Richard Holbrooke

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Lots of good stuff on the web about the fall of a giant--some of the best of it by my colleagues. But when I heard about Holbrooke's death I instantly thought back to George Packer's gorgeous piece from a few years ago on Holbrooke, "The Last Mission."

In pictures from his high-school yearbook and from his years in Vietnam, Holbrooke is almost always smiling behind the thick black frames of his glasses. His features remain deceptively mild, as does his voice, which applies pressure with the quiet relentlessness of an underwater current. Holbrooke has been known to yell (during the negotiations over Bosnia, he browbeat the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic), but his usual strategy, in the manner of Lyndon Johnson, is to deploy cajolery, flattery, criticism, analysis, implied threat, teasing humor, fibs--any means at his disposal--to exert his will on a counterpart. Usually, he prevails. "I wouldn't call it conversation," Gelb said. "It's this sort of breathless monologue that you can only engage by interrupting. Dick is an advocate. He almost always has a case to make." 

Holbrooke's forcefulness is tempered by an endearing vulnerability--the nakedness of his ambitions and pleasures and insecurities. He takes pains arranging the seating chart for official dinners. Between government jobs, he worked as an investment banker, and, according to USA Today, he's worth at least seventeen million dollars, but he still looks as if he'd dressed in a hurry. He reads voraciously, writes quickly and well, and consumes large quantities of schlock entertainment. (Holbrooke is especially fond of "There's Something About Mary.") His great advantage over most colleagues and opponents is his analytic and synthetic prowess, which allows him, for example, to break down the reasons for the Taliban's successful propaganda campaign in the tribal areas while connecting it to imperial British history in the region. As for his flaws, he seems remarkably unaware of them. Holbrooke cannot be kidded about the trait for which he's best known: his ego. 

The notion that Holbrooke craves attention, which he bitterly resents and constantly feeds, is accurate but misleading. Far from undermining those he works for, Holbrooke is a loyal servant to power, with an old-fashioned respect for the Presidency. Once he took the new job, the restlessness and anxiety about his place in the order of things subsided, his energy found its proper outlet, and he bore down, in Strobe Talbott's words, like "a precision-guided munition."

Not exactly a eulogy, and that is the point. I think George offers up a straight--and ultimately sympathetic-- portrait of the man, and (further in) helps us understand precisely what we just lost. Besides. George is a gorgeous writer.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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