I like to think that the last thoughts of Haynes Johnson were happy ones. Johnson, a longtime reporter for the Washington Post and the author of many sweeping books about American life in toto, died in late May. Days later came the publication of a new book by George Packer, a writer for the New Yorker, called The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. The new book has the trademark Johnsonian (Haynes, not Dr.) sweep, embodies the same Johnsonian ambition to force Americans to face the unpleasant truth about themselves. We can hope that Haynes moved on to the next world knowing that this one had found his successor at last.
Johnson was his era’s chief practitioner of Jeremiah journalism; the news he brought was always bad, and spongy with a thick syrup of moral reproach. He had his rivals. My favorite piece of Jeremiah journalism is The Reckoning, by David Halberstam, who took upon himself the grim duty of informing his fellow Americans that their entire country was about to be bought by small, sack-suited businessmen from Japan. This was in 1986.
Haynes had the same dirge playing endlessly in his head and in his books. In brief, which he never was, his theme was that America was falling apart. He first warned us about this in his 1980 book, In the Absence of Power. Ten years later, in Sleepwalking Through History, he warned us that America, during the misleadingly happy and prosperous Reagan years, had forgotten that it was falling apart. In Divided We Fall (1994), he produced fresh evidence that America was falling apart. And so on through the Age of Anxiety (2005) up to The Battle for America (2009). Most of his books were best-sellers. Leafing through them, I pluck at random the essential Haynes sentence: “Both at home and abroad, Americans live in a time of great uncertainties.” And we still do!
The sentence could have been written by George Packer. Packer has inherited not only the prophetic and scolding tone of Haynes Johnson but also the master’s professional tricks. I hope I’m not giving away trade secrets here. Johnson’s books were what we hacks call a notebook dump. His job at the Washington Post allowed him to travel the country, filing stories about the increasingly chaotic and uncertain times. Invariably—through winter or fall, recession or recovery, foul weather or fair—he found a land of dwindling resources and rising cynicism and failing institutions, peopled by a handful of clueless or devious rich people, a lumpen mass of bitter but strangely noble poor people, a thin and brittle middle class, all trembling in fear that they will lose what they have or never get what they have not. Then after a while he would string those stories into a book, whose narrative, as a consequence, could at times seem discontinuous or herky-jerky. Book publishers hate mere collections of recycled journalism. The problem is solved as always through clever wordsmithing. Rather than “a bunch of articles I wrote over the last few years about different stuff,” the book could be described as a “collage”—a kaleidoscope, even!—taking as its subject matter nothing less than the vastness of America itself. Yeah, sure. America. That’s the ticket.
For, let’s say, roughly 240 years, America has offered plenty to set the Jeremiahs off, right and left. Nowadays is no exception, of course, as the economy churns with the bizarre and unpredictable and often unlovely currents of finance capitalism and international trade. Most often, in the short run, America’s Jeremiahs are slightly less than half-right; in the long run, they are always wrong. In pretending to convey the country at large, a Jeremiah journalist works from three assumptions, all mistaken: First, that the bad news is the most important news; second, that the bad news is unprecedented; and third, that the bad news can only get worse.
As a roving reporter for the New Yorker, Packer has traveled many miles seeking support for his mistaken assumptions. The Unwinding is patched together in the Johnsonian manner, a thick quilt of reworked articles filed from all over the place, stuffing plucked from the cutting-room floor, and some fresh reporting about unsung Americans, most of whom are down, very far down, on their luck. Several of these unhappy people start out as Republicans but gradually wise up; this is the only glimmer of hope Packer offers his readers. Interspersed among their stories are chapters on public figures George Packer does not like—Andrew Breitbart, Newt Gingrich, Robert Rubin, Sam Walton—and some he does like: Elizabeth Warren and…I guess that’s it. It’s not clear why these figures were chosen, or why they’re here in the first place. Probably for kaleidoscopic reasons that we wouldn’t understand. In any case, the celebrity sketches are uniformly uninteresting, drawn exclusively, as he admits in an endnote, from books and magazine articles by other writers, and full, as he does not admit, of information that most readers will already know. Haynes’s books were notebook dumps, but at least he used his own notebooks.
Another difference between master and disciple involves style. Johnson wrote with a Debbie Downer earnestness that never failed him. A writer of more recent vintage, Packer writes with an open contempt that often descends to sarcasm, though this is an odd note for a Jeremiah. Of Breitbart’s college education, he writes: “Fortunately, he was too drunk to be thoroughly indoctrinated in critical theory, but the prevailing philosophy of moral relativism inevitably eroded his personal standards.” We are given to understand that the relativism was a myth and it couldn’t have eroded Breitbart’s personal standards because he didn’t have any. See?
But then an unexpected Johnsonian (Downerian?) earnestness will thrust up in the middle of the hijinks. Breitbart passes through the year 1987 and Packer pauses grimly to register a non sequitur: This was “the year that the Federal Communications Commission voted 4–0 to repeal its own Fairness Doctrine, which had been in effect since 1949 and required licensees of the public airwaves to present important issues in an honest and equitable manner (a vote that paved the way the following year for a Sacramento radio host named Rush Limbaugh to syndicate his conservative talk show nationally).” At such unbidden moments, you’re struck by how unserious this so-serious Jeremiad is, how dulled by its own tendentiousness. Packer evidently believes that freedom of speech was enhanced by the Fairness Doctrine, one of the creepiest intrusions ever come up with by government busybodies, who were empowered to decide which public issues were “important” and which journalistic treatments of them were “honest and equitable.”
It’s a strange kind of journalist who laments the death of the Fairness Doctrine. Haynes liked it too, though, and the point is revealing. Like Haynes, Packer is a tireless reporter. He is also a vivid writer with a keen eye. But he is at heart a publicist, a laborer for an establishment whose powerful members revel in tales of the little people and their hopelessness. It is the make-believe populism of the movie studio, the faculty lounge, the nonprofit headquarters, the big-city newsroom, and the editorial offices of the Condé Nast building, where a reporter itches always to mingle among the common folk and “tell their stories” so long as he can get back to Zabar’s by the end of the week. Such an establishment needs its Jeremiahs and rewards them accordingly. On publication day, after the Times hailed it as a “masterpiece,” The Unwinding appeared near the top of the bestseller list, ready to settle in, and somewhere Haynes Johnson smiled a contented smile.