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Our Man
Cover of Our Man
Our Man
Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century
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*Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography*
*Winner of the Los Angeles Times Prize for Biography*
*Winner of the 2019 Hitchens Prize*

"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 Globe

Richard 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.
*Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography*
*Winner of the Los Angeles Times Prize for Biography*
*Winner of the 2019 Hitchens Prize*

"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 Globe

Richard 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.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book Prologue

    Holbrooke? Yes, I knew him. I can't get his voice out of my head. I still hear it saying, "You haven't read that book? You really need to read it." Saying, "I feel, and I hope this doesn't sound too self-satisfied, that in a very difficult situation where nobody has the answer, I at least know what the overall questions and moving parts are." Saying, "Gotta go, Hillary's on the line." That voice! Calm, nasal, a trace of older New York, a singsong cadence when he was being playful, but always doing something to you, cajoling, flattering, bullying, seducing, needling, analyzing, one-upping you—applying continuous pressure like a strong underwater current, so that by the end of a conversation, even two minutes on the phone, you found yourself far out from where you'd started, unsure how you got there, and mysteriously exhausted.

    He was six feet one but seemed bigger. He had long skinny limbs and a barrel chest and broad square shoulder bones, on top of which sat his strangely small head and, encased within it, the sleepless brain. His feet were so far from his trunk that, as his body wore down and the blood stopped circulating properly, they swelled up and became marbled red and white like steak. He had special shoes made and carried extra socks in his leather attaché case, sweating through half a dozen pairs a day, stripping them off on long flights and draping them over his seat pocket in first class, or else cramming used socks next to the classified documents in his briefcase. He wrote his book about ending the war in Bosnia—the place in history that he always craved, though it was never enough—with his feet planted in a Brookstone Shiatsu foot massager. One morning he showed up late for a meeting in the Secretary of State's suite at the Waldorf Astoria in his stocking feet, shirt untucked and fly half-zipped, padding around the room and picking grapes off a fruit basket, while Madeleine Albright's furious stare tracked his every move. During a videoconference call from the U.N. mission in New York his feet were propped up on a chair, while down in the White House Situation Room their giant distortion completely filled the wall screen and so disrupted the meeting that President Clinton's national security advisor finally ordered a military aide to turn off the video feed. Holbrooke put his feet up anywhere, in the White House, on other people's desks and coffee tables—for relief, and for advantage.

    Near the end, it seemed as if all his troubles were collecting in his feet—atrial fibrillation, marital tension, thwarted ambition, conspiring colleagues, hundreds of thousands of air miles, corrupt foreign leaders, a war that would not yield to the relentless force of his will.

    But at the other extreme from his feet, the ice-blue eyes were on perpetual alert. Their light told you that his intelligence was always awake and working. They captured nearly everything and gave almost nothing away. Like one-way mirrors, they looked outward, not inward. I never knew anyone quicker to size up a room, an adversary, a newspaper article, a set of variables in a complex situation—even his own imminent death. The ceaseless appraising told of a manic spirit churning somewhere within the low voice and languid limbs. Once, in the 1980s, he was walking down Madison Avenue when an acquaintance passed him and called out: "Hi, Dick." Holbrooke watched the man go by, then turned to his companion: "I wonder what he meant by that." Yes, his curly hair never obeyed the comb, and his suit always looked rumpled, and he couldn't stay off the phone or T.V., and he kept losing things, and he ate as much food...
About the Author-
  • George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, which was a New York Times best seller and winner of the 2013 National Book Award. His other nonfiction books include The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize, and Blood of the Liberals, winner of the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He is also the author of two novels and a play, Betrayed, winner of the 2008 Lucille Lortel Award, and the editor of a two-volume edition of the essays of George Orwell.
Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    December 1, 2018

    Diplomat Holbrooke, who served as an adviser in Vietnam, U.S. ambassador to Germany and the UN, and assistant secretary of state (twice) and facilitated the Dayton Accords, gets full treatment from New Yorker staffer Packer, a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer finalist. A great subject-writer match-up.

    Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from March 4, 2019
    A brilliant, abrasive diplomat struggles to resolve foreign conflicts while fighting bureaucratic wars at home in this scintillating biography. New Yorker writer Packer (The Unwinding) follows Holbrooke’s State Department career from his start in the American “pacification” program during the Vietnam War, through his star turn negotiating the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia, to his fruitless efforts under the Obama administration to start peace talks in Afghanistan. As nerve-wracking as his negotiations, in Packer’s telling, was Holbrooke’s struggle to rise in America’s foreign-policy establishment: he stalked and schmoozed everyone who could further his career, sometimes ambushing them in the men’s room, while waging cutthroat turf battles against rivals. Drawing on Holbrooke’s fascinating diaries and his own memories of the man, Packer makes him a Shakespearean character—egomaniacal, devious, sloppy enough to make presidents deny him the prize of becoming secretary of state, yet charismatic and inspiring—in a larger-than-life portrait brimming with vivid novelistic impressions. (Holbrooke’s voice was “always doing something to you, cajoling, flattering, bullying, seducing, needling, analyzing, one-upping you—applying continuous pressure like a strong underwater current.”) In Holbrooke’s thwarted ambitions, Packer finds both a riveting tale of diplomatic adventure—part high drama, part low pettiness—and a captivating metaphor for America’s waning power. Photos. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, Jericho.

  • Kirkus

    March 15, 2019
    The riveting life of a deeply flawed diplomat whose chief shortcoming seems to have been the need to be more recognized than he was.New Yorker staff writer Packer (The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, 2013, etc.), winner of the National Book Award, was a friend of the diplomat and foreign policy specialist Richard Holbrooke (1941-2010), one of whose signal accomplishments was navigating through the endless difficulties of Balkan ethnic politics to negotiate peace in the former Yugoslavia. When it came to national interest versus universal principles of human rights and the like, "Holbrooke favored the former while making gestures toward the latter." Still, faced with the ugly realities of such things as the Cambodian genocide, which, as one of the "best and the brightest" of the American technocrats in Vietnam, he bore some responsibility for, he stretched to accommodate justice. Serving one administration after another, Holbrooke accumulated friends and favors; he also made powerful enemies, and it was not always easy to tell one from the other. As a sometime outsider--he was descended from a Jewish immigrant named Golbraich--he desperately longed for power, wanting especially to rule over Foggy Bottom as Secretary of State. Alas, he did not achieve his aim, though Packer supposes he was worthy enough. Instead, he served other leaders, such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the latter of whom considered him disruptive. The author notes Holbrooke's real accomplishments along the way, including founding an American cultural center in Germany and achieving delicate balancing acts in the intractable mess of Afghanistan. As Packer notes, he also had a "huge appetite for details [and] need to understand from the ground up," attributes that not every American diplomat shares. In the end, though egotistical and quick to be insulted, Holbrooke was also, by Packer's absorbing account, highly capable.Students of recent world history and of American power, hard and soft, will find this an endlessly fascinating study of character and events.

    COPYRIGHT(2019) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from March 15, 2019
    This biography of powerhouse diplomat Richard Holbrooke by the award-winning author of The Unwinding (2013) offers a pensive portrait of a man permanently biased toward action. As a young foreign service officer stationed in the Mekong Delta, Holbrooke stood out for his shrewd analyses, informed by long hours of fact-gathering in the provinces, and the truth-to-power directness of his reports. But he was also known for his relentless ambition and his tendency to brush off, bulldoze, or outright betray anyone in his way. No one loved America more, suggests Packer, or had a more nuanced understanding of its power. In position after diverse position in half a dozen countries, including Bosnia and Afghanistan, under every Democratic administration from Johnson on, Holbrooke would demonstrate his talent for wrenching agreement from the jaws of impasse. Yet his idealism was inseparable from his egoism, and late in his career, hamstrung by decades of accumulated grudges, he struggled to remain relevant and never achieved his dream of serving as secretary of state. Packer, who knew Holbrooke personally, celebrates the man's larger-than-life qualities while remaining clear-eyed about his profound flaws. And by the end, he convincingly argues that Holbrooke's passing signifies the loss of something larger still, a sense of American possibility, now seemingly out of reach.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2019, American Library Association.)

  • Fred Kaplan, Slate "This is the kind of biography (massive, detailed) by the kind of author (respected, experienced) reserved for great books on great men... Packer make[s] a case for Holbrooke's place in the pantheon, showing that there was real idealism and skill buried beneath the layers of self-regard."
  • Paddy Hirsch, NPR "Riveting... A pitch-perfect portrait."
  • Barbara Spindel, The Christian Science Monitor "Holbrooke... has never been as interesting as he is in Packer's sympathetic hands."
  • Thomas Powers, The New York Review of Books "As Packer so artfully shows us, the diplomatic journey of Holbrooke and the U.S. in the last half-century carries a ton of insightful lessons about how to resolve complicated challenges that haven't been solved – or even considered – before."
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