Wilsonian ends, and that had been shaped by the unique arc of his career. Packer fills in a lot of blanks that I missed because I was too narrow in my approach: particularly, no other US diplomat's personality could have delivered the same outcome with a cast of characters like Milosevic, Itzebegovic or Tudjman. Bombast was a part of the game with those leaders, and Holbrooke had plenty of it. So, coming back to my bodies in rest vs. bodies in motion paradigm, in retrospect I was guilty of falling into the former camp, because Holbrooke's bombastic and deceptive approach to diplomacy was not something for which the rigor of academic analysis in a history paper may capture. That said, Packer's history of Bosnia in Our Man still leaves open the door to an exploration of *why* Holbrooke succeeded. Because the extraordinary series of events that led to the peace agreement at Dayton all point to the reasonable conclusion that Holbrooke should *not* have succeeded, as they suggest the whole thing could have collapsed at any moment. There is more there worth exploring for any future historian, or negotiations expert.Packer's approach to writing about Holbrooke may answer the question implicitly: "Our Man" Richard Holbrooke was the product of the U.S. foreign service in Vietnam, and the U.S. does not produce diplomatic talent like him anymore. I am not sure if that is a symptom of "American Decline", but this takeaway, alongside the brutal portaits of Clinton and Obama era staffers being more obsessed with optics and pet projects than policy, it does make one wonder about whether any policymaker in the future will have the skills to serve our country as well as Holbrooke did.more
- January 1, 1970Bettie☯FULL Real Time With Bill Maher 5/17/19
- January 1, 1970DianaI enjoyed this book very much. I knew little about Richard Holbrooke and it was interesting learning about the man and his life. The Audible narrator was good. The author interjects himself into the book from time to time. It could have been irritating but I found it quaint and endearing. I learned a lot about the Serbian conflict and about Afghanistan. It presented a different perspective of the Obama administration. Both the human stories and the history lessons were enjoyable and well told.more
- January 1, 1970Dan DowningRichard Who? Oh, yeah, now I think on it, that rings a bell.That was my first reaction: I am not a political junkie, never have been. Usually, I read the news story, realize almost everything is either misreported or a lie, and the players are idiots. I move on.But once the chips stop falling and a judicious journalist or analyst gets some hard facts strung together, I like to read---a book, preferably---about the issue. Gnaw on the meat, smell the guts, grasp the reality.George Packer has deliv Richard Who? Oh, yeah, now I think on it, that rings a bell.That was my first reaction: I am not a political junkie, never have been. Usually, I read the news story, realize almost everything is either misreported or a lie, and the players are idiots. I move on.But once the chips stop falling and a judicious journalist or analyst gets some hard facts strung together, I like to read---a book, preferably---about the issue. Gnaw on the meat, smell the guts, grasp the reality.George Packer has delivered that to us. He gives us the living man, his enemies, victories, failures, a couple of wives I'd liked to have known ( of three), portraits in miniature of Presidents and flunkies, the repeated saga of people leaving a job then reading up on the subject they were responsible for. "Yes", I think to myself, "they were liars and idiots". But Holbrooke studied and read and learned and tried to teach us, or our surrogates, no matter his recognition of the unlikely hood of success. He tried. Most of us Americans tried, too, albeit not too hard.The story is well told and gripping. The book would have benefitted from an Index. The Notes are all well and good, although Mr. Packercites his 250 plus interviews as being the mainstay of the narrative. The Note from page 332, on page 580, may be the most instructive aspect of the entire effort, giving weight to my use of the word 'judicious' above.Highly Recommended.more
- January 1, 1970Michael AsenI had to decide did I want to read a 550 page book about Richard Holbrooke. Since I love Packer I took a chance. Perhaps the best non fiction book of the year. Actually a history of American Foreign Policy in the second half of the 20th century and a bit beyond . As usual Packer writes non-fiction that sucks you in like a great novel. Cant say enough good things about this book. Great follow up to The Unwinding.more
- January 1, 1970Frances JohnsonExcellent book about Richard Holbrooke, the man who negotiated the end to the Bosnian/Serbian War, the worse genocide since WWII. Holbrooke is a talented diplomate both admired and detested by the people he worked with. As a young man he was in Paris where the US tried to negotiate their way out of Vietnam and he died trying to make sense out of Afghanistan.more
- January 1, 1970Paul WomackMore than a biography; a reflective essay on Holbrooke’s life and the contradictions of history. A very fine read, but I wish the book came with an index. The narrative does remind us that all people come with flaws, even our heroes.
- January 1, 1970William SedlackSpectacular
- January 1, 1970Karl DebbautVery insightfull. House of Cards with real consequences. Very well written.
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