The Truth Teller

George Packer in 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.

More here.