In his 2000 memoir, Blood of the Liberals, George Packer mentions a post-collegiate encounter with one of his Yale classmates, a young right-wing pundit who had hired Packer—then dividing his time in Boston between carpentry jobs at construction sites and volunteer stints at a downtown homeless shelter—to build him a bookshelf. This was the mid-1980s, and the conservative was a young man in a hurry, tacking confidently into the post-liberal zeitgeist. He was “an apologist for radical laissez-faire economics and a kind of high-Tory moralism on social issues,” Packer writes, “with an attitude toward the poor of contempt mixed with noblesse oblige: get rid of the welfare state and they would have to clean up their lives, emulating the behavior of their industrious and charitable betters.”
As if to drive the point home, the pundit initially paid Packer for the bookshelf with a bounced check, and tersely commanded the carpenter to gather up some materials left behind at the worksite or they’d be tossed. For Packer, the lesson of the episode couldn’t be plainer: “We were no longer equals as we’d been in college and he now felt obliged on principle to treat me in a different way, which is to say, badly.” Some years later, the ungracious right-winger made a desultory swipe in one of his newspaper columns at a piece that Packer had published in Harper’s Magazine, noting that time had essentially passed him by; Packer, the scribe observed, had been ”a keenly intelligent, earnest boy” destined for “great things,” but who instead had “vanished off the face of the Earth after graduation.”
This year, that same pundit—chastened by a tour of duty as a speechwriter in the George W. Bush White House and an infamous cashiering at the hands of the American Enterprise Institute for urging Republicans to compromise on the 2010 healthcare overhaul—has quite graciously offered a blurb on the back cover of The Unwinding, a chronicle that Packer, now a staff writer for The New Yorker, has published to great acclaim. “The hearts and lives broken in this second great depression have now found their eloquent voice and fierce champion in George Packer,” enthuses David Frum. “The Unwinding is an American tragedy and a literary triumph.” George Packer and David Frum are equals once more.
Admittedly, this set piece in literary reputation-making is a small thing, particularly when set beside the grand, sweeping narratives of the American Republic’s steady erosion under the pressures of a newly footloose global capitalism that Packer patiently erects in both Blood of the Liberals and The Unwinding. Still, it’s worth lingering on this curious moment of reputational recalibration, because it says a great deal about Packer’s worthy intellectual ambitions (his un-disappearing, if you will) and the straitened conventions of political narrative in our “second great depression.”
On the one hand, the post-meltdown convergence of Frum’s and Packer’s views could be viewed as a heartening occurrence—a long-overdue recognition on the left and the right that real Americans have been plunged into a prolonged state of malign neglect, earning little more than rhetorical condescension and lip service from the leading institutions and policy-makers that choreographed the great socioeconomic unwinding of the past four decades. Perhaps the cocky, check-bouncing, right-wing churl of the Reagan era—best known for helping to craft the invasion-friendly phrase “axis of evil” during the post-9/11 heyday of the Bush doctrine—has permitted shades of gray, and nuances of economic self-doubt, to enter into his Manichaean view of the world. And perhaps Packer, who had famously sidled up to the liberal-hawk consensus during the same grim prelude to the American imperial errand—a posture he painfully clawed back in his book on the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, The Assassins’ Gate (2005)—could now speak with renewed authority on the struggles of ordinary Americans to overcome the brute forces of remote privilege and all-too-immediate economic privation.