Thursday, May 23, 2019

Our Man

Our Man by George Packer is a long book ostensibly about the life of Richard Holbrooke, an American diplomat who served the country in Vietnam, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. The book is as much a history of these three conflicts as it is about Holbrooke.  However, you get to know that Holbrooke was a pain in the ass, an irresponsible father, an adulterer (in the land of politics where apparently everyone is messing around) and so self absorbed that he did not even know he was being inconsiderate.

Obama could not stand him, and Obama was not alone. At his fiftieth birthday party, he was roasted by the invitees but you could not tell who was joking and who was serious. He sat through it with a pasted smile on his face and later said it was the worst night of his life. What kind of dad was he? His son commented that he would not recognize his grandchildren if they showed up in a lineup. Except for Hillary Clinton, Holbrooke did not have many admirers.

However, the guy was supposedly so knowledgeable and so effective as a diplomat that he managed to work for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton and even Obama.  Holbrooke knew the war in Vietnam was  a sham while he was in it, and worked industriously and successfully to end the conflict in Bosnia. Even as he was dying he kept trying to figure out how to end the impasse in Afghanistan. As I was reading the book, on more than one occasion, I asked myself how does this person do so much in a day.  

 My take is that having your heart in the right place, and working industriously, does not absolve you from interpersonal responsibilities. And I think Packer makes the point throughout. The person who comes across as the best character in the book is a long time acquaintance Tony Lake, who worked with Holbrooke in Vietnam and remained cordial with him for years, despite the fact that Holbrooke had an affair with his wife, and in general was rude and inconsiderate.  Holbrooke lived with Diane Sawyer for several years, was married three other times, claimed and behaved as if he was madly in love with his third wife, but had two affairs while so claiming. (His wife was no nun either. A disconcerting part of this book was how much shaking outside of marriage appears to have been going on. And while I am not at all averse to enjoying intimacies I felt very much like a person looking in on a fictional world while reading).

I am glad I read the book, but it was tough sledding and I think far more detailed in terms of the three conflicts than was necessary. I was very interested in the Vietnam part. Very powerful--but the detail was not necessary to get the picture of Holbrooke. Same thing with Bosnia and Afghanistan.  In most long books I think one can knock off many pages, and that was the case here.

The last section when Holbrooke is dying and being rushed to the hospital was done very well and does tell a lot about Holbrooke’s character. There are a number of reasons why I enjoyed the book, but would have been happy to have read it if only because of the last pages describing the trip to the hospital.

It would have been good to know how Packer knows so much about Holbrooke. Also I think this book needs better sourcing. Packer uses the method where a reader has to identify what needs a footnote and then goes to the back. There are no superscripts indicating a footnote is in the back. This has become common, but in general I don't think it is effective.  In Our Man, often where I thought a footnote was essential, there was none.  There is an explanation of why the book is noted as it is, but it does not help the reader, at least it did not help me.

What enticed me to read this was an excellently written and positive review in the New York Times Sunday book review.  I thought the review was special not so much because of how it positively reviewed Our Man, but how it was written and what it itself revealed about Holbrooke’s character.

Hats off to Packer for the detail here.  I think there are essentially two books. One, that describes Holbrooke. Two, a book that describes international politics.  The Vietnam part, like many other books on Vietnam, leaves no doubt that what we did in Southeast Asia was outrageous even relative to other international conflicts.

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