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The American Century’s Last Man

George Packer’s biography of Richard Holbrooke manages to capture the great American diplomat’s complex character and long career in a single volume. In reflecting on Holbrook’s accomplishments in the service of diplomacy and human rights, one encounters a man whose character was in perfect step with that of his country.

DENVER – For those of us who were blessed – some might say cursed – to have spent important parts of our careers with Richard Holbrooke, the journalist George Packer’s masterful biography of the American diplomat had to clear a high bar. I, for one, opened Our Man with a sense of dread as to what Packer would choose to say about such a complex person. After all, among the hundreds of people interviewed for the book, many have been harshly critical of Holbrooke.

One could imagine an opening like that of Charles Dickens’s ATale of Two Cities: Holbrooke was the best of friends and often the most difficult of friends. He was both a mentor and a tormentor. On that, I think most of my colleagues who knew him would agree.

Holbrooke’s career extended from John F. Kennedy’s presidency to Barack Obama’s, a span rarely matched in the annals of diplomacy. More important than his longevity was the fact that he traveled the globe to take on some of the toughest challenges facing the United States – from the Paris peace talks that sought to end the US role in Vietnam, normalization of relations with China, and his signature accomplishments in ending the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo to his stewardship of US policy in Afghanistan, America’s longest war.