What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

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.” 


  1. I'm used to being a pinata for commenters like you, who make me wish I had said "no thanks" when Senator Kaufman asked me to be his chief of staff and when Packer asked me to cooperate with his book and expose what very few are willing to tell so as to help enlighten such as you. So I really should just let this pass. But I've had it with the smug condescension. Very convenient that you leave out that after the financial crisis I went back into government, fought Wall Street and the Obama Administration with Sen Kaufman for stronger reforms and for investigations and prosecutions of Wall Street executives, and then left Washington in November 2010 rather than return to lobbying. Since leaving lobbying, I have been an unpaid advocate of financial reform for the past three years, sealing me off forever from working for the Establishment. But you don't care about the rest of my story, you'd rather inaccurately imply for your readers that I'm still a fat-cat lobbyist and as good as any poster boy for what's wrong with Washington. Well come down to Savannah some time, I'd be happy to set you straight.

  2. I respectfully submit that you’re too touchy. Your image as a repentant lobbyist is secure. Packer has made sure of that. His profile of you is brilliant, destined to be a classic. I apologize if I offended you. I admire your courage for speaking out against “the money power.” You have no reason to regret cooperating with Packer. Together you created a masterpiece. If you’re ever on Prince Edward Island, please look me up. I’d be happy to give you a tour (and maybe even buy you a hotdog).

  3. Deal. It's a cumulative touchyness, as I've read every review of Packer's great book and about a third of them just had to kick me in the shins at some point. I'll give everyone a free kick but a kick revisited, I admit, set me off. Thanks for the gracious note.