The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

George Packer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Clinton wanted to be loved, Gingrich wanted to be feared. They spent 1995 circling around the budget. When they met in the White House, Gingrich dictated terms, while Clinton studied Gingrich. He saw the nine-year-old’s insecurities writhing beneath the fiery words. He understood why none of Gingrich’s colleagues could stand him. He saw how to exploit the grandiosity. Clinton’s need for love gave him insight, and he used it to seduce his adversary while setting traps for him, and when at the end of the year the United States of America was forced to close for business, it was Gingrich who got the blame.

                             from  The Unwinding


The unraveling of America's social fabric

“No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way.”

How did we get to this point? A deeply polarized society— Democrats distrusting Big Business, Republicans distrusting Big Government, and the Tea Party seeming to distrust Big Anything—where diatribe has replaced dialogue, and politics is reduced to pranks (anyone for Green Eggs and Ham?)

In The Unwinding, winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2013, George Packer attempts to understand what is happening by presenting a social history of America over the past three decades.

This could make for flat reading, but Packer, author of The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq, tells the story through a number of different people’s lives—a tobacco farmer in the South, trying to find a new future; a factory worker in the Midwest, fighting to hold her family together as wages and benefits are eroded while productivity and profits soar; a Washington political insider losing the idealism that first drew him to politics.

Along with these individuals, Packer also reflects on people who have become almost iconic when we think about this period of history:

Newt Gingrich—“Donors were more likely to send money if they could be frightened or angered, if the issues were framed as simple choices between good and evil.”

Oprah Winfrey—“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it.”

Walmart’s Sam Walton—“Mr. Sam launched a Buy American campaign, winning praise from politicians and newspapers around the country, and Wal-Mart stores put up MADE IN THE U.S.A. signs over racks of clothing imported from Bangladesh.”

The short story writer Raymond Carver—“a man who had wandered into a book party from the scary part of town.”

Colin Powell, at once noble and tragic—“When the (Iraq) war began, the president said that he was sleeping like a baby. ‘I’m sleeping like a baby, too,’ said the secretary (Powell). ‘Every two hours I wake up screaming.’”

If the social fabric of this nation is unraveling, it is not anything new. Packer notes that there have been other “unwindings” in our history—such as the years leading up to the Civil War, or during the Great Depression—and each time, the nation went through the crisis, regained its equilibrium, and in the process reinvented itself.

His conclusion is ultimately—eventually—positive: “Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.”

Stay tuned.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (Feb 15-Mar 15, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.