George Packer, On Covering Washington : The Two-Way In his most-recent piece for The New Yorker magazine, George Packer decided to cover Washington like a foreign country, based on advice from an Obama administration official.
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George Packer, On Covering Washington

The U.S. Capitol, which George Packer described as "a world unto itself." Mark Wilson/Getty Images North America hide caption

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Mark Wilson/Getty Images North America

There has been a lot of buzz about George Packer's most-recent piece in The New Yorker: "The Empty Chamber: Just how broken is the Senate?"

By telling you his conclusion — that it's really, really broken, I don't think I'm giving much away. I mean, you knew that, right? (Have you seen the latest polling figures?!)

In a post on Interesting Times, Packer writes that, "someone high up in the Obama Administration gave [him] some advice: 'Cover Washington as if it's a foreign capital. Cover it like Baghdad.'"

It was an excellent idea, but not so easy to follow, since most journalists assume that they already know Washington, more or less, since they read and hear so much about it. And there's also a subtle kind of pressure in Washington circles to seem to know what you actually don't — to be one of the insiders.

As he reported, Packer realized that the Senate seemed like "a world unto itself," with basement hideaways, an electric subway system, and a barber shop. Its "arcane rules and precedents" fill more than 1,600 pages.

Three months after he started the project, Packer emerged with an appreciation for some things — the institution's rich and storied history, for one.

"It was, on the whole, an interesting and, surprise to say, enjoyable few months — a kind of adventure through a looking glass in which rooms are misnamed and the 'Ohio clock' was made in Philadelphia," he concludes.

Of course, the institution is in a deep decline, but when you're reporting a story like this, you don’t depress yourself, because the inquiry is bracing. It's the poor reader who ends up depressed.