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.

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