Washington as Baghdad

Inside George Packer’s excellent profile of the Senate

When New Yorker staff writer George Packer started on the Washington beat about nine months ago, a “senior administration official” gave him some memorable advice. “You should cover Washington like a foreign capital,” Packer remembers the official telling him. “You should cover it like Baghdad.”

Packer took the counsel seriously and approached the city—“somewhat disingenuously,” he admits—“with the mindset of a complete newcomer.” So when he was first assigned four months ago to profile the Senate for the magazine, he headed straight to D.C. and sat in the Senate press gallery for three full days, observing, taking notes, and familiarizing himself. He then took his press badge and wandered the building’s hallways and dining rooms and labyrinthine basement like a tourist. “I asked very basic questions of staff people who worked there,” says Packer, reflecting on his early reporting. “It gave me more of an anthropological approach than the insider’s view, which we get every day from the papers that cover the Hill.”

If you’re wondering why we’re talking about Packer and his approach, it’s because it resulted in this 11,327-word article in Monday’s New Yorker, an exposé of a flawed, stuck institution that could well be one of the most enthralling and depressing pieces written on the “world’s greatest deliberative body” in recent memory. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein admitted he did not know how to respond to the piece, except to say that “I wish I had written it.” Ditto.

Much of the praise can be attributed to the color Packer brings, precisely because he goes inside the Senate as an outsider, aware of its nature but surprised by some of the details. “I didn’t know how hard it is to get rid of a secret hold,” he says, “And I didn’t know that Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell negotiate whether an amendment should be required to get fifty or sixty votes; I just didn’t understand the depth of the rot in the Senate.”

Packer sets the tone with his opening anecdote:

“This is just one of those days when you want to throw up your hands and say, ‘What in the world are we doing?’ ” Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat, said.

“It’s unconscionable,” Carl Levin, the senior Democratic senator from Michigan, said. “The obstructionism has become mindless.”

The Senators were in the Capitol, sunk into armchairs before the marble fireplace in the press lounge, which is directly behind the Senate chamber. It was four-thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. McCaskill, in a matching maroon jacket and top, looked exasperated; Levin glowered over his spectacles.

Beginning with an examination of the health care reconciliation process, and ending on the machinations of the Wall Street reform bill, Packer stages a history of how we got to this point. In a sense, it’s nothing we didn’t already know—“Extra, extra read all about it! The Senate is deeply, irreparably flawed!” But Packer enlivens the material with that childlike—or reporter-like—curiosity which he brought with him to D.C. “One thing that struck me,” he says with some genuine wonder, “was how confined their life is while they’re in Washington—it really is a thirty second subway car between their office buildings and the Capitol.”

It’s the revelation of these day-to-day aspects of the Senate and the devolution of across-the-aisle relations that fascinates in Packer’s piece. To get at it, Packer returned to the Senate for one day each week, for two months straight, sitting in on key moments of the reform package passage, and eventually interviewing key Senate figures, including freshman New Mexico senator Tom Udall, with whom he spent a full day. (Mitch McConnell, Richard Lugar, and Claire McCaskill did not respond to requests for interviews; Harry Reid had “the decency to give me a no.”)

“I wanted to get a feel for what daily life is like for a senator,” says Packer. “I think I surprised a few of them by asking questions that are not the norm. Like, ‘How much of your time do you spend fundraising?’ “How well do you know colleague X or colleague Y?’ ‘When was the last time you stepped foot in the house of a member of the other party?’”

The keen line of questioning resulted in some insightful, disheartening reflections on the way the Senate fails to work:

Encumbered with aides, prodded by hourly jolts from electronic media, racing from the hearing room to the caucus lunch to the Power Hour to the airport, senators no longer have the time, or perhaps the inclination, to get to know one another—least of all, members of the other party. Friendships across party lines are more likely among the few spouses who live in Washington. After Udall joined the Senate, last year, he was invited to dinner by Alexander, because Jill Cooper Udall and Honey Alexander had become friends through a women’s social club. It remains the only time Udall has set foot in the house of a Republican senator. (Vice-President Joe Biden, in his autobiography, recalls that, in the seventies, a bipartisan group of senators and their wives hosted a monthly dinner: “In those days Democrats and Republicans actually enjoyed each other’s company.”) When I asked Chris Dodd how well he knew, for example, Jim DeMint, Dodd said, “Not at all. Whereas Jesse Helms and I knew each other pretty well.” He repeated something that Jon Kyl, the Republican whip, from Arizona, had recently said to him: “There’s no trust.” Dodd, whose father was a senator, went on, “That’s really all there is—this place really operates on that. I don’t think anyone would argue with that conclusion. And if that’s missing … ”

We could go on excerpting the best bits all day, but we suggest you reserve a solid half-hour and read it yourself. Don’t miss Packer’s observations about the media’s culpability in the Senate’s regression. From the piece:

Bloggers carry so much influence that many senators have a young press aide dedicated to the care and feeding of online media. News about, by, and for a tiny kingdom of political obsessives dominates the attention of senators and staff, while stories that might affect their constituents go unreported because their home-state papers can no longer afford to have bureaus in Washington. Dodd, who came to the Senate in 1981 and will leave next January, told me, “I used to have eleven Connecticut newspaper reporters who covered me on a daily basis. I don’t have one today, and haven’t had one in a number of years. Instead, D.C. publications only see me through the prism of conflict.” Lamar Alexander described the effect as “this instant radicalizing of positions to the left and the right.”

When I asked Packer about the role of the new media in distracting, sidetracking, and possibly damaging the Senate—questions I asked for this, umm, blog post—he mentioned some flare-ups that happened in his four months of reporting in Washington. “It leaked out that Jim Bunning called Harry Reid an idiot during the Republican caucus lunch,” he recalled. “Then Democrats have to respond to that. And Scott Brown appeared to have given his word to Harry Reid that he was going to vote for financial reform and then suddenly at the last minute he had new conditions and votes against it. Harry Reid feels betrayed.”

“These are not new things, but they are magnified by the hour-to-hour coverage,” Packer says. “[The senators have] each got a heavily armed communications shop issuing press blasts every hour. There’s this constant sniping, if not all-out shelling, going on that is actually a bit misleading; I don’t think when they sit down and talk to each other they feel quite so much hatred as they seem to in their press and their statements. But the only way, increasingly, that they know each other, especially across party lines, is through what someone’s aide said to Politico or on a Twitter feed.”

While Packer attributes much of this to aides—“I’ve found that the senators seem sometimes more like figureheads for their staff than like the guys who are leading a show”—the legislators, he says, are complicit in the game. “All the senators say 24/7 media trivializes our politics. But they’re like a guy who complains about the effect of his own drinking. They’re deeply implicated in this and yet they all complain about it.”

By the end of his reporting, Packer was something of the beat-down Baghdad correspondent, mixing optimism with grim reality. “I was sympathetic to the freshmen,” he says, “because I was kind of a freshman there myself. But I saw through their eyes how little gets done and how unnecessarily sunk the Senate is in its own arcana. I met some very bright and high-minded freshman senators who in a few years are either going to quit or become creatures of the habitat.”

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.