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?’”