Richard Holbrooke and the Lost Idealism of a Generation

Richard Holbrooke and the Lost Idealism of a Generation

The Unwinding

Richard Holbrooke and the lost idealism of a generation.


Richard Holbrooke was an almost-great. He desperately wanted to be great, and his life, at any rate, was never boring. Born during World War II to German Jewish refugees who raised him as a humanistic Quaker in Scarsdale, New York, he lived a life that spanned the rise and arguable fall of US global hegemony, the five or so decades that George Packer, in his new biography of Holbrooke, Our Man, calls “the American Century.”

As Packer shows, Holbrooke willed himself into a symbol for that era’s values: an arrogant, brilliant, mesmerizing, self-promoting, aggressively persuasive white male liberal convinced that his boundless energy and idealism could be applied to any problem. He’s a lot of fun to read about and occasionally even lived up to his hype. But Holbrooke’s life—and Packer’s telling of it—also offers a set of lessons about the limits of American liberalism at home and abroad, in the past and in the present.

Holbrooke’s career centered on three major wars—in Vietnam, Bosnia, and Afghanistan—the complexities of which Packer explains lucidly and with a keen sense of each country’s history. During John F. Kennedy’s presidency, Holbrooke was a young Foreign Service officer responsible for the distribution of bulgur in South Vietnam’s so-called strategic hamlets—an experience that gave him an early sense of the futility of America’s efforts in Indochina. Three decades later, as Bill Clinton’s special envoy to Bosnia, Holbrooke came closest to achieving his potential, twisting the arms of the belligerents on all sides and brokering a painful peace at the conference he organized on an air base in Dayton, Ohio. And as Barack Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke pushed himself to the limits of his health trying to replicate his Balkan success, though he never fully earned the trust of Obama or Afghan President Hamid Karzai or achieved a meaningful and lasting resolution to the conflict.

In 2010, during this last mission, Holbrooke died after his aorta tore during a meeting with his main patron, Hillary Clinton. Fittingly, his final moments before being rushed to the hospital took place in the office of the secretary of state, a position he’d coveted without success throughout his professional life. Even though many of Holbrooke’s high-profile mourners had come to despise him at various points in his career, his memorial was treated almost like a state funeral in Washington.

In between these geopolitical watersheds, Holbrooke raked in millions of dollars on Wall Street, wrecked multiple marriages (including two of his), made many powerful friends and enemies from Manhattan to Georgetown, and assiduously cultivated his own legend. As Packer documents, the thread linking Holbrooke’s sordid personal life with his sporadically impressive public career was a desire for credibility at any cost—with sexual partners, foreign leaders, and blue-blooded elites.

Much like the country he represented abroad, Holbrooke was always pushing and cajoling, sometimes achieving great things and almost always going too far. In this way, he embodied many of the contradictions of mid-20th-century liberalism. He enthusiastically supported the civil rights movement—stationed in South Vietnam during the Freedom Rider era, Holbrooke encouraged his brother to risk arrest for the cause—but he retained the patronizing attitudes of white liberals, eventually managing to piss off the nation’s first black president in a job interview, with the comment “You know, you don’t have to be African American to cry.” Like many in his generation, he responded to JFK’s call to service while emulating his tawdry affairs and his unshakable faith in the myth of American beneficence.

An internationalist and peacemaker, Holbrooke was nonetheless willing to support the use of military force in the pursuit of American domination. A devoted civil servant, he often allowed raw ambition and the irresistible pull of celebrity and social climbing to outpace his commitment to the public interest. And while some of his flaws were uniquely his, many others were representative of a liberal generation that came of age in the 1960s, lost its idealism in the 1970s and ’80s, and still controls most of the country’s institutions.

Born almost 20 years after Holbrooke, Packer has a few things in common with his subject, so it makes sense that he would take up a study of Holbrooke’s life. Packer’s youthful service in the Peace Corps is consistent with Holbrooke’s JFK-era idealistic internationalism, and Packer clearly feels a kinship with Holbrooke as a writer; the latter’s sharply observed journal entries take up entire chapters of Our Man. And like Holbrooke, Packer has supported a number of US military interventions, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a decision he says he now regrets. A longtime staff writer at The New Yorker and more recently The Atlantic and the author of books like Blood of the Liberals and The Unwinding, Packer is very much a creature of the Acela corridor, someone perfectly at home in the same elite New York and Washington circles that Holbrooke traveled in.

Packer’s writing style in Our Man channels the spirit of his subject’s high-society banter. He addresses his readers in the manner of a brilliant—albeit long-winded—dinner-party conversationalist, weaving in context and anecdote and gossipy digressions that make us feel we’re being given a privileged, intimate view of the American elite. (The opening line is “Holbrooke? Yes, I knew him.”) It’s certainly possible to enjoy the book as a guilty pleasure, but Packer has something more surprising in store.

The early reviews broadly agree that Our Man is a great-man narrative eulogizing a supposed liberal golden age. In The New Republic, Thomas Meaney called it “a valuable artifact from the period when militant liberal internationalism became too weary to bother with reasons, and instead took comfort in the gut of a famous man.” But the book is as much a cautionary tale about a familiar, seductive, and dangerous personality type and about the liberal idealism that Holbrooke avowed and the cynical careerism he practiced. Our Man is ambivalent about its subject at best and often outright damning.

Meaney is correct when he points out that Packer has a tortured relationship with the left, having vocally abandoned the socialism of his youth in favor of Clintonian Third Way politics in the 1990s. And he is also right that Packer can’t bring himself to engage in the more rigorous critiques of capitalism and American empire that would require him to rethink many of his own treasured liberal verities. But far from a hagiography, Packer offers here a startlingly intimate work that captures many of Holbrooke’s public and personal foibles. Readers will learn about his absentee parenting in the 1970s and his son’s drug problem in the 1980s. They will learn about the time Holbrooke elbowed a pair of elderly Holocaust survivors out of an American delegation to Auschwitz to make room for himself; about the financial improprieties of his side gig as a social prop on Wall Street providing access to foreign clients; about the time he cuckolded his best friend and rival, fellow career diplomat Anthony Lake, the Salieri to his Mozart; and about how, in his Bosnia memoir To End a War, he stole valor from Foreign Service officers killed in a road accident. (Packer devotes an entire chapter to examining this.)

Packer’s Holbrooke is an almost comical Shakespearean figure, totally lacking in self-awareness, constantly in motion, alienating people as often as he charms them, and always sticking his lunchmates with the tab. Bill and Hillary Clinton loved him, and Obama hated him, and anyone with a basic knowledge of their respective personalities will understand why.

This intimacy, in all its unflattering detail, was made possible by Packer’s access not only to scores of VIPs who knew Holbrooke (Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus, and Samantha Power, to name just a few) but also to a trove of papers and audio recordings made available to him by Holbrooke’s formidable widow, the Hungarian American writer Kati Marton. She, one surmises, wanted to enshrine her husband’s legacy and trusted Packer, who had written a sympathetic New Yorker profile of him, to do exactly that. To Packer’s credit, he has done nothing of the sort and instead has written a bruising critique of Holbrooke and the values and cohort he represents.

Insofar as he wants Holbrooke to function as a symbol for the values of Cold War and post–Cold War liberalism, Packer makes clear that he believes many of those values should now be questioned. Vietnam, in his telling, was doomed from the start, however idealistic the best and the brightest might have been. (Holbrooke was a friend of and an enthusiastic source for David Halberstam, as he was for countless reporters over many decades.) Although Holbrooke saw the disaster developing in Indochina surprisingly early, he didn’t allow it to shake his lifelong faith in America’s good intentions or to dissuade him from seeing US military force as a tool for diplomacy.

The United States’ involvement in Afghanistan also comes in for scrutiny; after all, we’re still there, with no end in sight, after almost 18 years of aimless warfare. And although Packer admires Holbrooke’s relentless and personally fatal efforts to end the war a decade ago, he nonetheless voices skepticism that those efforts ever could have succeeded. “The best ideas are useless without the ability to bring them into the world,” he writes. “And perhaps by the time Holbrooke got there Afghanistan had already become one of those terrible things that have to be done but can’t be done”—a line that captures the exact tension between what Packer understands and what he still refuses to accept about the nature of US military hegemony.

As for the Dayton Accords, Holbrooke’s crowning achievement, Packer doesn’t let his subject off the hook, either. The price for peace in Bosnia was rewarding the Serbs with territory they had just ethnically cleansed of Muslims, and after a quarter century of cold peace and corruption, the accords look as if they could fall apart any day now. Diplomacy, even at its most successful, may bring about the absence of war but can never guarantee justice.

Packer is also unsparing about the way Holbrooke’s ambition often took precedence over his idealism. He suggests that Holbrooke supported the Iraq War and advised then-Senator John Kerry to do likewise so they would look tough, in the hopes that Kerry would then win the presidency and appoint him to run the State Department. “If that was Holbrooke’s main reason for supporting the war, it might have been better to be stupidly, disastrously wrong in a sincerely held belief like some of us,” Packer writes.

Even though Packer can be withering about Holbrooke’s raw ambition and self-absorption, at times he seems to want to have it both ways. He knows that many presuppositions of the Holbrooke era are hard to defend in 2019 and even concedes the reasons. Yet, at the same time, he badly wants to defend them and can’t help but indulge in a little nostalgia. “It wasn’t a golden age, there was plenty of folly and wrong, but I already miss it,” he confesses in his prologue. The reason for this nostalgia is clear, even if he began writing the book before November 2016. For Packer, Holbrooke is the antithesis of Donald Trump and the politics he helped unleash. A liberal internationalist, a man of culture and education, a champion of refugees and the oppressed, a believer in tolerance and diversity, and an enemy of the kind of genocidal populists who arose in Yugoslavia in the 1980s and increasingly dominate politics throughout the world today, Holbrooke represents for Packer a more cosmopolitan and pluralist era.

What Packer never quite acknowledges, however, is that while Holbrooke may have spoken like a liberal idealist, he had more than a few Trumpian qualities of his own—the obnoxious salesmanship, the narcissism, the constant affairs, the flamboyant spending, the transparent need for validation, the use of public office for private gain. Holbrooke wasn’t just a prodigious womanizer; on one occasion he kissed a junior colleague while they were working at his home. (“He claimed her,” Packer puts it, “in the way of an entitled great man.”) And while Holbrooke died before he might have been held to account for his behavior, Packer has no such excuse for merely mentioning it in passing.

It’s true that Trump has never embraced a liberal politics, but it would let the liberal elites of Holbrooke’s era off the hook to treat him as somehow entirely separate from their public actions and private choices. Their failures, in many respects, helped paved the way for his disastrous presidency. They also helped birth disasters—the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis, to name the most obvious examples—on a scale that Trump has yet to match. Sometimes Packer acknowledges this, noting that Holbrooke’s blinkered worldview was representative of “a whole class of people in Washington and New York [who] sent other people’s children to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq while they found ways to get rich.” But often he limits his criticisms to Holbrooke alone. At its best, Our Man affirms that Holbrooke’s flaws were emblematic of more systemic problems; at its worst, it obscures this very point.

Your ability to appreciate Our Man may hinge on how interesting you find liberal elites. I don’t mean you have to find them sympathetic; you just have to believe their stories are worth dwelling on, and Packer’s book is rife with gossip. One jaw-dropping anecdote concerns how in 1958 the Georgetown neighbors of JFK’s mistress tried to blackmail the future president for a Modigliani painting after bugging her apartment and recording one of their trysts. But read carefully, Our Man offers us something else as well: It gives us a better understanding of what happened to a generation of liberals who helped create the country we now live in.

On the eve of joining the Obama administration for what would be his final mission, Holbrooke was, according to Packer, “making two to three million a year from banking, boards, and speeches, but he had heavy personal expenses,” and he and Marton “owned nine pieces of property, mortgaged to seven and a half million dollars, and they leased a private plane.” The 2008 financial crash forced them to sell two of those properties, but it’s not clear that the experience impressed upon Holbrooke any self-awareness about how he and his generational cohort had abused the public trust to enrich themselves, even as they mostly colored within the lines of the law.

Packer relates the story of Angelo Mozilo, then the CEO at Countrywide Financial, who gave Holbrooke sweetheart loans and underwrote the expenses of many other VIPs: “No one gave it a thought until, a decade later, Countrywide collapsed in the subprime mortgage scandal, and Mozilo became a notorious face of the financial crisis, and his VIP program did its part in making Americans deeply cynical about elites in New York and Washington—even, it wouldn’t be stretching things to say, helping pave the way in the next decade for the election of a president who promised to blow everything up.” That “no one” extends to Holbrooke, whose concerns about such inside dealing were limited to how they might affect his various confirmation hearings.

While Holbrooke was often moved to act out of a sense of public duty, he was also blind to money’s corrosive power in late 20th century America and more than happy to benefit from the tax cuts and deregulation of the financial system that began under Reagan and persisted into the Clinton and Bush years. The devastation that Holbrooke witnessed and felt compelled to address was always that of war abroad and never of economic collapse or inequality at home.

Conscious of his family history, Holbrooke consistently defended human rights and played a central role in getting Jimmy Carter to sign the Refugee Act of 1980, which welcomed an eventual 1.5 million people from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia into the United States. And by means of what he described as “a kind of relentless harassment of the parties into concessions,” he really did help put an end to the war in Bosnia. But as a transparent social climber and someone who used his public stature in pursuit of his private interests, Holbrooke also embodied the carelessness and careerism of a generation of liberals who may have entered public life as idealists but then exited it as cynics.

Packer’s 2013 National Book Award–winning The Unwinding tells the story of 40 years of American decline—from the shuttered factories of Youngstown, Ohio, to the housing-market collapse in Florida to the explosive growth of lobbying on Washington’s K Street—that led so many Americans to feel left behind and culminated in Trump’s presidency. Along the way, Packer includes a series of vignettes about well-known figures, from Newt Gingrich to Oprah Winfrey, whose stories, he implies, each in its own way, speak to the prevailing culture of self-centeredness and naked ambition among a ruling class that had abandoned the bulk of working America.

Our Man, in a sense, is a book-length version of one of these vignettes. It’s a study of how the intertwined selfishness and idealism of a liberal generation that came of age during the 1960s and ’70s led to America’s present crisis. Holbrooke, after all, was never everyone’s man. He was part of a specific cohort, and that “we” implied in the title—the circle of liberal elites that Packer himself belongs to—still has a lot to answer for.

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