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Wild Man by Tom Wells (Palgrave/St. Martin’s, 650 pages, $32.50) Daniel Ellsberg achieved fame in 1971, at age 40, when he photocopied a massive, top-secret study about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, then leaked the study to The New York Times. Ellsberg’s act of conscience, leavened by a gigantic amount of vanity, is deserving of study. Still, a nearly 700-page biography of Ellsberg seems surprising, given his interesting but obscure life before 1971, as well as his less interesting and more obscure life after that. Tom Wells, a writer (previous book, “The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam”) and sometime college teacher, has done prodigious research about Ellsberg, the not very nice human being; Ellsberg, the whiz kid scholar of public policy; Ellsberg, the macho soldier; Ellsberg, the Vietnam War hawk-turned-dove; Ellsberg, the nearly convicted traitor to his country; and Ellsberg, the elder sociopolitical activist. Despite his unease and his stated desire to save the material in his head for his own memoir, Ellsberg cooperated with Wells at first, although the cooperation had its rocky moments. Ellsberg bridled at the negative assessments of his character passed along by Wells during interviews, and Wells believed that Ellsberg was telling lies at times to make himself look like a better human being. Later, Ellsberg stopped cooperating for the most part — although his chronic inability to shut up about himself led to unexpected chats. Wells’ research is formidable. He seems to have captured the essences of all the milieus in which Ellsberg functioned — the elite private school of his youth in suburban Detroit, Harvard University, the RAND Corp. think tank in northern California, the Pentagon, the Marine Corps, the battlefields of Vietnam — hence the “Times” in the subtitle: “The Life and Times of Daniel Ellsberg.” All that research has yielded some insightful passages about peace and war, altruism and vanity, plus other polar qualities. But mostly what it has yielded is a bloated book that probably should have been no more than a lengthy magazine article. The sad fact is, Ellsberg’s life is not particularly consequential except for his leaking of the Pentagon Papers. The most bloated parts of the book center on Ellsberg’s sex life. Ellsberg’s mania to bed just about every woman he met, including two who married him and gave birth to his children, is certainly not boring — at least through the first few dozen conquests. For some readers, these sections are quite likely to be off-putting from the start. But even for the most unflappable, the recounting of Ellsberg’s sexual athletics will quite likely prove tiresome after hundreds of references to what clearly must be a certified emotional disorder. Wells’ book within a larger book — about upper middle class male addiction to bedding physically beautiful females — has been done better by Gay Talese. Talese, by the way, figures in this book, as Ellsberg makes multiple visits to the free-sex colony of the well-known journalist. Wells’ fascination (some might say obsession) with Ellsberg’s sex addiction would be defensible if that addiction had played a significant role in the act of leaking the Pentagon Papers. But the decision to leak is, at most, remotely tied to Ellsberg’s sex addiction. That remote tie? Ellsberg’s apparent desire to impress toy manufacturing heiress Patricia Marx, his new wife, with his courage. Despite his clearances to handle top-secret government information, Ellsberg had been indiscreet with secrets for decades. So his fateful decision came as no surprise to his many professional colleagues and his few friends. It is about 400 pages into “Wild Man” that The New York Times publishes its first section of the Pentagon Papers. The date is June 13, 1971. Within the White House of Richard Nixon and in other centers of government power, there is hand wringing about the impact of the leak on foreign policy and domestic politics. There is much debate about whether and how to prosecute Ellsberg and whether and how to enjoin the media outlets publishing so-called national security secrets. The self-destruction of the Nixon presidency in some ways began on June 13, 1971. The events that unfolded because of Ellsberg’s action are chronicled competently by Wells. Certainly many of the pages numbered higher than 400 are imbued with more drama, more import, than the previous 400. Trouble is, those events have been told just as fully and more compellingly in a number of previous books. Among the best about the fallout caused by Ellsberg’s leak are Sanford J. Ungar’s “The Papers & the Papers: An Account of the Legal and Political Battle Over the Pentagon Papers” (1989) and David Rudenstine’s “The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case” (1996). As for the larger context of the Vietnam War, dozens of books chronicle the relevant parts better than Wells’ book does. Maybe the best is “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” (1988) by Neil Sheehan. Then there are the many excellent books about Watergate, under which the illegal pursuit by Nixon’s henchmen of Ellsberg’s psychiatric files can be placed. There is a splinter movement within the biographical craft to choose as subjects the common person, the noncelebrity. Ellsberg, given his privileged background, sporadic moments of national notoriety, legendary womanizing, and outsized ego, fails to qualify as a common person. But because he was never much of a player in the government policy-making realm where he yearned to run the show, Ellsberg is akin to a common man. Wells’ unusual choice of subject, however admirable within the biographical craft’s splinter movement, is ultimately an unwise choice. Ellsberg’s life, not even with his times added in, cannot sustain such a thick book. Literary agents and acquisition editors at book publishing houses regularly tell aspiring authors that their proposed subjects are worthy of a magazine article, but no more. That is the advice agents and editors should have given Wells. It is a painful truth to say about such a well-intentioned, well-researched, and sporadically fascinating book.

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