Tuesday, October 8, 2013
George Packer's "Washington Man" Revisited
What to make of George Packer’s “Washington Man”? I first read it when it appeared in The New Yorker (October 29 & November 5, 2012). I remember finding it both admirable and repellant: “admirable” in that it excoriates the Obama administration for missing a tremendous opportunity to reform Wall Street; “repellant” because it too closely identifies with its subject, wealthy lobbyist and “professional Democrat” Jeff Connaughton. Now, reading it again, in its expanded form, in Packer’s The Unwinding, I find I still can’t resolve my feelings about it. What it comes down to, I think, is that I’m a fan of Packer’s writing. And in his “Jeff Connaughton” piece, Packer’s voice on the page blends with Connaughton’s. In fiction writing, this is called “free indirect style.” You rarely see it used in fact pieces. Tom Wolfe uses it. He’s the only journalist I can think of who writes free indirect style. It’s very close writing – too close for journalism, in my opinion. For example, in “Washington Man,” when Packer writes,
One day in August, he [Connaughton] was channel-flipping when Glenn Beck came on, telling an immense crowd on the Mall that change didn’t come from Washington; it came from real people in real places around the country. Beck was an asshole, but Arianna Huffington wrote the same thing in a column two days later. They were right. [Interestingly, the book version of this passage concludes with an additional line: “Connaughton felt a sneaking sympathy with the Tea Party.”]
I wonder, Who is talking here – Packer, Connaughton or both? It’s likely Connaughton’s thoughts that are being conveyed. Obviously Packer sympathizes with them. They’re his thoughts, too. That’s basically his theory in a nutshell: change no longer comes from Washington; it’s part of the unwinding – Washington, as Packer/Connaughton says later, “had been captured by the money power.” But it’s not like Packer to concede his perspective to his subject, especially when his subject has shown himself to be an immensely adept opportunist. Maybe, at bottom, that’s what disturbs me about “Washington Man” – the spectacle of a great subjective journalist allowing an “unwinding winner” speak for him. I yearn for the old Packer, the Packer who writes in the “I,” who wrote (say) “A Boulangerie in Lagos” (in The Village of Waiting, 1988), in which his material is sourced in his personal experience:
I’d arrived in time for dinner. I sat with Marcel – I on the couch, he on a Nido can – while Papa fried up the eggs and potatoes. Papa looked about sixty and had a long Gallic face, lined and weathered, all ears and nose. His French came out hoarse from the throat, nearly incomprehensible after years of Africa and Scotch. His hands moved like a short-order cook’s between the pan, the utensils, and his glass of White Horse; he’d been in the food business in Africa for a quarter century. In the refrigerator I saw fresh butter and slabs of frozen steak, hidden luxuries. Marcel put on a tape of King Sunny Ade and the African beats; it was a good machine and the room filled with the sound of juju music, like a fly buzzing near the ear then flitting off.
That “His French came out hoarse from the throat, nearly incomprehensible after years of Africa and Scotch” is very fine – finer than anything in “Washington Man.” I’m talking about the writing as pure writing. Papa is infinitely more interesting than any of the characters in “Washington Man.” He seems rooted in reality – real reality, not like in Washington where fat-cat lobbyists moan about the decline of their investments and the prospect of purchasing a hot dog from a vendor on C Street is considered “dismal.”