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May 14, 2020

Our Chronic Ills (with George Packer)

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On this week’s episode of Stay Tuned with Preet, “Our Chronic Ills,” Preet answers listener questions about LSAT fears and the legal precedents for disbarring attorneys general. Then, The Atlantic staff writer George Packer joins Preet to discuss his latest piece, “We are Living in a Failed State,” the Trump administration’s war on civil servants, and the enemies of writing. 

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As always, tweet your questions to @PreetBharara with hashtag #askpreet, email us at [email protected], or call 669-247-7338 to leave a voicemail.

REFERENCES & SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS

THE Q&A:

  • Morris Kaplan, “Mitchell Disbarred As Lawyer in State,” New York Times, July, 4, 1975
  • Staci Zaretsky, “Major Changes Coming To The LSAT With Removal Of Logic Games Section,” Above the Law, 10/8/2019

THE INTERVIEW:

FAILED STATE & WAR ON GOVERNMENT: 

  • George Packer, “We are Living in a Failed State,” The Atlantic, 4/21/2020
  • George Packer, The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq, FSG, 2005
  • George Packer, “The Way We Live Now: 9-30-01; Recapturing The Flag,” New York Times Magazine, 9/30/2001
  • George Packer on the post-9/11 decade, “Coming Apart,” The New Yorker, 9/5/2011
  • George Packer on Sarah Palin, “The Parts of Her Speech,” The New Yorker, 10/5/2008
  • George Packer, “How to Destroy a Government,” The Atlantic, 3/2/2020
  • Preet Bharara, “2017 John Jay Iselin Memorial Lecture Series,” Cooper Union, 4/6/2017
  • Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Penguin Random House, 1978
  • Dionne Searcey, “The Lessons of the Elections of 1918,” New York Times, 3/21/2020
  • Sherrilyn Ifill, Tweet on “Failed State,” Twitter, 5/3/2020
  • Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement, PBS, 1987
  • “Where America is Staying Home, Wall Street Journal, 4/3/2020
  • James C. Thompson on the “Effectiveness Trap,” “How Could Vietnam Happen? An Autopsy,” The Atlantic, 4/1968
  • Brooke Seipel, “McCabe: ‘I don’t think I will ever be free of this president and his maniacal rage,’” The Hill, 2/14/2020

ENEMIES OF WRITING:

  • George Packer, “The Enemies of Writing,” The Atlantic, 1/23/2020
  • Christopher Hitchens and George Packer talk about George Orwell, “After Words,” CSPAN, 12/15/2009

BUTTON 

  • Wesley Morris, “Little Richard Wasn’t Conceited. He Was Underappreciated,” New York Times, 5/11/2020
  • Bob Dylan on Little Richard’s Death, Twitter, 5/9/2020
  • Little Steven on Little Richard’s Death, Twitter, 5/9/2020
  • Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band covering “Lucille,” YouTube, 6/29/2013
  • Ben Stiller Tweet on his father’s passing, Twitter, 5/11/2020
  • Peter Keepnews, “Jerry Stiller, Comedian With Enduring Appeal, Is Dead at 92,” New York Times, 5/11/2020
  • Jerry Stiller in “The Caddy” Seinfeld Episode, YouTube, 1996

Preet Bharara:

From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.

George Packer:

We don’t talk any longer as if we’re all in it together and when a crisis like this comes, it shows you this state of those systems. It shows you how the organism is doing and it turns out, and we should have known this, we did know this, that we were very unhealthy.

Preet Bharara:

That’s George Packer. He’s a staff writer at the Atlantic and author of multiple books. The subjects he covers are many and varied. They include foreign policy, the history of American culture and contemporary politics. Last year, he won the Hitchens prize. It’s awarded to “an author or a journalist who in the spirit of the late Christopher Hitchens demonstrates a commitment to free expression and to the pursuit of truth, without regard to personal or professional consequence.”

Preet Bharara:

Packer joins me this week to talk about his most recent piece sensationally titled “We are living in a failed state.” It explores what the coronavirus pandemic has revealed about the challenges America has long faced politically, economically, and culturally. We also discussed the president’s attacks on civil servants, community in times of crisis, and how to be a brave writer. That’s coming up. Stay tuned.

Speaker 1:

This ad is a warning. Our democracy is under attack from the United States Supreme Court. In the middle of a deadly global pandemic people across Wisconsin were planning to vote absentee to keep themselves and their families safe. But the night before the election, five Republican justices on the Supreme Court told thousands of people they would have to choose between risking their lives and forfeiting their right to vote. This Supreme Court favoring Republican interests over democracy is nothing new.

Speaker 1:

They gutted the Voting Rights Act. They invited billionaires and corporations to spend unlimited amounts trying to influence elections. They gave a green light to gerrymandering, voter ID laws, and voter roll purchase. Now a progressive movement is rising up to fight back because it’s quite possible the Wisconsin case won’t be the last 2020 showdown over voting rights to be settled in the courts. And we simply can’t trust this court to put aside partisan views and protect people’s right to vote. Our courts are becoming too political. It’s time to say “Enough.”

Speaker 1:

Learn more about how you can join the fight by visiting demandjustice.org/preet. That’s demandjustice.org/P-R-E-E-T.

Preet Bharara:

This question comes in a tweet from listener Jeff Moore (@jbm0). “Hey, Preet Bharara. Just wondering, has a sitting attorney general ever been disbarred while in office? And if that should happen, would it have any effect on his ability to stay in office? #askpreet.”

Preet Bharara:

Well, it is in fact the case that no attorney general has ever been disbarred while in office. As a practical matter, I think that anybody who purports to be the chief federal law enforcement officer of the country who loses his or her license, that would because of some very, very serious departure of ethics or criminal conduct or other some such thing, and would not be a viable attorney general.

Preet Bharara:

So whether or not there’s a particular rule that requires the chief federal law enforcement officer in the country to have an active bar license and not to have been disbarred, even in the topsy-turvy world of Donald Trump’s America, I cannot imagine that the attorney general could continue if he or she has been disbarred, whether it’s Bill Barr or someone else. It’s interesting, there are a lot of significant positions outside of the executive branch that have important folks who are not required to be lawyers.

Preet Bharara:

I always thought it was interesting while I served in the Senate Judiciary Committee where they consider issues of the appointment of judges, the confirmation of judges, and all sorts of other oversight of the department of justice and very highly technical legal matters that nothing requires a senator on the Judiciary Committee to be a lawyer. In fact, there have been chairman and ranking members who were not admitted to the bar, never been lawyers like Charles Grassley and Diane Feinstein.

Preet Bharara:

Now a sideline to your question is this: no attorney general has been disbarred while in office, but there has been an attorney general who was disbarred after serving in office. And that, of course you may remember was Richard Nixon’s first attorney general, John Mitchell. In 1975, Mitchell was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the Watergate scandal. Mitchell had been involved in approving money to go toward a break-in of the DNC of the Watergate Hotel.

Preet Bharara:

He also ran a coverup and did all sorts of other things that earned him, rightly, his disbarment including lying about his involvement before a grand jury that eventually led to a perjury conviction. He also lied to the FBI about the case. And so six months after his 1975 conviction, John Mitchell was disbarred in New York state. He was also suspended from practice by the Supreme Court and by lower courts in the district of Columbia.

Preet Bharara:

This question comes in an email from Mike V. “Hi Preet, for the last year I’ve been studying to take the LSAT. It’s been a long and sometimes frustrating journey. Now like many others I’ll be taking the LSAT this summer in the midst of a pandemic. While some of the pressure has been eased since the test will be shorter and administered at home, it is still nerve-wracking given the importance of the exam. I wanted to ask what your own personal experience was preparing for the LSAT and how you overcame your doubts.”

Preet Bharara:

Right, so I think I still have some PTSD from taking the LSAT back when I did in the early ’90s. I took it at a time when it was a different point system that was based on 48 points rather than whatever it’s based on now. I took the standard. I can’t remember which classes I took, but I took the classes that people take and you pay them a lot of money and they give you a sample tests and they give you testing strategies, so I did all of that traditional stuff and took a lot of practice exams.

Preet Bharara:

And I had a lot of trepidation about the LSAT in one section in particular, which I guess we used to call logic games and that’s officially called the “Analytical Reasoning” section of the LSAT. That section freaked me out. And even though I was not terrible at it, something about it and something about the time pressure always caused me to have what seemed to be an oncoming heart attack when I got to that section and the practice tests.

Preet Bharara:

And I will confess something else that I have not I think publicly before, I don’t know what the rules are now for canceling your score. If you take the test and don’t feel like you’ve done well. So I did that the first time I took the LSAT because it used to be the case that you have whatever number of sections are on the test. And there’s one section that is doubled. You have two of one section, one being experimental, which is known to be more difficult so they can test questions for future exams that they might offer.

Preet Bharara:

And on the LSAT that I took the first time when I was trying to get into law school, I came across the logic game section and felt I did horribly on it but thought, well, it’s probably the experimental section because how could I have done that horribly? And I’m sure there’ll be another logic game section, which will be the real one and I’ll do well on that one. Well, no such luck. There was no other logic game section so I realized I had screwed it up, cancelled the grading of the test, went back to the drawing board, took some more practice tests and then sat for the LSAT again and it went all right.

Preet Bharara:

I think the best advice is try to simulate the conditions of the test. I think you’re very, very lucky and I envy you that the test will be shorter and you can take it at home in a comfortable environment, probably the same environment in which you’ve studied for it. There are studies that show if you take a test or an examination in the environment in which you studied for it, you’re more likely to be relaxed. You’re more likely to do well, you’re more likely to recall facts that otherwise are not so easy to recall. I wish you luck. It’s worth it.

Preet Bharara:

It’s time for a short break. Stay tuned. My guest this week is George Packer. A journalist, novelist, and playwright, Packer is best known for his essays in the New Yorker and the Atlantic and his nonfiction books about U.S. foreign policy and history. In 2013, he won the national book award for nonfiction for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. He joined me last year to discuss his most recent book, Our Man Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, a biography of the late diplomat. I’m excited to have him back on the show to examine political polarization, the strains on our institutions, and his hopes for young writers.

Preet Bharara:

George Packer. Thanks for coming back on the show.

George Packer:

It’s always good to be with you, Preet.

Preet Bharara:

Last time we spoke, it was a bit of a, I don’t know if it was a happier time; it was a better time. It was a less disease-filled time. How are you doing in the middle of this pandemic?

George Packer:

I’m taking it day to day. There’s a sort of sameness to everyday, which is part of the strangeness of this so I’ve lost my sense of time passing and how long it’s been. I think I’ve been locked down for two months, but-

Preet Bharara:

It could be 45 years.

George Packer:

It could be 45 years or it could have been-

Preet Bharara:

You don’t really know.

George Packer:

… a week. I’m getting more reading done than usual, less work done than usual and spending a hell of a lot of time with my kids, my wife and our dog.

Preet Bharara:

Let me ask you about that. You’re not in the construction business, you don’t have to be any particular place to write. I suppose you can do interviews and do your reporting on the telephone. Are you more or less productive as a writer? Are deadlines harder or easier to meet while you’re on lockdown?

George Packer:

I mean, I am one of those lucky workers who work at a desk and from a laptop and I work at home in normal times so in some ways this is not different. But the difference is a, having my family around and b, just the sense of suspension, of not knowing and of being unable to do the normal things that break up the day and that break up the week and give you a sense that ‘now you’re working now, you’re not working.’ Although in some ways it seems like an ideal situation, for productivity I’ve found it’s actually been difficult to be productive because it isn’t the rhythm I’m used to.

Preet Bharara:

I mean, you have the freedom to write about lots of different things and you have a great forum at the Atlantic to be able to do that. Do you feel that for the foreseeable future, that you feel some obligation to write about some aspect of the coronavirus?

George Packer:

To some extent. I mean, it’s what I’m thinking about all the time and usually I write about what I’m thinking about. But I mean, I hope I’ll still be able to write about books and things in the culture, just things going on that aren’t completely disease-ridden but this has taken over my mind as it has most people’s, I imagine. And it’s made me see things and think about things in not a new way, but maybe a little bit with more clarity and more attentiveness because there’s time to pay attention so this is the window through which I’m seeing everything right now and I’m sure that’s going to continue for quite a while.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah. I mean, I don’t know anybody for whom that’s not true. And I don’t know anyone in any country for whom that’s not true, whether you’re in favor of certain policies or against, whether you’re a healthcare worker or not, whether you’ve had the disease and have recovered, or you’re worried about getting it. It’s an incessant focus for everyone. And I wonder how much that adds to the lack of health in the country.

George Packer:

Well, it’s interesting. I was wondering, has there ever been an event that more people around the world knew about? Because sometimes there’s a world war going on and some people don’t know it in the past, but I think this must be the most globally uniting single event ever and yet it’s very divisive as well. And it could have gone either way. It really could have gone either way because we’re all vulnerable to it if we’re human so in some ways it should have a kind of basic humanistic cohesiveness to it, tying us all together on the basis of our common humanity, which is something we always want or should want. And yet it doesn’t seem to be doing that because we’re human and find ways to fight and to point fingers and to hate each other, so it still could go either way though, I think. It’s far from decided how this is going to affect at least this country.

Preet Bharara:

Let’s get into that. One of the reasons that I asked you to be on the show again is there’s various things you’ve written recently, but one in particular that got some attention, got some pushback, you wrote what I thought was a very thought-provoking piece in the Atlantic with a very optimistic title: We are Living in a Failed State. And I want to talk about that a little bit.

George Packer:

I don’t choose titles by the way. That’s not in my power.

Preet Bharara:

But you uttered the phrase “failed state-”

George Packer:

I did.

Preet Bharara:

… in the piece over and over, so it’s less unfair that maybe sometimes then.

George Packer:

No. Only one time, only one time. It may have felt like I kept repeating it, but it was-

Preet Bharara:

Oh man. Maybe that’s at the top of the screen as you scroll down at all times. So let’s talk about the title for a second. When you say failed state, and I’ve heard you say this in response to questions, you don’t mean in a literal sense. There are lots of things that are still working. We have a lot of death and we have a lot of disaster and tragedy around us, but you don’t mean a failed state like some other countries in the world, right?

George Packer:

No, I don’t. We are not a textbook failed state. I’ve reported in textbook failed states. I reported in Iraq during the first years of the war. And after the overthrow of Saddam, Iraq was a failed state. Somalia, Sierra Leone during the civil war. In those cases, the state has stopped functioning. Basic services are unavailable. Crime is rampant and people are really on their own and kind of retreat into local units because the national government is no longer there or was never there to help and so they go back to their village or they go back to their tribe.

George Packer:

That’s not us. Checks are going out. Stimulus checks are going out. And hospitals are doing heroic work. Hospital workers, subway workers are doing heroic work. So we are functioning, but what’s not functioning is our national government. I was particularly thinking of those days, and I’m sure you remember this Preet in the first few days of March, when ordinary people suddenly began to realize that this was coming for us. We hadn’t really been told by our leaders until then it began to be clear and everyone had to make up their own mind on their own.

George Packer:

Do I send my kid to school today? Do I take the subway today? Do I go into work today? And that was when I had this shiver of remembering what it was like to be in those other countries where you have no instructions coming from the authorities, where the national government is missing or is giving you a lot of happy talk or misleading information. And this is the crucial thing, doesn’t even seem to care about the wellbeing of its citizens. That reminded me of real failed states. It’s a figurative term for us, but it has a real meaning.

Preet Bharara:

I think there’s some actually graphic representation of the point you’re just making. I just saw it this morning. There are graphs that show in state after state after state, the timeline under which regular people stopped moving around, remained in their homes, versus when the actual official state home order was issued. And almost not almost, not almost every state, I think in every state that I saw, there was massive reduction in people going out and about before the government told them what to do, before the government said you should stay at home, before there was a lockdown of any sort at all.

Preet Bharara:

So in very real sense whether it’s the state of New York, the state of Texas, people had to take it upon themselves based on information, rather based on the government order to stay at home and stay put so that’s kind of interesting. Obviously, a state doesn’t fail overnight and I wonder to what extent that phrase is really a reference to the delta between what America was and is today in the midst of this pandemic or what America is today versus what we aspire to be. Is that what you mean by that? Or do you mean something different? In other words, was America perfect before and something has slid for us so that the failures are becoming more apparent in the midst of the coronavirus?

George Packer:

Never perfect, of course. Always far from perfect but better able to govern ourselves, especially again, at the national level. Better able to solve problems, to talk about problems, to see the same problem as a common polity. Yeah, I think we’ve been declining. That’s the subject of a couple of my recent books. We, our institutions, have become weaker and less trusted by the public and maybe less effective at actually supporting the lives of the public.

George Packer:

I don’t just mean government institutions, although those, but also corporations, banks, media schools. Yeah, there’s been a weakening of our systems that we could tolerate as long as unemployment was low, the markets were robust, we were at peace, there were no crises. Tolerate, but not be healthy. We were not healthy. And I think the fundamental ill has been polarization, both economic and political. The incredible divide between Americans based on class and on partisanship and race and region such that we don’t talk any longer as if we’re all in it together.

George Packer:

And when a crisis like this comes, it shows you this state of those systems. It shows you how the organism is doing and it turns out, and we should have known this, we did know this, that we were very unhealthy. So when you find out that government experts were silenced, ignored, that the federal government had done everything it could it seems to be sure that we did not have the stockpiles we would need for a pandemic or the plans that we would need, or the ability to test and trace.

George Packer:

When you see what’s happening with workers who are being forced to stay at work or go back to work too soon even when they’re sick, and to work in conditions that’s going to get them sick because they have no protections, these are workers largely low-income, largely in the service sector who we all depend on, but we didn’t really think about them very much. At least a lot of us didn’t because they were invisible. Meat packers are invisible, amazon warehouse workers are invisible, but now we see them and we see how little protection they have.

George Packer:

And that’s another source of, I think, real systemic weakness, as well as a moral failing. And all of that, and I could go on and on about this, is right in our face now if we’re willing to see it and not to forget it once things begin to slowly subside and return to some semblance of normality.

Preet Bharara:

You actually begin your article with kind of an analogy to the virus itself. You say, “When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions and it exploited them ruthlessly.” So I’m going to talk about some of those underlying conditions and you make reference to things that came in the past, past crises in this fairly short century, only two decades so far, and what was different about those as compared to now.

Preet Bharara:

I guess the first big crisis that comes close to approximating at least on day one, how people have felt about the coronavirus and that is a whole country feeling like it’s under attack was 9/11. What did 9/11 expose about America? And are there any seeds from that time that linger with us today and have caused some of these bad conditions that you described?

George Packer:

9/11 hit us after a long stretch of peace and prosperity. When we have begun to sort of lull ourselves into a fantasy that we were at the end of history and that it would always be this way and that the troubles of the world were not going to be our troubles. It was, yeah, a kind of fool’s paradise, I guess. And when the terror attacks came and I was in New York city that day, my strongest memory is of tremendous compassion and solidarity among the people right around me and throughout the country.

George Packer:

I remember going toward ground zero the next day or maybe a week later actually trying to get as close as I could, they had cordoned it off, and running into some firefighters from Indiana who had just gotten in their trucks and driven 800 miles to help out in the recovery effort. And that was almost like a normal thing. Of course, eventually 9/11 became a source of much bitterness and division and the Iraq war, the global war on terror, the Bush administration, all of that.

PART 1 OF 4 ENDS [00:21:04]

George Packer:

The global war on terror, the Bush administration, all of that was the beginning of, I think, a period of intensifying polarization that’s still with us.

Preet Bharara:

But in the immediate aftermath, there was unbelievable unity. In fact, you make a reference to how the rest of the country thought of New York, which is different than how they might think of New York now.

George Packer:

Yeah. They thought that New York took the hit for the country. That New York was the target because it’s a big symbolic metropolis. It’s the big American city. But it was really the country that was under attack. I think that the New York Times banner headline the next day was, America attacked. America attacked. And today New York City is, to some degree, regarded as the vector of disease, the people who are getting it are people who might not be the same as someone else and have almost brought it upon themselves by the way they’re living, because they’re living in these close quarters in these big, high rise apartment buildings, that they travel around the world, they bring it back with them. In other words, that New York is somehow to blame, rather than New York being a symbol of the country’s hurt and the country’s unity.

George Packer:

It’s a very sharp difference. And at times, President Trump almost seems to be saying, hey, my voters aren’t in New York, why do I need to lose my presidency because of something happening there?

Preet Bharara:

It’s a remarkable thing, given that that’s where he made his fortune, that’s where he was born, that’s where he was raised.

George Packer:

New York was very good to him, and this is how he thanks us.

Preet Bharara:

It’s funny. It reminds me, what you were saying, years ago, long before these events we’re talking about, I traveled extensively after law school, this is in the mid 90s, and wherever I went, people would ask me where I was from and I would say I’m from I’m from New York. And then they would ask me the question, “What’s America like?” And I would say, “Well, I live in Manhattan. I’m not sure that what I describe to you is a good indication of what America is like, but let me tell you what Manhattan is like.” There’s always been some difference between certain metropolises and the rest of the country [crosstalk 00:23:19].

George Packer:

New York has always been an international city rather than a truly American city and it’s always been resented by the rest of the country for being too big and loud and rich and domineering. The New York Yankees are deeply resented around the country. And yeah, so there is that division between the Big City and the Heartland that’s been with us for a very long time.

George Packer:

But on 9/11 that division ended or was closed, because we were still, to some degree, a healthy country that had the memory of the Cold War of World War II, of those crises that forced Americans to join together because we had a common adversary, the Great Depression. All of that was still, I think, in our bloodstream on 9/11. It’s no longer in our bloodstream. Those memories are gone, and instead, what we remember is 20 years of bitterness and polarization.

Preet Bharara:

Well, I guess certain crises arise and there’s either unity at the beginning or not, and those things can change and get worse or get better. But it causes me to ask the question, what kinds of crises bring us together and which drive us apart? I would not have predicted, no matter what the underlying conditions are, that something like a pandemic would cause division, because it’s not a political enemy in any way.

Preet Bharara:

So for example, this may be an unfair question to you, if an asteroid were hurtling towards the earth, would Americans and citizens of the world, as you see in the movies, become united or divided? Or also you see in the movies, if there was an alien… Something that was from without earth, from outside of earth, not bound up in conservative or liberal ideologies or race or class, it’s just something that’s a menace to everyone, no matter who they are. How do you think we would react now? And what has caused this thing, that seems to be apolitical, to become political?

George Packer:

You mean, would we be hearing about the asteroid hoax?

Preet Bharara:

Yeah, I guess.

George Packer:

I think probably. I think everything now breaks down along those lines. Everything. It doesn’t matter where it starts.

Preet Bharara:

And it doesn’t matter what the… Even if the nature of the thing is completely apolitical, it can be politicized because of the nature of political discourse.

George Packer:

Pandemics do have a divisive side to them because there are two groups of people, those with the disease and those without, and those with seem like threats to those without, and then that can break down along all the usual lines of race and religion and region. I was reading Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, which has a chapter about the Black Death, which hit Europe in the mid 14th century. And there was a lot of polarization. Jews were being targeted as the carriers and were being hounded and driven out of European countries because of the Black Death.

George Packer:

So it’s not as though we are uniquely bad in our response, but as modern people with science and an ability to understand where it comes from and how to stop it, you would think we’d do better. But instead we essentially have the blue areas, where it’s been at its worst, and the red areas where there’s a sense that this is someone else’s problem to some degree, for some people, and why should we lose our livelihoods because New York City is overwhelmed with coronavirus cases?

George Packer:

Which of course is unscientific, because there’s no barriers to it. It doesn’t stop it state lines. It’s going to hit everyone eventually, if we don’t take the measures that we all now know we have to take. And so it’s a test. It’s a test of how rational we were able to be and how calm, and also how much solidarity we’re able to feel for our fellow Americans. And I don’t think we’ve done very well.

Preet Bharara:

And is that a function of the preconditions you’re talking about and the generalized polarization in the country, or is it a function of leadership? In other words, if you had a different leader, would those divisions have been able to be overcome, you think, or not?

George Packer:

Yes. I think it’s all about leadership. I haven’t studied the 1918 flu, but it would be interesting to know whether those who supported Wilson and those who were against Wilson divided entirely on their views of the flu and what the best reaction to it was.

George Packer:

Whereas today, it’s interesting though, it’s not entirely aligned with partisanship because more Republicans are observing and see the need for the isolation, the shutdown, than Trump’s support would indicate. So there’s a part of his support that has tuned out his incredibly destructive messages and is following the health guidelines. And I think that’s because people want to stay alive. People are afraid of dying. And it turns out that this may be the one thing that is powerful enough to deflect some of the relentless propaganda and the thinking that it produces.

George Packer:

But leadership is everything in this case, and if we had a leader who was speaking to us as Americans and not blaming the governors of the opposition party and not blaming the previous administration and not worrying entirely about his own or her own immediate political interests, I think we would see a lot more unity among the American people. But unfortunately we’re being led by the most divisive president maybe ever.

Preet Bharara:

Well, you’ve talked about populism and I guess we would call him a populist, but he’s not the first, and he may not be the last in this country, and certainly around the world, you referred to John McCain’s Vice Presidential pick, Sarah Palin, as Donald Trump’s John the Baptist. What do you mean by that? And what are the echoes of that campaign, even though it was unsuccessful, in the current crisis?

George Packer:

Sarah Palin was something new, at least in my lifetime. There had never been a major party candidate who was so utterly unqualified and hostile to qualifications, hostile to expertise and knowledge and professional training, and who’s appeal was based on that hostility.

George Packer:

I remember sitting in a diner in Southeastern Ohio, shortly after McCain picked her, I was interviewing some of the patrons of the diner. I sit with a group of women who said, “She’d fit right in here with us. She could sit at this table and be one of us.” And for that reason they loved her. And I asked them, “Well, why do you want someone just like you to be a heartbeat away from the presidency?” I don’t want myself to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. And they identified with her. It’s identity politics, which is partly what populism is. It’s the plain people should rule.

Preet Bharara:

Hasn’t it always been the case, to some extent? I remember years ago, John Stewart would make a similar joke. He would say, “What is this question about whether or not you want to get a beer with a guy? It’s like, he’s just like me. I don’t want to be president. I’m an idiot.” The American people were fooled by the Macarena. Why is that the standard?

George Packer:

Well, we have a… It’s because we are a country founded, or at least very quickly became, a country run by the plain people, or at least in their name. So our very image of democracy is that anyone can be the president. You can be born in a log cabin and become the president. The difference is, Lincoln studied Shakespeare. He studied the law. He studied history. He had a deep, acute sense of the country and of the evil of slavery. Sarah Palin had no such talents, and yet she seemed to qualify in the minds of a lot of people. And so that to me was a turn. We were willing to accept a bottoming out of standards.

George Packer:

In fact, to even want it. And even though she lost and McCain lost, I think she was more important in some ways than Obama that year. She was more of an indicator of what was to come than Obama, who is very much in the mold of the meritocratic elite. Comes from the best universities and knows a lot and understands a lot and is in some ways, a bit distant from ordinary people. Sarah Palin came right out of that working class milieu and so in that way, she was a harbinger, that’s why I used the John the Baptist phrase, a harbinger of who was to come in eight years.

Preet Bharara:

But I’m still confused. Can I ask you a further question about that?

George Packer:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

So she arrived on the scene and there were some people who liked her, but she lost. She lost badly. She was basically repudiated by McCain and by the people around McCain, she has not had a successful career since in politics, and widely is viewed, not by everyone, but fairly widely viewed as a laughingstock. Why isn’t the lesson of that candidacy, hey, we shouldn’t go down that route and I shouldn’t try to emulate that nothing anti-expertise populism? How did that become the winning model when it was such a failure in 2008?

George Packer:

Right. And of course, let’s not forget Trump didn’t win the popular vote. And Trump himself may well within 10 years be widely reviled, just like Sarah Palin, but something happened between 2008 and 2016, where a little nascent impulse to say, burn it all down, screw it, became, if not the dominant one, at least one every bit as strong as let’s listen to the experts and let the professional politicians try to work it out.

George Packer:

And one thing that happened was the second crisis of the 20th century, which was the great recession. Which, in the end, I think the way it shook out, the elites did fine. Congress and the White House bailed out the big banks, there was a stimulus, there was quantitative easing, Wall Street came back very quickly, inequality continued to grow, people with educations and good jobs, found that they hadn’t really taken much of a hit, and those without, the working class, those who are dependent on Social Security or on their week to week paycheck, never came back.

George Packer:

And that I think fueled the sense that the elites were somehow in an unholy deal with each other at the expense of the mass of people and that government and big business and the big banks had rigged it against ordinary people. And even though that’s an exaggeration and may be a little bit of a conspiracy thinking, there was enough truth to it that it eroded what was left of the trust in our institutions and our leaders, so that by 2016, the next coming of Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, was far more potent and had far more support. And so that’s how I see those crises leading to Trump as a symptom of this decay.

Preet Bharara:

What about another underlying condition that some have suggested you have downplayed a little bit, Sherrilyn Ifill said that your article is a must read and very important and jarring, but does say, and some others have, that you seem to have understated what she calls the fundamental fissure of racism in laying a foundation for the predicament we’re in. What do you make of that?

George Packer:

I think in that piece, it’s a fair point because the piece was 2,500 words long, and didn’t really have the room to go into the nature of all of these underlying conditions. I think elsewhere, I’ve written about it quite a bit. But race and class are in a complicated and toxic entanglement right now. People have been trying to decide for four years, whether Trump won because so many white racists finally had their candidate, or whether Trump won because so many white workers had reached a point where they were ready to say, screw it.

George Packer:

I think those two things… No one should ever underestimate the power of race in American history. One way I’ve been spending this quarantine is watching Eyes on the Prize with my small children, and they’re just stunned to see how recently the hatred and bigotry of white America was on TV screens. And now, in some ways, it’s back with Trump. It’s a bit of a reversion to George Wallace.

George Packer:

But I think class and race affect each other. And there’s a reason why Trump’s base is the white working class, not the white professional class. And it’s because the white working class has lots of resentments and feels it’s been displaced and left behind in a way that the white professional class does not. And so race is part of that, but it’s a two part identity and those two parts feed each other. So that it’s too simple to say Trump was elected because white America is racist. I think it’s more complicated than that.

Preet Bharara:

What about this other issue that you talk about? So I mentioned before in the interview that this is an apolitical threat, it’s the virus, it doesn’t have any moral dimension to it really in and of itself, and it has been politicized. And the group of people that I’ve always thought in the government who deal with those kinds of things are the scientists and the doctors and the medical professionals, whose work also is fairly apolitical. You have a vaccine or you don’t. You have a treatment or you don’t. You do the studies and you look at the data and you decide policy based on rational data.

Preet Bharara:

What role is being played here by the loss of trust in the civil service and the way in which people think about those unknown people who have served the country for generations?

George Packer:

I think it’s playing a big role and we could connect it to a story that I’m sure grabbed your attention, which is the Justice Department dropping the case against Michael Flynn.

Preet Bharara:

Did that happen?

George Packer:

It did it.

Preet Bharara:

I read one or two things about that [crosstalk 00:17:37].

George Packer:

Maybe we should talk about that. I published a piece, a cover story in the Atlantic, just before the pandemic hit called-

Preet Bharara:

We’re going to get to that too.

George Packer:

All right. How To Destroy Government? Well, one way to destroy government is by-

Preet Bharara:

They’re very optimistic headlines. I know you know titles. I know [crosstalk 00:17:53].

George Packer:

My next one is going to be, We Can Do Better And We Will. I promise.

Preet Bharara:

[inaudible 00:00:38:58], right? Something like that.

George Packer:

Yeah, exactly. One way to destroy government is by turning the anonymous 2 million plus civil service workforce into a conspiracy against the president, claiming that it’s trying to overthrow him, that there’s a deep state that is in bed with the liberal media and the democratic party and has chosen sides and is lying and actively undermining the president.

George Packer:

Well, that’s the rationale, I think, for Attorney General Barr to have decided that Russia-gate was a hoax and that he has to undo everything that was uncovered and brought to light by the FBI and the Justice Department, which is part of what this dropping of the Flynn case is.

George Packer:

So I think Trump has turned this, what used to be a invisible and nonpartisan and rather bland and colorless entity, the civil service, into one of his main targets. And once you do that, your followers, if they’re going to continue following you, are going to lose faith in all of it, including the CDC and the NIH, and are going to think that anything that is an unhappy fact during the Trump years must be a civil service conspiracy in order to hurt the president.

George Packer:

And that was what Fox News was saying right at the start in February, before they then had to pivot because Trump pivoted and then they pivoted back when Trump pivoted back. But that’s been the fundamental view, which is that the experts are not only wrong, but they’re malicious and even treasonous because they’re trying to turn this into a plot against Trump.

Preet Bharara:

Since you mentioned it, let me jump to that article for a second, because you say something very powerful, but also somewhat unsettling about the civil servants, and I wonder to what extent it is okay to blame them. You write about the adults, these people, you refer to the adults in the room, “The adults were too sophisticated to see Trump’s special political talents, his instinct for every adversary’s weakness, his fanatical devotion to himself, his knack for imposing his will, his sheer staying power.” And then you say, “But the adult’s greatest miscalculation was to overestimate themselves, particularly in believing that other Americans saw them as selfless public servants, their stature derived from a high-minded commitment to the good of the nation.” What’s the level of naivete on the part of those 2 million?

George Packer:

Right. This was, in my mind, provoked by something I was told by one of those civil servants, James Baker, who was the General Counsel at the FBI and a career government lawyer who said that a lot of people, including him, thought that they knew better than Trump, and they would outlast Trump, and that Trump would not be able to get the government under his…

PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:42:04]

George Packer:

… It’s Trump and that Trump would not be able to get the government under his control as a tool of his own personal interests, because he didn’t know how it worked. And James Baker said, “He was light years ahead of them.” Trump was, that Trump had a shrewdness about how to bend the civil service and even break it because he was willing to do things that no other president has done. So there was a naivety.

George Packer:

And the other half of it Preet is that, for years and years, Washington has been a swamp. Trump was not wrong about that.

Preet Bharara:

That’s correct.

George Packer:

There has been a tremendous amount of self-dealing, and revolving doors and legal corruption. That is not, I think on most of those 2 million civil servants who are after all just doing their jobs and slowly rising to higher levels and waiting for their retirement and their pension. They are not ducking in and out of government in order to make a pile of money in private sector, but a few are. And they have, I think that the, sort of the corruption, the rottenness that we see in lobbying and in the revolving door has tainted the civil service. Because most Americans don’t make a distinction between say political appointees and career civil servants, or between people who have been in the government their whole careers versus people who’ve kind of revolved a few times in and out. Those are subtle distinctions. And so they’ve sort of been tainted by the corruption that’s set in with all the lobbying money that has come to Washington.

Preet Bharara:

It occurs to me as you’re speaking that a lot of people conflate the ability of someone to come up with a diagnosis, with the ability of that same person to figure out what the cure is, right? So you could have someone say correctly, “Oh, you know what you’re suffering from is a fever.” And then the next thing they say is, “Now take these leeches home and put them on your body.” Or maybe a better analogy is, suck some of this Lysol and you don’t have a chronic Corona syndrome.

George Packer:

No, no, that’s too much Preet, no one would think that. A metaphor has to be within the realm of reason to work.

Preet Bharara:

Okay. But it is… He was actually quite right. The first talk I gave after I was fired in a public forum, emphasized that he’s right about the swamp. He was right about people being left behind. He’s right about so much of the system being rigged.

Donald Trump:

“The fact of the matter is, your country needs your leadership too. Because you know what? There is a swamp. A lot of the system is rigged and lots of your fellow Americans have been forgotten and have been left behind. Those are not alternative facts, that is not fake news, but I would respectfully submit, you don’t drain a swamp with a slogan. You don’t drain it by replacing one set of partisans with another, you don’t replace muck with MK. To drain a swamp, you need an army corps of engineers, experts schooled in service and serious purpose. Not, do nothing, say anything, neophyte, opportunists who know a lot about how to bully and bluster, but not so much about truth, justice and fairness.”

Preet Bharara:

The problem is it does not logically follow then just because you’re a great articulator of what the problem is that you have the faintest idea of what to do about it or that you’re being honest about what to do about it.

George Packer:

Right. Because for him, a deep state creature is someone who is not personally loyal and willing to lie and follow Trump blindly. That’s a member of the deep state, not someone conspiring against the US government. And so Trump’s vision of civil service is not a kind of good government reform, pure, working on behalf of the public. His idea of the civil service is essentially like a company that he’s bought and that now owes him their livelihood and their loyalty rather than the constitution. So it’s not the cure. In fact, it’s worse than the illness he discovered. I think the metaphor I used, which I’m afraid is also a medical one in that that cover story was, “The immune system of the government had been compromised and Trump came in and in the name of a cure, laid it to waste with a devastating disease.”

George Packer:

I wrote that before Coronavirus, and maybe it’s a bit of a cliche and I should stop leaning so heavily on viral metaphors, but that’s how Trump treated the problem, by making it 10 times worse and corrupting everyone around him. Because for him, it was not about good government, it was about loyalty to Trump.

Preet Bharara:

Well you say something else in the other article, how to destroy a government that is sobering. You say this, “A simple intuition had propelled Trump throughout his life. Human beings are weak. They have their illusions, appetites, vanities, fears. They can be cowed, corrupted or crushed.” I appreciate the alliteration. How depressing an observation is that because it seems to be true?

George Packer:

Well, I was just looking at the people I was writing about, people in the justice department, people in the FBI, people in the state department and realizing that for those in the civil service, or the foreign service, you could either put up some resistance and find yourself a target of massive attack on social media and from the president’s own Twitter account. Really your life ruined, your career pretty much over, driven from government as most of the top, people in the FBI were driven from government by Trump. Or you could submit, you could keep your head down and just not make any trouble for him. And if you’re a prosecutor somewhere in the country, and a case that could conceivably be bad for Trump or his family comes your way, you might well just decide that it’s not worth it.

George Packer:

Or the third option is to become a collaborator and to give him what he wants, and to see your own interests as tied to his. And I think certain government officials have gone certain ways and the the choices are terrible. And I feel a lot of sympathy for the civil service because they make some money, but they don’t get rich. They work very hard. They get very little public credit. We need them as we’ve learned from the virus, we need them. And with Trump, their life is hell right now.

Preet Bharara:

I’m going to come back to the civil servants in a minute. But first I want to ask you, what do you think are the lessons that we’re learning while we have this time to contemplate the country and division during the pandemic? You end your article, the ‘Failed State’ article with the following sentence, “After we’ve come out of hiding and taken off our masks, we should not forget what it was like to be alone.” What do you mean by that? And what does the future hold with respect to what it’s revealed about the underlying conditions and what we can do about them?

George Packer:

That’s a big question. I can-

Preet Bharara:

We only ask big questions here on [crosstalk 00:49:51] George.

George Packer:

It’s a good question. It’s a good question. And it’s something I’d like to write about in the future because I’m tired of just having depressing titles like ‘Failed State’. By being alone, what I meant was, we should see how much we need each other and how utterly dependent our lives are on others. We think that somehow we’re making choices for ourselves and going through our life essentially self-reliant and then something like this happens and you find out, you can’t eat, you can’t read, you can’t get the news. There’s so many basic things. You can’t live, you can’t survive without a lot of other people being willing to take risks for you. And that’s, I mean, it’s obvious. It should be obvious. It’s a basic lesson in common humanity. And there are a lot of policy failures embedded in that, that we need to look at heart and not forget what we’re seeing right now.

George Packer:

And I would say they include public health and the inequality of our health system. They include the rights of workers and the appalling conditions under which a lot of workers have to work. The gaping holes in our social insurance and our safety nets. And failures of infrastructure, failures of production. The fact that we can’t make things anymore, maybe we need to be able to make things again. And the thing we’ve been talking about just now, the need for a functioning, competent, respected civil service and government. All of those things are just so glaringly flawed right now that it would be a real shame, it would almost be like an unredeemed tragedy if we don’t do something about them. The only good I can see coming from this is that it’s made those things too clear to ignore.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah. And that we maybe understand the preciousness of them more than we had before. Not just these invisible workers who help feed us and take care of us, but also the civil servants who makes sure that we have good policy responses. So you wrote this article a couple of months ago, ‘How to destroy a government’. And you talked to a lot of department of justice career folks and political appointees I suspect. What was the overall impression you got from them about the mood of long time department of justice officials, about where the country is going and in particularly where the justice department is going?

George Packer:

It was shockingly bad, Preet. I mean, I thought I had sort of-

Preet Bharara:

More good news. You’re always the bearer of good news.

George Packer:

Oh God, stop having me on if you want… Don’t. I thought I had sort of reached the extent of, I plumbed the depths of how dangerous the corruption in the Trump administration has become. When I talked to career justice department people, I realized I didn’t have a clue. They said things like, “We’re just barely hanging on hoping that there’ll be an end. And if there’s four more years of this, you’ll see a massive exodus.” People are not going to continue to serve a department whose leadership seems to be at war with them and whose leadership, Attorney General Barr and the political appointees around him, is politicizing our work in a way that is utterly contrary to the mission that we signed on for. And that is demoralizing and maddening.

George Packer:

And yeah, there was a kind of demoralization that really struck me and that made me think, we can’t take for granted that good people are just going to continue serving an administration that has made corruption its mode of governance. And with every Roger Stone case and every Michael Flynn case, I think the threads holding those good career people to their jobs, get thinner and thinner. So it’s bad. It’s really bad.

Preet Bharara:

You talk about this to some extent, and it’s something that lots of people have been focused on over the last three years. And that is, the dilemma for the good faith public servant, whether in a political position or a career position. When do you stay, when do you go? Can you make more of a difference by staying and preventing a worse substitute to replace you, but that can become never-ending, as you write. And it can become a reason never to quit, but sometimes there is a reason to quit. What did you make of people’s sort of moral and ethical reasoning about staying versus going?

George Packer:

Well, I spoke to one young justice department lawyer named Erica Newland, who was very honest about this and described to me all the ways in which she persuaded herself to stay in the office of legal counsel long after her friends were telling her, “Look, it’s clearly just become a rubber stamp for whatever the White House wants to do. And what the White House wants to do is generally pretty terrible.” She found reasons like, the person after me will be more compliant. I’ve taken an oath to the constitution and so my job is to uphold the constitution. So I’m not here as the president’s lawyer, so I can continue in this job, even if I disagree with the president, et cetera, et cetera. And finally she realized that she was kidding herself. And that the idea of irreplaceability or of higher loyalties, none of that really could justify it, that she had become against her will someone who was there to make the White House’s lies look like truths and its reasoning look more legal and constitutional than it than it is.

George Packer:

And that’s when she realized that she had to get out. There was an essay during the Vietnam years by a former White House official. It was in the Atlantic and it was about the effectiveness trap, which is the trap you get in when you keep telling yourself, I’ll just hang on a little longer, so I could remain effective. And eventually you have no reason to leave at all. And that’s why I think so few people do leave. Very few people resign on principle. People resign because a better job comes along, but do they resign because they fundamentally disagree? It happens, but it’s pretty rare. And I think partly it’s because of the human mind’s ability to rationalize why you’re still needed. It’s very hard to face the fact that you’re no longer needed, that your presence is actually not doing any good.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah. I mean, a related issue for me, that I find more startling and unbelievable, is not the person so much, although I understand it, not the person so much who thinks, well, I got to stay, even though the things I believe in and the values that I hold dear are being undermined because I can do the best job that I can by being in the position to sustain those values or sustain those policies, even though I’m being overwritten. Most of the time I get that. More shocking to me on a human level, are the number of people who continue to go to work, don’t resign when they face brutal humiliation by the president. That Jeff Sessions had to be fired after just being humiliated and torched by the Commander-in-chief, week after week, after week. That to me is more stunning in some ways, maybe that says something about me. I don’t know.

George Packer:

No, I think you’re… [crosstalk 00:57:36]

Preet Bharara:

I don’t know, being humiliated on a daily basis.

George Packer:

I think you’re right. That somehow power must be, because now we’re really more talking about, I think about political appointees. Although some career people suffered regular humiliation, but mostly political appointees that people-

Preet Bharara:

You’re talking about one of them, Andrew McCabe.

George Packer:

Andrew McCabe, who’s a career person, who was the number two at the FBI, under Comey, and then became the acting director when Comey was fired. And who was the one who really pushed the FBI and the justice department to launch an investigation of Trump and of his possible obstruction of justice after the firing of Comey, and possible conspiring with Russia during the campaign. And so he knew, when he got Rod Rosenstein, the acting attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor, that that would be the end of him, that Trump would have to destroy him.

George Packer:

But the way Trump tried to destroy him was particularly Trump-like, in that, he would use McCabe’s wife. He would use any vulnerability, any soft spot he could find. He would tweet about McCabe and tweet about McCabe’s wife. And it was personal and public and cruel. And that’s Trump and McCabe knew all of that was coming his way when he essentially did what was right for the country and eventually he was forced out. He stuck it out, I think out of a sense of commitment to his mission, to being a G-man, an FBI guy. Others I think stick it out, and this is Sessions more likely, just because they just can’t bear the thought of being irrelevant or out of the game. The only real life is in the game. And if you’re the attorney general, you’re at the very top of the game and you’ll put up with a lot to stay there. And that’s a strange thing too, because I cannot imagine selling your soul and your oath out of that sense that life isn’t worth living if you’re not in the newspaper every day.

Preet Bharara:

Nor can I. Look, I can manage to get fired pretty quick. Took me like seven weeks…

George Packer:

You did.

Preet Bharara:

… To get fired.

George Packer:

You did.

Preet Bharara:

So I didn’t have to debate this issue.

George Packer:

I think it should be very near the top of your CV, fired by president Trump.

Preet Bharara:

It is. It’s in my Twitter bio actually.

George Packer:

Okay.

Preet Bharara:

Do you think that a future president has the ability to sort of resuscitate the reputation of the civil service and these people who have been maligned as being part of the deep state? Or is that too large a project for just a president?

George Packer:

I think the next president could have a real effect on that. And it has to go beyond the obvious. Don’t tweet about them and their wives. Don’t malign the people working for you as conspirators. Don’t force them to violate their oath to the constitution. Don’t make it so that they can’t do their job. I think it would have to be more than that. I think they should be paid more. I think there should be fewer political appointees. I mean, we have, what, 3,000 political positions in our government. Compared to European democracies, that’s just a wildly inflated number.

George Packer:

Why should the head of the Centers for Disease Control be a political appointee? Why should the under secretary or an assistant secretary of state or defense be a political appointee? And why should ambassadors be political appointees because of how much money they gave to a campaign? And that’s something that goes way before Trump, that’s been going on for 30 or 40 years as a real problem. So I think the next president, if he or she wants to revive the civil service, has to take some pretty far reaching measures because it’s in a very low state right now.

Preet Bharara:

I want to spend a few minutes talking to you about writing and about how you conceive of the practice of writing and what writers are supposed to be about. So you won an award, congratulations.

George Packer:

Thank you.

Preet Bharara:

The 2019 Christopher Hitchens Prize. The standard for winning the prize is “Commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence.” So I guess in a way it’s an award given for sort of bravery in writing. I don’t know if you consider yourself to be a brave writer or not.

George Packer:

I wouldn’t want to make that claim, but if someone else wants to evaluate me, I submit to it.

Preet Bharara:

And in the speech you gave accepting the award entitled, I presume that you did write this title, ‘The enemies of writing’, is that your title?

George Packer:

I did. Yes.

Preet Bharara:

And you said a lot of arresting things there. That’s an adjective I use, it lingers from my old days. You say, “When we open a book or click on an article, the first thing we want to know is which group the writer belongs to. The answer makes reading a lot simpler.” What did you mean by that? And what was the point overall of your speech?

George Packer:

I was looking at the things that get in the way of doing what I think a writer has to do, which is tell the truth, be willing to stand alone.

PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [01:03:04]

George Packer:

Tell the truth. Be willing to stand alone and against the crowd if need be. Be dedicated to the craft and to write as well as possible, regardless of speed and quantity, which are now at out of control levels with the internet.

George Packer:

I’m just trying to think of all the things that I feel as a writer that are constantly pushing on me and that I see in other writers. One of them is this sense that you don’t just write for yourself these days, you are seen as somehow representing a group or belonging to a group, and if you don’t belong to a group you’re almost diminished. Like who are you? Why should I listen to you if you don’t have either a political group, an ethnic group, or even a perch at some publication that defines you?

George Packer:

We want the shorthand of being able to just know what’s this guy’s or this gal’s orientation? Where are they coming from? Therefore, what do I think of what they’re about to say? It makes life easier. You can already make up your mind even before you’ve read it once you know who’s written it and what stripe they are.

George Packer:

To me that’s just totally antithetical to the way I see the writer’s vocation, which is not having your mind made up, but in fact maybe having your mind unmade up and challenged and being forced to think harder and anew about something that you thought you had already resolved.

Preet Bharara:

In whom do you find fault? Is it the writer or in the reader for having that approach?

George Packer:

I think both. They have a relationship to each other. The writer wants readers, and it may well be that these days the price of getting readers… And now we know exactly how many readers we have because our Twitter followers are counted and our clicks on websites are counted, so everyone can quantify their readership.

George Packer:

Readers exact a price I think, which is… I’m not speaking of all of course. There are real exceptions and I see positive trends happening. Even in the middle of this pandemic I see positive things in journalism and in writing and in readership and subscription levels. Lots of good things are coming of it.

George Packer:

But there is a kind of baseline that we have established. A lot of it comes from social media. A lot of it comes from the financial structure of journalism collapsing in the digital age, so that now it’s a popularity contest to some extent.

George Packer:

A quick way of becoming a known and successful writer is simply by finding a mob that will back you and then saying what they want to hear and not pissing them off. As soon as you piss them off you’re going to lose some of them.

Preet Bharara:

How do you balance that? Because, as you said, look, you’re not engaged in a nonprofit enterprise. You need readers whether you’re writing a… Certainly if you’re writing a book you need readers. If you’re writing for a magazine you can be, I guess, subsidized by other writers at the magazine. How do you balance this need to be read versus the need not to be beholding to your readers?

George Packer:

It’s really hard. I mean I had the great luck of having written for two publications, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, that gave me jobs, and those jobs essentially were to write what I thought, and that’s an incredible blessing. It’s a rare one, more and more rare. Those jobs are almost impossible to get now.

George Packer:

All I could say is readers would make it a lot easier for good writers to continue to make a living as good writers if they would allow writers to say things that those readers don’t want to hear and keep reading them and keep thinking about it and supporting them by subscribing to websites and to print publications, to media organizations, to pay for it.

George Packer:

The idea at the start of the internet that content wanted to be free was one of the worst ideas of the last 50 years. It’s really done a lot of damage to journalism and the industry will be a long time recovering, having kind of give in to the blandishments of Google and Facebook and other platforms.

George Packer:

Readers need to give writers the chance to say what they don’t want to hear in order for those writers to be as good as they can be and to continue to make a living at it.

Preet Bharara:

Here’s other criticism you made about a certain kind of writing in the speech you gave. You talked about a journalism course you taught at Yale and you said a couple things that made me think. You said, “They always wanted to write from a position of moral certainty.” You also wrote, “They were attracted to subjects about which they had already made up their minds.” Then finally you say, “The imperative to take a position can be stunting.”

Preet Bharara:

I found that interesting, because I understand the critique on the one hand, on the other hand I also understand that a writer, particularly a beginning writer, would want to take the position that I should have a complete thought and a complete understanding of something before I decide to subject my view to other people. What is up with the sort of vanity of addressing a subject about which I am completely uncertain? Is there value in that? How do you square that?

George Packer:

Yeah, I think there’s value in acknowledging that most human questions are complicated, that there’s almost always more than one side to a story, and almost always more than one good argument. The longer you’re able to tolerate having more than one thought in your head and being a little uncertain about where you land, the better writer you’ll be.

George Packer:

There is a kind of writing that… And there’s much good writing of this kind. That is expose, and it’s angry and it’s calling attention to an injustice, and doing it in the strongest terms possible. There’s a really important place for that kind of writing, but sometimes I have the feeling that young people especially feel that that’s the only way to sound and that’s the only way to be a writer, by being at 100% all the time, and anything that deviates a bit you have to kill it before you can even listen to it.

George Packer:

I loved my students. They were terrific, and they were willing to listen to me when I said to them you’re choosing subjects that you seem already to know exactly what you think about. Why don’t you try to find a subject that is genuinely hard for you to make up your mind about or where you can actually imagine different points of view, and then write through it and see where you end up, and I bet you’ll find that you learn a lot by doing that.

Preet Bharara:

What was the result of that experiment? Did they seem to like it, or did they hate it?

George Packer:

Well they sort of looked at me as if I was telling them just trying screwing up your first job interview. It would be good for you. Like I was trapping them into something that to them was why would I do that? That sounds dangerous.

George Packer:

But they also I think knew what I was saying, and partly we were reading writers who were models of that, and they loved those writers and saw what strength you could get from a piece of writing that was ambivalent or was morally complicated.

Preet Bharara:

The award you got was named for Christopher Hitchens, a talented writer, somewhat controversial, depending on what your point of view was.

Christopher Hitchens:

I’ve said to my students if you can write you can talk, you can talk if you can write, and they cheer up a bit in the first. You mean if I can talk I can write? Yes. Then I say how many people in this class like to hear the other ones talk, and then they get depressed all over again.

Preet Bharara:

You write about him… You said about him, “The ability to be brutal in print and decent in person was a quality I very much admired in Christopher.” First I guess you question is why, and then related to that is why is it good to be brutal in print? Is that necessary?

George Packer:

Actually I don’t really believe in being brutal in print and I’m not, I don’t think, very brutal. I guess I was a bit brutal toward Jared Kushner in my recent Atlantic piece, but I think he deserved it.

Preet Bharara:

Would you be decent in person with Jared?

George Packer:

I don’t think I could be. I think I don’t have the capaciousness of spirit to pretend that it was just all politics and didn’t really matter. My animus toward him is probably a bit too personal.

Preet Bharara:

Are you saying that from a position of moral certainty?

George Packer:

I am saying it from a position of worry over my own moral certainty toward Jared Kushner. Yes.

Preet Bharara:

I see.

George Packer:

Hitchens comes out of this British literary culture where brutality was almost like the way you arrived, the way you announced your arrival as a writer. It’s a kind of… Yeah, a kind of toughness in British letters that actually is not quite as bad here, but at the same time… I don’t know, maybe it says something like it’s not all that serious to begin with and they don’t really believe in it, or maybe it’s like they make a distinction between public and private, that we need to be human, because if everything is political and if you can’t have any personal relations that aren’t based on a shared political view then you’ve lost something really precious.

George Packer:

I think that’s why I admired it, because he seemed to feel that there were other things too. As political as he was, and he was political to his bones, a shared love of a certain writer could overcome that in a minute. So could a shared love of a certain drink.

George Packer:

There were ways that you could stop fighting, and he was always that way with me, because we had some fights in print. It was always scary, because he swung to connect. But then I would see him a couple months later and it was like as if it hadn’t happened and we were pals and we were going to have a nice three hour conversation about some of our favorite writers.

Preet Bharara:

George Packer. Keep up the good work at The Atlantic. Thanks for making us think. And I should also mention your book that we talked about last time, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century. Look forward to speaking with you again, and please stay safe.

George Packer:

You too Preet. I really enjoyed it, as always.

Preet Bharara:

The conversation continues for members of the Café Insider community. To hear this Stay Tuned bonus material with George Packer and get the exclusive weekly Café Insider podcast and other content head to café.com/insider. Right now you can try a Café Insider membership free for two weeks at café.com/insider.

Preet Bharara:

So as everyone is painfully aware there has been a lot of loss lately, a lot of loss of life, people have lost relatives, people have lost friends, people have lost work colleagues. There has also been loss of life not related to COVID-19 and we have lost some true treasures of American culture.

Preet Bharara:

There have been a number in the last week, since the last podcast dropped, but there are two that I wanted to mention who brought a particular kind of joy to millions and millions of Americans.

Preet Bharara:

First on Saturday we lost the pioneering Little Richard, the architect of rock and roll. Born in 1932 in Georgia, he was brought up singing gospel in the Pentecostal church, and then he invented rock and roll. In 1956 alone Little Richard co-wrote and released the following timeless rock standards, Tutti-Fruity, Long Tall Sally, Rip It Up, and Lucille.

Preet Bharara:

The Beatles opened for Little Richard. Jimmi Hendrix started with Little Richard. Little Richard helped make Elvis and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, and I could go on and on and on.

Preet Bharara:

You can see the influence in the testimonials that have been advanced about Little Richard from people you may recognize over the last number of days. None other than Bob Dillon, who, by the way, has suddenly been putting out music in the middle of this pandemic, said on Twitter that Little Richard was, “My shining star and my guiding light.”

Preet Bharara:

Little Steven of my beloved E Street Band, whose 1982 wedding was officiated by Little Richard, which, by the way, The Boss as the best man, tweeted too. “Rest in peace Little Richard, the man who invented it. Elvis popularized it, Chuck Berry was the storyteller, Richard was the archetype. Maureen and I were so honored being the first marriage he conducted. We were lucky to know him. He lives forever in the Underground Garage.”

Preet Bharara:

Little Steven and Bruce Springsteen, by the way, often cover Little Richard. We’ll play Little Richard out with a snippet of my all-time favorite, Bruce and the E Street Band paying tribute during a Paris show to the man who started it all, with a little bit of Lucille. (singing)

Preet Bharara:

Also in the last week we lost a very different kind of legend. On Monday actor Ben Stiller tweeted the sad news that his father, iconic comedian Jerry Stiller, had past away at the age of 92. Ben wrote, “He was a great dad and grandfather and the most dedicated husband to Anne for about 62 years. He will be greatly missed. Love you dad.”

Preet Bharara:

If you have a chance, and especially if you’re not familiar with the crazy comedy of Jerry Stiller and his wife, Anne Meara, take a look at the beautiful obituary for Stiller in The New York Times. It tells of his comedic partnership with the love of his life, Anne Meara, both born in Brooklyn. They met in the 1950s, married quickly, and became a beloved husband/wife act on programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, and for the time they were pretty pioneering in their way, talking about religion, love, marital strife, with a frankness that influenced lots and lots of future comedians, including his own son, Ben Stiller.

Preet Bharara:

The obituary also tells what for New Yorkers of a certain age, like me, Stiller will always be most remember for, and that you may have guessed is playing Frank Costanza, George Costanza’s angry dad on Seinfeld. He was the inventor of Festivus and the bro bra, and he was in many ways New York City personified, irascible, rude, loud, blunt, and yet somehow incredibly lovable.

Preet Bharara:

There are a lot of great moments of Jerry Stiller on the Seinfeld show. One comes from season seven, episode 12, if we pull it out of the archives, called The Caddy, when George Costanza takes an unapproved vacation from his work in the New York Yankees front office and in a series of typical Seinfeldian misunderstandings George Steinbrenner, then the Yankees’ owner, ends up convinced that George Costanza has perished.

Preet Bharara:

Steinbrenner decides to go personally to inform George’s parents, Jerry Stiller and the incredible Estelle Harris, of Costanza’s death. So right after Steinbrenner delivers the news Jerry Stiller turns on the owner, ignoring his son’s death, and has this to say.

Jerry Stiller:

What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for? He had 30 home runs and over 100 RBIs last year. He’s got a rocket for an arm. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing.

Preet Bharara:

Two very different kinds of trailblazers whose art gave us joy and a little comfort. They meant a lot to me and millions of others. One made us sing and dance, the other made us smile and laugh. Little Richard and Jerry Stiller, rest in peace.

Preet Bharara:

That’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guest, George Packer.

Preet Bharara:

If you like what we do rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics and justice. Tweet them to me at Preet Bharara with the hashtag Ask Preet, or you can call and leave me a message at 669-247-7338. That’s 669-24PREET. Or you can send an email to [email protected]

Preet Bharara:

Stay Tuned is presented by Café. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior audio producer is David Tatsciore. The Café team is Matthew Billy, David Kurlander, Sam Ozer-staten, Calvin Lord, Noa Azuli, and Geoff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara. Stay tuned.

PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [01:20:50]

 

STAY TUNED WITH PREET

Our Chronic Ills (with George Packer)

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