I first met George Packer in the fall of 1978, when we were both college freshmen. Shortly before the term began, I had received a letter announcing that I had been accepted into an undergraduate program called “Directed Studies.” The letter came as a surprise, since I had not applied for the program – nor indeed ever heard of it.
That letter turned out to be one of the momentous events of my life. Instead of shopping for introductory courses from an overwhelming menu of options, DS students had their first year’s choices made for them. We read from an assigned list, attended lectures together, and were then subdivided into seminars to discuss what we had read. It was a hothouse environment, and George Packer was its acknowledged star.
We kept in contact for a few years after graduation, then lost touch. In the mid-1990s I read an article by George in Harper’s magazine. The piece was a short memoir, explaining with some self-irony how he had ended up in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall joining a socialist group. The article irked me – so much so, in fact, that I disregarded the irony – and I wrote a newspaper column detailing what was wrong with it.
George was irked in return, and understandably so. Columns written in bad moods never read well the following day, and this one in particular looked a lot snarkier and less clever once set in print. (At the time, my column ran in the Toronto Sun, and I can only wonder what the readers of that exciting tabloid could possibly have made of this esoteric literary dispute.)
Time passed. It was 2003, US troops had overthrown Saddam Hussein. George, a writer living in New York, made the remarkable decision to go to Iraq and see for himself what was happening. He made repeated prolonged visits to the country, bravely living for months outside the US security perimeter as the violence intensified, befriending both Iraqis and American soldiers, and writing some of the very best journalism from the front. Shamefacedly, I wrote George a letter saying all this and apologizing for the whack in the back of the head I had given him half a decade before.
We came back into touch after that. George invited me out for lunch on the day of Bill Buckley’s funeral. He was writing an essay on the future of conservatism post-Buckley. We both agreed that this future looked unpromising at best. Afterward, I found myself reflecting on the double-helix interconnectedness of our respective political cycles. I’d begun my political life at a time when my political cause was rising to its ascendancy. Now in mid-life, my kind of conservatism seemed on the ebb – for how long, who could say? George had come of age at a time when his liberalism was in retreat and disarray. Now in middle age he could glimpse the possibility of a bright horizon for the first time since his boyhood.
I knew that George had written a memoir of his family and its political life: Blood of the Liberals. It occurred to me that there might be some wisdom here for me in the difficult days I saw ahead.
George’s maternal grandfather George Huddleston had been a populist Southern Democratic congressman in the early 20th century. George’s father, Herbert Packer, a Stanford Law professor, had been a leader of the move toward a more liberal treatment of crime and criminality in the 1950s and 1960s. (Herbert Packer’s big book, The Limits of the Criminal Sanction, still featured prominently on law school reading lists 20 and 30 years after it was written.) George’s book told the story of these two men -and used their stories to explain the sorry estate into which liberalism had fallen in George’s time.
The book opens with an arresting image: Herbert Packer, a veteran of World War II, taking a very young George to Omaha Beach – and there introducing him to the legend of Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations as the great hope that might have stopped another war. George absorbed the lesson. But George absorbed something else too. As Wilson lost his fight for his League, he was incapacitated by stroke. (Probably a second stroke, after a first attack in Paris during the peace negotiations.) Herbert Packer’s own stroke followed soon after this moment. Like Wilson’s, Herbert Packer’s stroke attacked him in the midst of his own great fight, against the student radicals of Stanford. A stroke is a surge of blood into the brain: the blood of the liberals claiming another victim.
The Huddlestons were Southern gentry, substantial slaveholders ruined by the Civil War and emancipation. The Huddleston liberalism was southern, emotional, and redistributive. George Huddleston’s family had been slaveholders. They lost everything in the Civil War, and Huddleston had to rise by education and his own personal labor. Huddleston practiced law in Birmingham, Alabama, gained success, ran for Congress. He made one great compromise, abandoning his early championship of the rights of Southern blacks. Instead he sought to advance the interests of poor Southern whites with a Jeffersonian individualism that often leaves the grandson baffled. Yet in a final ironic twist, George Huddleston’s belief in land ownership impelled him to buy thousands of acres of worthless Alabama pinelands – lands that were carved in the 1990s into subdivisions that have made the fortunes of his surprised grandchildren.
The liberalism Herbert Packer, was very different from that of George Huddleston: Jewish, rational, meliorist, and procedural. Herbert Packer was the son of immigrants from eatern Europe, a ferocious student and demanding teacher, whose exacting standards pressed most tightly upon himself. While his creed was calm, his nature was passionate, and his efforts to command his emotions may have triggered his stroke. George Packer unsparingly describes how the same cool liberalism that led his father to support Adlai Stevenson drove him to hot battle against Stanford’s student radicals a decade later. His stroke followed the most vicious and explosive encounters in that fight.
George is an elegant writer, and the story is beautifully told. A recovery of family history becomes a personal political journey, a search through the shards of a defeated past to discover a buildable personal and public future.
This quest succeeds in its personal dimension, but not its public one. Personally, George Packer ends his story having achieved a sense of purpose and satisfaction that eluded his more hot-blooded forebears on both sides. Politically, though, all the difficulties of liberalism remain unsettled. George Packer wants to find some way to fuse his grandfather’s demand for the betterment of the poor with his father’s belief in rights and due process; his grandfather’s populism with his father’s intellectualism; his grandfather’s commitment to friends and neighbors with his father’s principles of nondiscrimination. Wanting such a fusion is not enough. We cannot have all the things we want – something his mother warns him of at the beginning of the book when she points out that we cannot simultaneously write full and complete biography while also protecting the feelings of those we write about.
In his own writing, George Packer has offered critical analysis of conservative mistake rather than a new political program for liberals. That’s partly a product of his reporter’s gift, very much on display in his book on Iraq, The Assassin’s Gate. He is interested in people’s stories more than political programs.
But it’s also true that the tensions and contradictions in a political program cannot be resolved in the way that tensions and contradictions within a family can be: through empathy and acceptance. Choices really have to be made. To choose one thing is to exclude another. We saw that in this year’s election, where for all his talk of unity, Barack Obama won probably 100% of the vote of the people epitomized by Packer’s father – and probably close to none of the vote of the people epitomized by Packer’s grandfather. George Packer may hope that through some process of reasoning the two can be reconciled, but such a process begins by disregarding what the two groups think and feel and say about themselves – and such a beginning seldom leads to a satisfactory ending.
Packer must sense that, for the book is written in an elegiac tone that seems to recognize the disappointment inherent in all political activity. The elegiac tone had special resonance for me, I suppose, because all this year I’ve had the feeling of watching a slow public agony of the political causes to which I have given my faith and energy. George Packer had lived through it all before, in reverse, and out of the experience he had found a deeper human meaning. Maybe I could do the same.
A few days before Bill Buckley’s funeral, in preparation for my interview that day with George, I pulled from the shelf Bill Rusher’s exellent history/memoir, The Rise of the Right. The books end with an arresting conclusion, too long for me to retype here. The gist is this: that everything that has a beginning must have an end. While political conservatism is founded upon deep and enduring truths, political conservatism itself is a political movement that arose in response to certain conditions and that must fade with those conditions. In the end, political conservatism’s core insights will cease to belong to any one political party, and be integrated into the shared history of the American people, part of the historical background from which new politics and new coalitions will arise. To offer such a prediction in 1984, at the very flood tide of conservatism, was brave and prescient. To rediscover it again in 2008 is consoling. And to read it in conjunction with Blood of the Liberals is to be lifted up and out of the political into the truly enduring.