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Richard Holbrooke’s Papers Entrusted to George Packer

May 09th, 2011 @ 5:40pm EDT
When Richard C. Holbrooke died in December, he left behind the notes for a project he never had time to finish.

Mr. Holbrooke, a prominent diplomat in Democratic administrations since the 1960s, had planned to write a memoir, the story of a life that spanned numerous international conflicts, many of which he saw up close.

Now the keys to that archive have been handed over to George Packer, the author and a staff writer for The New Yorker, who has signed a deal with Knopf to write a book about Mr. Holbrooke’s career and the trajectory of American foreign policy during his time as a diplomat.

The idea came together after Mr. Holbrooke’s death, when a group of his friends approached Mr. Packer, the author of a New Yorker profile of Mr. Holbrooke in 2009, and asked him if he had thought of writing a book.

“The truth was, I had been thinking about it,” Mr. Packer said this week. “I hadn’t really thought about what it would be. But I thought: –What a life he had, how much ground he had covered, how many crises and big events in American foreign policy he had touched. He had such an outsized life that connected with so many important periods of recent American history.’ ”

His experience in government was extraordinary. Mr. Holbrooke wrote a volume of the Pentagon Papers; at 35 was the youngest person ever to serve as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs; he managed the negotiations in 1995 that ended the war in Bosnia; and had been the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr. Holbrooke fell ill in December during a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and underwent emergency surgery to repair a tear in his aorta. He died three days later.

His widow, Kati Marton, granted Mr. Packer exclusive access to the trove of notes, journals and tapes that her husband had meticulously assembled. The collection includes pocket-size notebooks with comments about people and events scrawled on hotel stationery, microcassettes with his recorded thoughts, and letters that he wrote as a young man from Vietnam, where he worked in the Mekong Delta for the United States Agency for International Development during the war and in the American embassy in Saigon. Near the end of his life, during his time in the Obama administration, Mr. Holbrooke kept more extensive, formal journals, Mr. Packer said.

Andrew Miller, the editor at Knopf who acquired the book, said the archive contains a wealth of material for Mr. Packer to draw on. Mr. Holbrooke “poured a lot of his ideas and his emotions into the notes,” Mr. Miller said. “He had this incredible place where he was both participant and observer. He’s been there for everything.”

Mr. Holbrooke, who was 69 when he died, was the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia and informed his book, “To End a War,” published by Random House in 1998. Writing in The New York Times, Chris Hedges called it “engaging, witty and dramatic,” “an impassioned plea for Washington to use the military might at its disposal to intervene when societies break down, to take a leadership role in the world and to reject the notion that putting an end to gross human rights abuses is a goal that must inevitably differ from pragmatic, self-interested foreign policy.”

In 1991 Mr. Holbrooke also collaborated with Clark Clifford, a presidential adviser, on Mr. Clifford’s best-selling memoir, “Counsel to the President.”

Interest in publishing the book about Mr. Holbrooke was intense. Several major publishers angled for the rights, with the bids rising to the high six figures, one publishing executive involved in the bidding said.

Executives at Knopf estimated that the new book, which is still untitled, would not be released until 2016. Mr. Packer is currently working on a book for Farrar, Straus & Giroux and has only begun to dig through Mr. Holbrooke’s archive.

“There have been moments when I felt, they’re not my papers, they’re his papers,” Mr. Packer said. “He should be the one looking through them and figuring a structure for them. This is all much too fast and recent.”
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