Blood of the Liberals
by George Packer (Togo 198283)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26.00
Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 199798)
IN DRAWING TO A CLOSE his history of the failure of liberalism in the United States, George Packer nevertheless acknowledges the credos potential for recovery: We may very well see liberalism revived as a self-proclaimed political creed. The question is what liberals can now do with the opening whether psychologically or morally, they are capable of seizing the political moment. President Clinton didnt quite deliver, the author suggests in this dauntingly titled Blood of the Liberals. And the Era of the Dimpled Chad has restored Republicans to the Oval Office. So now what? Im not sure I completely understood his answer, but it seems to be related to something Tim Ritchie, co-founder of an interracial church in Birmingham, Alabama, told him in the mid-1990s. The liberals really just want to send a check. Or they want to change a structure. And Im telling you . . . you have to change a heart.
Changing a heart may not be the applicable kind of answer that can satisfy liberal politicians. Just how in the world would one do that? But given the authors heritage, it may need to suffice for now. Packer hails from a family of politically frustrated men and Blood of the Liberals is largely a memoir of their tragic careers. The reader experiences over three hundred painful pages of liberal principles crashing against turbulent periods of American history; in the detritus of events lay new trends of thought that ultimately destroy the political ideologies of the writers forebears.
Packers grandfather George Huddleston was a Congressman from Birmingham, Alabama a Jeffersonian liberal and a believer in individualized self-determination. As coal mine and railroad businesses were centralized in the late 19th century, Huddleston championed the landed workers, declaring: I belong to the plain people . . . . I am proud to call thousands of men who toil with their hands my personal friends. His politics would experience a bumpy road during World War I, when Woodrow Wilson conceptualized his plain people into a symbol of American democracy. Gone was the simple value of human labor that value had been politicized by a president seeking international applause in the name of freedom. Roosevelts New Deal programs would be the last straw, as Huddleston loudly protested the governments intervention into the economic and social lives of the populace. His continued protests would bring an end to his Congressional career, however; an acquaintance would say hed gotten out of touch with the world.
While large academic textbooks may delineate various periods of American history, the success of Packers book stems from its foundation in a family memoir. The writing moves hypnotically through a whirlwind of years and events vis-à-vis the eyes of individuals who are inevitably revealed as playthings of history. Packer has us witness how shifting political thought affects more than his grandfathers career, but the root of his personal life as well. Huddlestons hard-drinking wife scandalizes her Congressman husband in a drunken driving accident that receives widespread media attention. A household of children, including Packers mother, watches the grueling marriage of their parents set against the dynamic stage of the changing nation.
Enter Herbert Packer, the authors father, and a born intellectual. In the late 1950s, he begins building an academic career at Stanford University by compiling an analytical study of ex-Communist witnesses. The result? The books emphasis in the process of fact-finding rather than the truth itself was bound to seem pointless to anyone looking for ammunition to fight the Cold War, wrote one critic. In challenging the methodology that had been used to derive truth from witness testimonies, Herbert Packer failed to acknowledge the implications of federal research investment that was pouring into specialized higher education programs. No longer havens for free thought, American universities were slowly being overshadowed by the shadow of Washington, DC.
Herbert Packer would blunder again as Stanfords vice-provost in the mid-1960s when confronted by students demanding increased participation in university affairs. Sympathetically, the author writes, My father liberal, libertarian, a dove on Vietnam [made] the mistake of projecting a sense of siege instead of openness and conciliation. He recalls the tears in his fathers eyes upon learning of Martin Luther Kings death. Throughout his career, Herbert Packer would see political heroes toppled King shot, Adlai Stevenson defeated, Richard Nixon elected. And in March, 1969, he would suffer a stroke, an event of physical debilitation the author equally acknowledges in Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson, and which he sees as some inevitable result of political exhaustion. Nine months after his stroke, Herbert Packer killed himself.
Another generation frustrated
The last hundred pages of Blood of the Liberals show George Packer moping relentlessly about, caught in some personal struggle for direction amid the shambles of his family history. This section is quite emotionally draining and wouldnt make for fun beach reading. He wanders through his post-college years, working on a construction crew and joining the Democratic Socialists of America in Boston, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa coveting some satisfying form of social inclusiveness, but finding, like his ancestors, intense frustration. Packer implicates the Clinton years as an era of Americans turning from public service toward the fulfillment of personal goals, but his accusations arent entirely biting. Perhaps he recognizes that two centuries of failure might make any liberal just want to throw in the towel and stay home for a while. Though stormy historical events may circumvent liberal principles, policies, and programs, what is left is Tim Ritchies suggestion about the need to change a heart. Distracted and frustrated, Packer never quite gets around to saying it which is too bad but what he seems to want to leave us with in this dynamic, moribund and ultimately worthwhile history, is that the seizure of the political moment for liberals should include keeping well and alive the desire to not stop caring.
Joe Kovacs regularly contributes book reviews to PeaceCorpsWriters.org.