his summer I was a guest on a radio show in Washington where I had been invited to talk about my new novel, a political satire. The host asked me to read a passage where the members of Congress were described as “535 egoists superglued to corporate interests who get to kick around the great questions of war and peace,” to take just part of the lavishly insulting passage. The host chuckled appreciatively, and then took a call from a listener, who brought the whole mood down.
“I worked on Capitol Hill for twenty years,” he said, in a tone of perplexed dismay, “and I continue to be amazed at how wrong the media is about Congress. In all the years I worked there, in all the confidential meetings, all I saw was that most of them are decent people who try to do the right things.”
Confronted with this display of wounded sincerity, I am embarrassed to say that I folded like an origami bluebird, and in a humble, consoling voice I assured the listener that I meant no harm to all the decent Mister and Ms. Smiths who come to Washington to build a better world.
Oh, what a choker! How I wish I had had a copy of Dana Milbank’s Homo Politicus: The Strange and Scary Tribes That Run Our Government to help see me through my sudden infection of good manners. Other books may rail against Washington’s shortcomings with greater passion and fury, but none leaves the reader wondering quite so unhappilyor with such perplexed dismay, for that matterwhy we put up with so much crap.
Milbank’s gimmick in this book is to affect the pose of an anthropologist who has set out to describe life along the Potomacthe tribes, the rituals, the festivals and taboos. This trick works extremely well. Context is everything, and like a rain shower that sits on the edge of a fast-moving front, Milbank’s recontexturizing brings a crisp clarity to Washington’s ways of doing business. Lobbyists, for example, are regarded as often reviled, occasionally welcome, and frequently useful facts of life in D.C., but when Milbank likens them to the Big Men in the tribes of Melanesiaambitious figures who possess “no actual authority” but “who gain followers and power by showering gifts” (or campaign contributions, as they’re known in Potomac Land)their stature is punctuated. But as fun as it is to think of Tommy Boggs with a bone in his nose, it is equally dismaying to realize that in all our supposed sophistication, we are as susceptible to manipulation and chicanery as those we disdain as primitive.
Remarkably, Milbank makes the trick work again and again. A discussion of the kakaram, a headhunter hired by the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador to exact vengeance upon one’s enemies, leads to an appreciation of Washington’s “most prominent kakaram in recent years,” the former House majority leader and pest exterminator Tom DeLay. After examining the elaborate staged performances in Kabuki theater in Japan we move to the elaborate staged confirmation hearings of Supreme Court justices. A mention of Tlazolteotl, the sin-eating goddess of the Aztecs, takes us to Scott McClellan and the other political spokesmen who have to answer for a boss’s transgressions. From purification rites we move to Grover Norquist and his inviolable no-tax hike pledges, from shape shifting to John McCain and his makeover, from the Oracle of Delphi to the pronouncements of Charlie Cook, from black magic to the dark arts of Karl Rove, from sacrificial lambs to Scooter Libby. And so on.
A fair amount of nimble-footedness is required to keep a show like this rolling. It’s amusing to read Milbank’s bit about Figureheads, and how Washington prefers to give a title to unthreatening figures like Bush and Hastert but to give real power to darker figures like Cheney, Rove, and DeLay. A funny idea, but not exactly one that would hold water if you bothered to look way back to, oh, the previous administration. Still, Milbank, one of the stars of the Washington Post, keeps things moving. One of his best achievements is that he never lingers on a single individual; even such targets as Bob Woodward or Dick Cheney, whose long records of performance would seem to leave them ripe exemplars for any number of Potomac phenomena, get but a single slide in the PowerPoint presentation. It’s a shrewd move; no need to pile on when a swift forearm shiver will take care of things.
Playing the anthropologist is Milbank’s obvious stunt. His other trick is far subtler and infinitely dirtier: he listens when people talk. And so he remorselessly records Pat Robertson relaying in 2004 that God told him that Bush would be reelected “in a blowout” and in 2005 that God told him that Bush would get Social Security and tax reform passed; almost sadistically captures Joe Biden’s hurricane-force windbaggery at the John Roberts hearings; joyfully captures Jack Abramoff swearing that his new kosher deli was going to serve pork products that had received the religious okay; and mercilessly records the “folkloric narrative” (that is to say, “stories”) about 9/11, Iraq, and weapons of mass destruction that Dick Cheney created over a series of appearances on Meet the Press. Milbank has a wry and twinkly sense of humor, but he is never funnier than when he gets out of the way and reminds people of the time Katherine Harris announced at a rally for President Bush that a Middle Eastern man who was packing hundreds of pounds of explosives had been arrested in Indiana with the intention of blowing up a power grid; or when Doctor/Senator/Majority Leader Bill Frist told George Stephanopoulos that he didn’t know whether HIV could be spread through tears and sweat; or when Congressman Roy Blunt, who was dating a lobbyist for Philip Morris, explained that he slipped two pro-smoking provisions into the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security because “it was good policy”; or when Tom DeLay wrote to his supporters and encouraged them to cast their votes for country singer Sara Evans in her bid to win Dancing With the Stars. (DeLay’s interest wasn’t completely unpolitical; one of her rivals was Jerry Springer, “the ultraliberal talk show host.”)
Milbank is very good, but he’s hardly perfect. It’s kind of funny when on page 265 he quotes Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles saying that “the shortest distance between two points is [Professor] Larry Sabato and a TV camera.” Of course, it was somewhat funnier on page 199 when he quoted this warning about Joe Wilson from the New Republic: “If you encounter him, at all costs, do not let yourself get between him and a camera, a lectern or a buffet, or you will likely be trampled.” Of course, it was funniest on page 50, when Milbank cited Bob Dole observing that the most dangerous place in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a television camera. (For the recordDole: brief and witty; TNR: wordy, too much in love with its amusing self; Baliles: doesn’t actually make any sense unless you first heard Dole tell the joke.)
In taking Potomac Man out of his context, Milbank can’t help but make us wonder why we accept business as usual, why we tolerate the all-too-obvious deceit and hypocrisy that color our national life. In one of his best passages, Milbank wonders why “a person who has attained high office risks his entire reputation by engaging in sex with an intern or a page … [or selling] out his constituents merely to gain a few thousand dollars in campaign contributions.” His answer is that Potomac Man “is so convinced of his own exceptionalism that he believes himself invincible, invulnerable to accusations of vice, and incapable of failure”and quite sure, as my radio caller was, of his own inherent decency and noble intentions. Yet it’s a government in which both parties are almost wholly underwritten by special interests, in which one branch has deceived us into an imperial war and the other cannot find the courage to end it, in which the president enjoys the approval of about a third of his countrymen and the Congress far less (and the news mediaforget about it!), and for which only about half of those eligible to vote bother to do so. Exceptional indeed.