The Truth Teller

Leslie Gelb never stopped asking himself what practical steps a foreign crisis or puzzle might require.  

Leslie Gelb
Jim Palmer / AP

About the author: George Packer is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

The Wise Men were high-born WASPs of the past century who went to the best schools and joined the most exclusive clubs and assumed top positions in law, banking, and government as naturally as if power were their birthright. They assisted in the creation of NATO, the international monetary system, the Cold War, and the war in Vietnam. Even out of government, they had the ear of presidents of both parties. They achieved great things and made colossal mistakes. Among them were a compulsive philanderer, an anti-Semite, and a crook. In other words, though they cultivated an air of nonpartisan and disinterested wisdom as Ciceros of the American century, they were human.

Leslie Gelb, who died last Saturday at the age of 82, was a wise man for a different era. He was a poor Jewish kid with bad eyesight from New Rochelle, New York, who studied international relations at Harvard so that he wouldn’t have to spend his life working seven days a week in his parents’ deli, a claustrophobic fate out of Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant. Gelb’s spectacularly unpromising origins gave him a lifelong aversion to pretense and fakery. One of his essential words was bullshit, which he dispensed to anyone guilty of peddling the stuff, no matter the person’s station. He never made a pile of money; he was a fixture of no social scene. If he cultivated any air, it was that of a no-nonsense joker. He was the wise man as wise guy.

In the 1960s, Gelb worked for Senator Jacob Javits, Republican of New York, and then in the Johnson administration’s Pentagon, where he oversaw the large collection of government documents and analytical essays on the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers. In the ’70s and ’80s (with an interlude as Jimmy Carter’s top arms-control official), he reported, edited, and opined for The New York Times. In the ’90s, he led the Council on Foreign Relations. You can’t get more establishment than Gelb’s résumé, but he remained something of an outsider his whole life, as if the memory of the store never left him.

“Foreign policy makes no sense”: This was one of Gelb’s sharp and brutal wisecracks, and it came from a man who spent his entire career as a practitioner and an observer. He meant that our leaders, even ones he respected, often don’t know what they’re doing. They have to make decisions with large but unknowable consequences in ignorance, thinking wishfully, perhaps under the sway of some irrelevant ideology, or the American politics of the moment, or the onrush of events in distant places. Then they spend their careers justifying decisions that they never understood in the first place.

Gelb’s three books all cast a cold eye on American foreign policy, from the vantage point of a deeply knowledgeable and sympathetic skeptic. In The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, which he published in 1979, he argued brilliantly that the war didn’t result from a failure or perversion of the policy process—Vietnam followed logically from false assumptions about the Cold War that remained constant through six American administrations. He often talked about his generation of policy makers, those who entered government during Vietnam, as forever damaged by the war—a generation of failed promise, lacking the talent and confidence of the original Wise Men. Five years later, Our Own Worst Enemy, which he co-wrote with Anthony Lake and I. M. Destler, described the deterioration of post-Vietnam foreign-policy making into ideological warfare and careerism. Power Rules was a primer in realism, written in 2009 in the aftermath of the Iraq disaster, a war that Gelb saw as a prime example of the flawed mentality of the foreign-policy elite, and that he keenly regretted supporting. He was a critic, but a responsible one—he never stopped asking himself what practical steps a foreign crisis or puzzle might require.

Gelb described himself as lazy and sedentary. He liked to sit around his Manhattan apartment in sweatpants and a T-shirt, stroking his beloved cats, on whom he lavished unusually sentimental affection. From this perch, in the last 15 years of his life he became a generous mentor to a generation of young people who were pursuing careers in diplomacy, the military, and journalism, and who took the elevator up to the Gelb apartment for counsel. His acolytes could be found across the Obama administration, from the White House to the Pentagon to the State Department.

In the past few years, I paid several dozen visits to Gelb’s apartment. I was writing a book about his late best friend, Richard Holbrooke, and Gelb was my most important guide. He knew the history, the themes, the relationships, the triumphs, the illusions, the dirt. He knew exactly what Holbrooke looked like and said and thought in the last week of his life. Gelb saw Holbrooke in full and loved him. He considered Holbrooke to be by far the most talented diplomat of his generation, and he was clear about Holbrooke’s deep flaws. Gelb’s objectivity and wisdom made him a Greek chorus for the story I wanted to tell.

Our conversations took on a rhythm. We’d have sandwiches ordered up from a deli—I sometimes imagined it staffed by Gelb’s parents—and get started over lunch, then sit down in the living room and continue. Sometimes Judy Gelb joined us, and when some task pulled her away I’d urge her to come back, for she had a keen sense, more jaundiced than her husband’s, of Holbrooke’s inner life, his relations with women, his self-deceptions. To marry Les, Judy defied the strenuous objections of her parents, who thought he was too poor and warned that she’d end up spending her life in the store. Their marriage lasted 60 years.

So we would sit and talk for hours and hours. Or rather, I would mainly listen, and Gelb would talk, remember, analyze, while his eyes were fixed on some point across the room that must have been me, though it was hard to be sure because he was nearly blind at the end of his life, and his mouth would curl into a sly smile when something amused him, as it often did, and his thick voice would rise in a familiar cadence that told me a sharp piece of truth was about to come my way. I could have listened to that voice all afternoon. I didn’t want it to stop.