DATE October 11, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: George Packer discusses growing up with liberalism
and his new book
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
George Packer grew up in a liberal family in an age of liberal decline. He's
heard the world liberal used as a political weapon not only by the right, but
by the left, which, particularly in the late '60s and early '70s, saw
liberalism as too status quo. Packer's father was a law professor and
administrator at Stanford University in the late '60s, and his brand of
liberalism was under attack during the student protests. George Packer's
grandfather was a liberal who represented Birmingham in the US Congress from
1915 to 1937.
In a new memoir, the "Blood of Liberals," George Packer reflects on his
political upbringing and the political changes that he, his father and
grandfather have undergone. Packer is a journalist and novelist. Let's start
with a reading from his new memoir.
Mr. GEORGE PACKER: (Reading) `In early 1969, my father suffered a stroke that
paralyzed his right side and left him a cripple, who had difficulty speaking
whole sentences. He was 43 and about to leave his position as an academic
administrator at Stanford to return to the rational world of teaching law.
Throughout 1968 he'd been battling sit-ins and fire bombings at the university
while the country was torn apart by riots, assassinations and the endless war
in Vietnam. After these upheavals, the year ended with the election of
Richard Nixon, the politician my father had hated all his life.
At the time of his stroke, I was eight years old. I didn't know why my father
got sick. I knew still less why students shouted at him on the campus radio,
why the Democratic convention in Chicago turned into a pitch battle as we
watched on television, why the word assassination put such a spell on me. But
I understood with a child's clarity that the world, which not long before had
been a delightful place of caterpillars and basketball, was suddenly full of
danger; that the adults had lost control and were helpless to protect me.
Even then I sensed my father's fragility, not just in his body but in his
manner of thinking and living, that his commitment to the life of reason stood
no chance against the world going mad.'
GROSS: And that's George Packer reading from his new memoir, "Blood of the
George, your father was vice provost for academic planning at Stanford. He
got that position in 1966. He also served on the Academic Council's Executive
Committee, which also put him on the front lines in the confrontations with
students. Your father was under attack from the left and the right as an
academic administrator. He was under attack from the students on the left.
Who was attacking him on the right?
Mr. PACKER: The alumni were attacking him on the right. It went back to his
hiring at Stanford in 1956. He was hired by the law school in '56, and
immediately Herbert Hoover, who was a trustee of the university and really
sort of the waning power behind the scenes, tried to block his appointment
because his appointment had coincided with a grant from the Fund for the
Republic, which was a civil liberties arm of the Ford Foundation, to study the
testimony of Whitaker Chambers and other ex-Communists. So his appointment
became mixed up with sort of the twilight of the McCarthy era, and he was
Red-baited and his appointment was nearly canceled. But in the end, the
university came through.
So 10 years later, when he was appointed vice provost, the ghosts of the
McCarthy era came back sort of in the last gasps of conservatism at that time.
And the conservative alumni group said that he would be leading students to
revolt against the university, which proved deeply ironic since, in fact,
those same students were attacking the appointment from the other side. And
far from leading them to revolt, my father became something of a hard-liner in
opposing sit-ins and other student actions.
GROSS: And the student body president during this period was David Harris,
who became famous for being a draft resister and for marrying Joan Baez.
Mr. PACKER: That's right. And he and my father tangled almost as soon as my
father was appointed vice provost over a very minor-seeming issue, but in
those days every minor issue was instantly polarized and became a crisis. In
this case, it was the appointment of students to a committee that my father
chaired. It was a committee that was intended to reform undergraduate
education. My father's idea was that the research university had lost its way
and had begun to ignore both undergraduate education and basic questions of
value and humanistic scholarship. And he wanted to reorient it toward
students and toward value questions. So this committee was intended to make
Stanford, in a way, a more student-friendly place. But David Harris saw
simply the administration trying to strong-arm students to bend to its will.
So it became a power struggle between them.
It also became a struggle over the question of whether it's possible to be
disinterested, to be an intellectual with an independent mind that does not
simply reflect your status and your power. My father staked his life on a
belief that that was possible. But David Harris and the students were
suspicious of those claims. They thought any claim to being independent was
just a cover for university power.
GROSS: What kind of decisions did your father have to make in the
confrontations with students? Like, was he involved with deciding whether to
call the police onto the campus or not, which is one of the big questions that
university administrators have to deal with.
Mr. PACKER: Right. Well, the climactic event of his career was a student
sit-in in May of 1968 that followed the Columbia takeover by just a week. And
the example of Columbia was vivid in everyone's mind, of the cops coming in
and using batons to clear out buildings and horses stampeding up Broadway. So
no one in the administration wanted to call in the police. My father's
position, in a way, was a legalistic one. His position was that the students
were using coercion to try to change university policy on student discipline
And he thought it was illegitimate; that the only legitimate means of
persuasion in an intellectual institution was rational debate. And so because
of that belief, he became quite polarized from the students, quite hostile to
the takeover and, really, unwilling to negotiate with them. But as it turned
out, he was not in the power position. Because the administration and the
students were so hostile to each other, the faculty had to step into the
breech to resolve it.
And what the faculty did was essentially to give in to the student demands,
which my father thought was a disaster. And he actually drafted a resignation
letter, but he decided not to resign. Instead, he became a very vocal and
pointed, barbed speaker against both the student and the faculty--and for a
period, he was quite an isolated figure on campus.
GROSS: And then your father had a stroke, and he had to stop teaching
altogether. It strikes me as a really thankless time to have been a
university administrator. Was your father sorry that he had left teaching and
become an administrator?
Mr. PACKER: I think so. His pride might have kept him from admitting that he
was not up to the job, that the job defeated him, but if you read between the
lines of some of his letters, you see that there's a lot of regret and anger,
really anger, at all sides: at the students, at the faculty, at the
administration, the trustees. He was sort of embattled on all fronts in his
years as an administrator.
And, in a way, he wasn't cut out to be an administrator. He didn't understand
consensus. He saw Stanford as an institution of intellectual freedom rather
than as a community that needed to have all its members getting along. He was
really ready to do battle on issues of principle rather than to assuage
feelings. So I don't think he was a good administrator. I think it was a
mistake for him to take it. And at one point after his stroke, he wrote a
letter to a friend saying, `In 1966, I was stupid enough to become an
administrator. I have since suffered a stroke. Whether as punishment or just
consequence I don't know.' So in the irony of that, you can hear his
bitterness at those years.
GROSS: Now you were very young when your father was an administrator at
Mr. PACKER: Yeah. Yeah, just a kid.
GROSS: You were about eight during the period that we're talking about. And
you write in your book that you felt the adults had lost control. What are
some of your memories of the student protests?
Mr. PACKER: In a way, I was sort of out of it. I was far more interested in
the presidential campaign of 1968. So my memories of student protests were
quite sketchy in the years when my father was on the front lines. After his
stroke, I think that put my own family and our community onto my psychic map
in a way they hadn't been before. I had to focus on the world immediately
around me and get out of this sort of abstract interest in politics.
And then I was frightened. I felt that we were sort of under siege. We had
security floodlights installed. We had a hotline to the police. There were
phone calls that were unpleasant. There was the campus radio broadcasting
speeches, in which my father and others were spoken of with a lot of contempt
and hostility. I think, basically, fear and worry about my parents; worry
that they weren't up to it and were going to be overwhelmed by all this
GROSS: My guest is George Packer. His new memoir is called "Blood of the
Liberals." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: George Packer is my guest, and his new memoir is called "Blood of the
Your grandfather was a congressman from Alabama, serving in the US Congress
from 1915 to 1937.
Mr. PACKER: Right. My mother's father.
GROSS: Yeah. And he thought of himself as a liberal. What did liberal mean
to your grandfather?
Mr. PACKER: To him, it meant that he was on the side of the common people, or
what he called the plain people, against concentrations of power. And it
really went back to Jefferson and to the idea that for America to be a
republic of free and equal people, no group could gain too much power over any
other group, political or economic. We needed everyone, in Jefferson's view,
to have 50 acres and a public education in order to remain a democracy. And
my grandfather tried to carry that idea into the 20th century. He was born in
the middle of the 19th century, just after the Civil War, and his car--he
lived a very long time, until 1960.
His career essentially covered the years of reform in the Populist,
Progressive and New Deal era. But he was unable to translate Jeffersonian
ideas into the 20th century because when, finally, the New Deal seemed to
enact the political principles that my grandfather had been living by--that is
to say fighting on behalf of poor people, using government to create justice
and equality--he took a look at the New Deal and he hated it. It didn't look
anything like Jeffersonian democracy. In fact, it looked to him more like
corporate control, except now the control was in the hands of government
bureaucrats instead of Wall Street bankers.
In a sense, he was an old-fashioned Populist, which made him a liberal until
the New Deal, and then it made him a conservative. He claimed he didn't
change at all. It was the definitions of the words that changed. But in his
last debate in Congress, an opponent said to him, `It's pathetic that the
liberal hero of my youth is going to go down to defeat as the conservative
gentleman from Birmingham, Alabama.' And, in fact, he was defeated, and that
was the end of his career.
GROSS: What are some of the beliefs that you were brought up on that you
identified with liberalism?
Mr. PACKER: Basically, it came down to sympathy with the black and the poor;
the idea that middle-class people had an obligation to help the disadvantaged.
And race was really prominent in my childish consciousness, largely because of
my mother, who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and brought to California a
strong Southern consciousness of race guilt and race obligation. So I had
this burden placed on me pretty young that nothing was free. I wasn't to go
through life simply racking up my own achievements; that I had an obligation
to be concerned about the poor and the black.
Now how this translated into policy is another matter, and in some ways, it
did so rather ineffectively. The emotions were quite strong, but the
policies, I think, were vulnerable, and I only began to question them once I
left home and grew up and saw something of the world.
GROSS: Which policies did you question? What did you question about them?
Mr. PACKER: I began to question everything. I mean, I still call myself a
liberal, but on the other hand, the liberal positions on things like welfare
and taxes and crime and patriotism and affirmative action were really open to
attack because they were positions held by people who didn't seem to have to
give up anything. They were entitled positions that were asking sacrifices of
other people who had more to give up, an issue like busing, for example.
There's a moment in my book, which is kind of painful for me to recall because
I don't think it was fun for my mother to recall it, but when I was about 13
or 14, the Boston busing crisis was in full swing. And I knew that we, the
family, were in favor of busing, but I was troubled and I asked her, `Well,
would you allow me to be bused?' And she admitted, I think quite honestly,
that she wouldn't, but she also said the education meant more to our family.
And that struck me at the time as a hard thing to swallow, and I think it
might have struck her in the same way once she said it. It was an honest
moment, and probably she was speaking for a lot of liberals at the time who
were for busing in the abstract, but maybe not in their own neighborhood. And
that made liberals extremely vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy and of
being out of touch with the world and making decisions for people that they,
themselves, didn't have to live by. And I think that picture of the liberal
consigned a whole series of Democratic candidates to defeat.
GROSS: Now you went to the Peace Corps I guess when you got out of college...
Mr. PACKER: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and taught English in Togo. Now we had discussed this on FRESH AIR
years ago, but tell us again. You went there with all these, like, liberal
ideals and beliefs, and you came home early. Why?
Mr. PACKER: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it's not quite as simple as I was
disillusioned by the world and found I couldn't put my liberal beliefs into
practice because, actually, I didn't go quite as naive as that. I, basically,
wanted an adventure. I wanted to find out who I was. And the old path of the
military didn't appeal to me, but the Peace Corps seemed to offer the same
test. And I guess I failed it in the sense that I went home early. It was
really more of an existential crisis and something of a psychological crisis.
I lost faith in myself and in the way I'd been raised and in who I was.
Something about being alone in a little village in west Africa for weeks on
end undermined me, and I came home early really in order to save my life. I'm
not sure I would have survived. My father's suicide was haunting me when I
was in Africa. I thought about it all the time. And I think it was a good
thing that I got out of there, although I left with an acute sense of failure
and really carried that with me for years, and that influenced the direction I
took when I got back to the United States.
GROSS: Your father committed suicide three years after his stroke. Why was
it in Africa that you started thinking about it so much?
Mr. PACKER: Because I was left alone for such long periods of time that it
was inevitable. To be in a little cement room in the middle of a day, when
absolutely nothing is stirring except a rooster, in the heat, without a
telephone, without electricity, without a television, there were no
distractions. And without distractions, I suddenly found myself face to face
with the past and with my father. And I had this strange sense that I was
going to live out his fate. And, in fact, one night I became convinced that I
was about to have a stroke and die, just as, you know, he had a stroke, in
this remote part of Africa. And I had a local driver rush me to the hospital,
where a German doctor assured me that I was fine.
GROSS: What was the problem?
Mr. PACKER: Beginning nervous breakdown was his diagnosis.
GROSS: Is that part of what sent you home?
Mr. PACKER: Yeah. It wasn't at that moment, but that was the kind of thing
that sent me home. Too many beginning nervous breakdowns and you actually
have a nervous breakdown.
GROSS: Your book is called "Blood of the Liberals," and it's mostly a memoir
not only about your life, but about your grandfather's life and your father's
life and their political and intellectual beliefs. Do you feel like you have
inherited something of their liberal beliefs, and why did you call it "Blood
of the Liberals"?
Mr. PACKER: I have inherited something, which I have to then make my own.
It's called "Blood of the Liberals" because, first of all, the word liberals
is used deliberately. As I said, I don't want to run away from that word. I
think it's a worthy word and needs rehabilitation. Blood because, first of
all, it is about bloodlines. It's about inheritance and legacy and how each
generation has to grapple with the beliefs and the experiences of the last
generation, but then has to grapple also with its own times.
And there's a line in the book where I say the story of my family is the story
of an inherited idea crashing up against the hard rock of new circumstance.
So with each generation, the inherited idea, which broadly is liberalism, had
to contend with new forces and new historical circumstances and had to be
remade, had to change its shape. And I think in both the case of my
grandfather and my father, they weren't able to make it change in a way that
they could use. In other words, they clung to an idea that outlived its
viability, and they both paid a price for it.
GROSS: Well, George Packer, I want to thank you very much for talking with
Mr. PACKER: My pleasure.
GROSS: George Packer's new memoir is called "Blood of the Liberals." I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of Russell Malone song)
GROSS: We're listening to music from the latest CD by jazz guitarist Russell
Malone. Coming up, we talk to Malone about his music and his work with Jimmy
Smith and Diana Krall.
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