Reading Note:
Our Man
13 May 2019

¶ It’s hard now to remember what I thought about Richard Holbrooke at the time, back in the Nineties, when he and his Balkan statesmanship were much in the news. I think that I regarded him generally as a good guy, but I recall being put off by a photograph of him seated in a jeep, wearing a suit and soldier boots. Perhaps that came later, from Afghanistan. This jarring combination of high and low — business suit and tie, jeep and boots — bespoke an intrepid man who would venture anywhere, but not without a conspicuous badge of his authority, a badge polished by its very presence alongside he-man accoutrements. I remember thinking that statesmen ought not to be seen outdoors, not by the general public anyway, but only in the Quai d’Orsay and its equivalents. I gathered that Holbrooke had special mojo of some kind that worked best in direct sunlight.

Would I have bought a biography of Holbrooke by anyone but George Packer? The answer, of course, is that Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century is not a biography. The book’s true subject really is the second half of that subtitle. Holbrooke himself was both a representative figure and an active (if problematic) member of the large cast of characters that constituted the governing élite of the United States from the Kennedy to the Obama Administrations, with an accent on Democrats, and Packer tells the epic tale of America’s unsuccessful attempt to reconcile cherished, faintly bogus national ideals with the apparent imperatives of the Cold War. Our Man is also the tale of dozens of young men on the make. I’ve been reminded of the Iliad more than once, because Packer’s story, too, features a splendid backdrop in front of which men brutally pursue sordid vendettas or indulge in meaningless violence while up to their shins in muck. Genuine acts of heroism are so widely spaced that they seem pointless rather than exemplary. And, incidentally, the book portrays an era that fairly whistled for the Furies of #MeToo. 

If George Packer had set out to compose a demonstration of the complete futility of the American Revolution (not to mention the Civil War), he could not have more solidly buttressed a proposition that every day looks more like an article of faith to me. I’ve long understood that, in creating Versailles and its way of life (and government), Louis XIV imposed a burden on the person of the French monarch that, while it may have fit him like a glove, would be unbearable for any successor. George Packer has me wondering if the American Founders may not have done the same thing. 

I cannot put Our Man down. It has a power beyond that of the best history books, a power that it shares, in fact, with the great novels of Saul Bellow that I’ve been reading. The differences between Holbrooke and one of Bellow’s heroes are considerable, but his incalculable egotism makes him one of their cousins. And he remains, somehow, generally a good guy. 

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