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 as fast as he could, once slicing open the tip of his nose on a clamshell and bleeding through a pair of cloth napkins—yes, he was in almost every way a disorderly presence. But his eyes never lost focus.
So much thought, so little inwardness. He could not be alone—he might have had to think about himself. Maybe that was something he couldn’t afford to do. Leslie Gelb, Holbrooke’s friend of forty-five years and recipient of multiple daily phone calls, would butt into a monologue and ask, “What’s Obama like?” Holbrooke would give a brilliant analysis of the President. “How do you think you affect Obama?” Holbrooke had nothing to say. Where did it come from, that blind spot behind his eyes that masked his inner life? It was a great advantage over the rest of us, because the propulsion from idea to action was never broken by self-scrutiny. It was also a great vulnerability, and finally, it was fatal.
I can hear the voice saying: “It’s your problem now, not mine.”
He loved speed. Franz Klammer’s fearless downhill run for the gold in 1976 was a feat Holbrooke never finished admiring, until you almost believed that he had been the one throwing himself into those dangerous turns at Innsbruck. He pedaled his bike straight into a swarming Saigon intersection while talking about the war to a terrified blonde journalist just arrived from Manhattan; he zipped through Paris traffic while lecturing his State Department boss on the status of the Vietnam peace talks; his Humvee careened down the dirt switchbacks of the Mount Igman road above besieged Sarajevo, chased by the armored personnel carrier with his doomed colleagues.
He loved mischief. It made him endless fun to be with and got him into unnecessary trouble. In 1967, he was standing outside Robert McNamara’s office on the second floor of the Pentagon, a twenty-six-year-old junior official hoping to catch the Secretary of Defense on his way in or out, for no reason other than self-advancement. A famous colonel was waiting, too—a decorated paratrooper back from Vietnam, where Holbrooke had known him. Everything about the colonel was pressed and creased, his uniform shirt, his face, his pants carefully tucked into his boots and delicately bloused around the calves. He must have spent the whole morning on them. “That looks really beautiful,” Holbrooke said, and he reached down and yanked a pants leg all the way out of its boot. The colonel started yelling. Holbrooke laughed.
Back in the Kennedy and Johnson years, when he was elbowing his way into public life, the phrase “action intellectuals” was hot, until Vietnam caught up with it and intellectuals got burned. But that was Holbrooke. Ideas mattered to him, but never for their own sake, only if they produced solutions to problems. The only problems worth his time were the biggest, hardest ones. Three fiendish wars—that’s what his career came down to. He was almost singular in his eagerness to keep risking it. Having solved Bosnia, he wanted Cyprus, Kosovo, Congo, the Horn of Africa, Tibet, Iran, India, Pakistan, and finally Afghanistan. Only the Middle East couldn’t tempt him. As the Washington bureaucracy got more cautious, his appetite for conquests grew. Right after his death, Hillary Clinton said, “I picture him like Gulliver tied down by Lilliputians.”
He loved history—so much that he wanted to make it. The phrase “great man” now sounds anachronistic, but as an inspiration for human striving maybe we shouldn’t throw out the whole idea. He came of age when there was still a place for it and that place could only be filled by an American. This was just after the war, when the ruined world lay prone and open to the visionary action of figures like Acheson, Kennan, Marshall, and Harriman. They didn’t just grab for land and gold like the great men of earlier empires. They built the structures of international order that would endure for three generations, longer than anything ever lasts, and that are only now turning to rubble. These were unsentimental, supremely self-assured, white Protestant men—privileged, you could say—born around the turn of the century, who all knew one another and knew how to get things done. They didn’t take a piss without a strategy. Holbrooke revered them all and adopted a few as replacement fathers. He wanted to join them at the top, and he clawed his way up the slope of an establishment that was crumbling under his crampons. He reached the highest base camp possible, but every assault on the summit failed. He loved books about mountaineers, and in his teens he climbed the Swiss Alps. He was a romantic. He never realized that he had come too late.
You will have heard that he was a monstrous egotist. It’s true. It’s even worse than you’ve heard—I’ll explain as we go on. He offended countless people, and they didn’t forget, and since so many of them swallowed their hurt, after he was gone it was usually the first thing out of their mouth if his name came up, as it invariably did. How he once told a colleague, “I lost more money in the market today than you make in a year.” How he bumped an elderly survivor couple from the official American bus to Auschwitz on the fiftieth anniversary of its liberation, adding himself to the delegation alongside Elie Wiesel and leaving the weeping couple to beg Polish guards to let them into the camp so they wouldn’t miss the ceremony. How he lobbied for the Nobel Peace Prize—that kind of thing, all the time, as if he needed to discharge a surplus of self every few hours to maintain his equilibrium.
And the price he paid was very high. He destroyed his first marriage and his closest friendship. His defects of character cost him his dream job as Secretary of State, the position for which his strengths of character eminently qualified him. You can’t untangle these things. I used to think that if Holbrooke could just be fixed—a dose of self-restraint, a flash of inward light—he could have done anything. But that’s an illusion. We are wholly ourselves. If you cut out the destructive element, you would kill the thing that made him almost great.
As a member of the class of lesser beings who aspire to a good life but not a great one—who find the very notion both daunting and distasteful—I can barely fathom the agony of that “almost.” Think about it: the nonstop schedule, the calculation of every dinner table, the brain that burned all day and night—and the knowledge, buried so deep he might have only sensed it as a physical ache, that he had come up short of his own impossible exaltation. I admired him for that readiness to suffer. His life was full of pleasures, but I never envied it.
We had few things in common, but one that comes to mind is a love of Conrad’s novels. In one of his letters Conrad wrote that “these two contradictory instincts”—egotism and idealism—“cannot serve us unless in the incomprehensible alliance of their irreconcilable antagonism. Each alone would be fatal to our ambition.” I think this means that they need each other to do any good. Idealism without egotism is feckless; egotism without idealism is destructive. It was never truer of anyone than Holbrooke. Sometimes the two instincts got out of whack. Certain people—his younger brother Andrew, for example—couldn’t see his idealism for the mountain of his egotism. Andrew thought his brother was missing the section of his brain that would have made him care about anyone other than himself. But Holbrooke’s friends, the handful he kept for life, absorbed the pokes and laughed off the gargantuan faults without illusion. They wanted to protect him, because his appetites and insecurities were so naked. Now and then they had to hurt him, tear him to pieces. Then they could go on loving him. They knew that, of them all, he had the most promise, and they wanted to see him fulfill it—as a way to affirm them, their generation, their idea of public service, and their country. If Holbrooke could do it, then America might still be an adventure, with great things ahead. He always wanted more, and they wanted more for him, and when he died they mourned not just their friend but the lost promise.
He loved America. Not in a chest-beating way—he didn’t wear a flag pin on his lapel—but without having to try, because he was the child of parents who had given everything to become American, and he grew up after the war amid the overwhelming evidence that this was a great and generous country. In the late summer of 2010, he went with his wife—his third wife and widow, Kati—to see a revival of “South Pacific” at Lincoln Center. Lifelong friends can’t remember Holbrooke ever shedding tears, but he wept at “South Pacific,” and other men his age were weeping, too, and he tried to understand why. That was around the time he began speaking his thoughts into a tape recorder for some future use—maybe his memoirs—and here’s what he said: “For me it was the combination of the beauty of the show and its music, and the capturing in that show of so many moments in American history, the show itself opening in New York at the height of New York’s greatness, 1949, the theme—Americans at war in a distant land or islands in the South Pacific—the sense of loss of American optimism and our feeling that we could do anything. The contrast with today—” At this point his voice fails, and I find it hard to keep listening. He had only a few months to live. “—it was very powerful, and I kept thinking of where we were today, our nation, our lack of confidence in our own ability to lead compared to where we were in 1949 when it came out, evoking an era only five years or seven years earlier, when we had gone to the most distant corners of the globe and saved civilization.”
I’m trying to think what to tell you, now that you have me talking. There’s too much to say and it all comes crowding in at once. His ambition, his loyalty, his cruelty, his fragility, his betrayals, his wounds, his wives, his girlfriends, his sons, his lunches. By dying he stood up a hundred people, including me. He could not be alone.
If you’re still interested, I can tell you what I know, from the beginning. I wasn’t one of his close friends, but over the years I made a study of him. You ask why? Not because he was fascinating, though he was, and right this minute somewhere in the world fourteen people are talking about him. Now and then I might let him speak for himself—that was something he knew how to do. But I won’t relate this story for his sake. No: we want to see and feel what happened to America during Holbrooke’s life, and we can see and feel more clearly by following someone who was almost great, because his quest leads us deeper down the alleyways of power than the usual famous subjects (whom he knew, all of them), and his boisterous struggling lays open more human truths than the composed annals of the great. This was what Les Gelb must have meant when he said, just after his friend’s death, “Far better to write a novel about Richard C. Holbrooke than a biography, let alone an obituary.”
What’s called the American century was really just over half a century, and that was the span of Holbrooke’s life. It began with the Second World War and the creative burst that followed—the United Nations, the Atlantic alliance, containment, the free world—and it went through dizzying lows and highs, until it expired the day before yesterday. The thing that brings on doom to great powers, and great men—is it simple hubris, or decadence and squander, a kind of inattention, loss of faith, or just the passage of years?—at some point that thing set in, and so we are talking about an age gone by. It wasn’t a golden age, there was plenty of folly and wrong, but I already miss it. The best about us was inseparable from the worst. Our feeling that we could do anything gave us the Marshall Plan and Vietnam, the peace at Dayton and the endless Afghan war. Our confidence and energy, our reach and grasp, our excess and blindness—they were not so different from Holbrooke’s. He was our man. That’s the reason to tell you this story. That’s why I can’t get his voice out of my head.
Copyright © 2019 by George Packer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.