Chronicling America’s not-quite-decline.
Packer’s most striking character is Jeff Connaughton, a Washington power player broken by a system that slowly destroyed his idealism. Connaughton was a self-designated “Joe Biden guy”: inspired as a student by a speech Biden gave at the University of Alabama in 1979, Connaughton eventually worked on his 1988 presidential campaign and as a Senate staffer. What follows is one of the most damning portraits of the current vice president you will ever read, a master class in disillusionment from public service. Packer’s Biden is an ungrateful phony, shilling sentiment like a huckster sells miracle cures. Behind the scenes,
he ignored you, intimidated you, sometimes humiliated you, took no interest in your advancement, and never learned your name. “Hey, Chief,” he’d say, or “How’s it going, Cap’n,” unless he was ticked off at you, in which case he’d employ one of his favorite terms for male underlings: “dumb fuck.” “Dumb fuck over here didn’t get me the briefing materials I needed.” It was both noun and adjective: “Is the event leader a Democrat or a Republican? Or are you too dumb fuck to know?”
Connaughton’s first assignment on Biden’s 1988 campaign was to bring in twenty new donors. Thus he quickly learned the ubiquity of money in politics, Washington’s capture by business lobbyists, and the nature of a transactional relationship: all back scratching and IOUs, rarely or never friendship or concern. His low point was working to keep monied interests from diluting the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill in 2010. At the story’s end, Connaughton begins to write a book, which has since been published. It is called The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins.
If Washington is corroded by dollars and hacks, Packer shows that it is also beset by the rise of the total-war conservative. The breed’s avatar is Newt Gingrich, who decades ago field-tested many of the tactics that have dragged today’s Republican Party to the edge of the cliffs of insanity. Gingrich realized that voters “got their politics on TV, and they were not persuaded by policy descriptions or rational arguments, but responded to symbols and emotions. Donors were more likely to send money if they could be frightened or angered, if the issues were framed as simple choices between good and evil.” Thanks to these toxic methods, today we have right-wing senators insinuating on no evidence that their opponents are in the pocket of North Korea, and the moderate Democratic president is pilloried as a socialist radical with a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview.
Packer’s narrative is literary rather than prescriptive: he does not offer policy proposals or routes back to greatness. Like a great political novel, The Unwinding reveals a problem with unprecedented clarity but leaves readers to find a solution. Whatever one’s views on American decline generally, it is difficult to put the book down without a distinct feeling of unease and a conviction that we can do better. And yet if it is a story of despair, it is also a story of resilience. Packer’s subjects make good and bad decisions, enjoy lucky breaks and misfortune, eke it out, give in, and try harder. The lives they lead are worth describing in detail, not only because they are instructive but also because they are beautiful.
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