"How do you narrate the actions not of the prince, but of the adviser whose duty is to operate invisibly?" Molly Worthen, who graduated from Yale in 2003, asks this question as she writes the biography of her teacher, diplomat and professor Charles Hill. Hill was a Foreign Service officer and senior adviser to Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
Worthen's response is woven into a superb combination of memoir and biography, "The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill." The main title is a paraphrase of an earlier remark of Henry James. Worthen wrote in her freshman text about her teacher, "Charles Hill is God."
In the preface, the author modifies her earlier hagiography and says instead: "Charles Hill's biography is a story about growing up in small town New Jersey in the middle of the last century. It is an insider's experience of foreign policy crises at points around the world as well as within the highest ranks of our own government. It is a chronicle of choices made between life's incompatibilities -- cultural and intellectual, personal and professional."
The student-turned-author takes Hill down a few pegs in this book, something very difficult to do, given the adulation of most students toward their teachers. To Hill's credit, he gave her permission to write his biography and review more than 25,000 pages of his professional career as well as endless hours of interviews.
The wisdom of the book is encapsulated in Worthen's title. In his course on Grand Strategy, "Hill teaches his students that the virtuous, the wise, and the brave among them must take note of life's details but always reside in the realm of ideas. Each should aspire to be a person on whom nothing is lost, without ever getting lost himself or herself."
Regrettably, Hill didn't always follow this advice himself. As a government expert, he missed the build-up of Muslim resentments across the world from the late 1970s onward, what James Reston called "the age of fanatics." Hill was an inveterate note-taker "because he felt a duty to record the raw material of history; the stuff that captured the relationships between what actors knew at the time and what scholars would later uncover in retrospect."
This practice later backfired on him, big-time. Attorney Jeffrey Toobin, now of CNN and the New Yorker Magazine, visited Hill's office in 1987, representing the Office of the Independent Counsel, and asked about Hill's notebooks and whether they contained references to Iran or the Contras. More than three years, a review of his notes and a number of subpoenas later, Hill was accused of obstructing justice by Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, but never prosecuted. After Hill, senior officials in Washington stopped writing anything down, innocent or otherwise.
Worthen describes Hill's Grand Strategy class as "one of the marquee classes at Yale [University]. For the lucky few who are admitted . . . a year-long curriculum . . . combines study of the classic texts of strategic thought with real-world practice. Students spend the spring semester reading everything from Sun Tzu and Thucydides to Winston Churchill and Henry Kissinger." It is the aim that students will go off after college to become chief executives and world leaders in their own right.
The goal is laudable. The problem is attaining it. Henry Hill's success as a husband, father and silent adviser, speech writer and note taker to the famous is mixed. While Hill was a respected professional at the State Department, his marriage fell apart. His wife, Martha, became an alcoholic and his two adopted daughters, Emily and Katie, hardly knew him as they grew up. After their divorce, Hill married Norma Grene, and reconciled with his daughters.
The author catches the pathetic, failed human calculus between Martha and Hill. It is riveting. Worthen is at her best describing Hill's work as a China watcher, as a hard working, do-whatever-is-necessary officer for Ellsworth Bunker, the U.S. Ambassador in Vietnam; reporting from the U.S. Embassy in Israel; writing speeches for Henry Kissinger (who was a terror to work for); as chief aide and conscience to George Shultz, Secretary of State; and as a policy officer for Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Secretary General of the United Nations.
Worthen is a beautiful writer, always clear and comprehensive. She can write about a complex organization or a city with equal facility. Worthen herself made it clear that writing Hill's biography was "a question of balance. I worked, and wrote, like a cat on a fence" she explained. The author's work is nuanced, reasonable, and thoughtful.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent News reviewer.
>The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost
The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill
By Molly Worthen
Houghton Mifflin, 354 pages, $25