Thursday, April 10, 2008

Book Review Politics for junkies

Susan J. Demas

For the Enquirer

Dana Milbank dedicates his tome to Tom DeLay -- and that pretty much says it all.

Political junkies will delight in the absurdism of a tribute to the indicted Republican bad boy known as “The Hammer” for his soto voce leadership style.

And if you can’t quite place who DeLay is, well, “Homo Politicus” isn’t for you. In fact, it’s so smirkingly inside-the-beltway that even politicos outside the Washington orbit might feel a bit lost.

A creature of the Capitol for two decades, Milbank writes the merrily nipping “Washington Sketch” column for the Washington Post. Like his column, the book supplies slaps and flesh wounds to the Capitol gang, without going for the jugular like H.L. Mencken or Molly Ivins. Milbank’s goal isn’t to rail against the political power circle and call for its overthrow; he’s just the court jester who gabs and jabs – but ultimately doesn’t want to lose his place in the kingdom.

It’s written in anthropological tongue-and-cheek, chapters commencing with exotic anecdotes about the Vikings, Aztecs and the Masai tribe in Kenya. There also are scores of subheads on “Totem poles” (symbols like motorcades), “Kin selection” (parties choosing candidates) and “Moka partners” (gift-giving, lobbyist-style).

All this is meant to underscore the wackiness of Washington, i.e. Potomac Land, just as Horace Miner satirized American culture in his seminal, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.”

In 276 pages of often too-clever-by-a-half metaphors, Milbank hammers home his theme like any good stand-up comic or rush-hour radio DJ: No, it’s not just you. Your leaders really are crazy.

One reason for this: In the era of hyperpartisanship, Milbank sagely surmises, “Democrats and Republicans alike will tolerate almost any oddity in a person’s character as long as that person contributes to the strength of the party.”

The book is a series of snapshots of politicians’ most outrageous comments and egregious sins, belying “Potomac Man’s trademark sense of entitlement.” One might expect a D.C. insider to reveal rare morsels about pompous poobahs, but his passages on Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld and Howard Dean mostly rehash well-known yarns.

Milbank’s real genius is in his deft descriptions of luminaries, like that of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert “a huge and rumpled figure” known as the “accidental Speaker”(much as former state House Speaker Craig DeRoche was). Rep. John Conyers is skewered for treating “the House floor as his legislative playground” and helping “himself to a wife from his staff.”

The author nails Dick Cheney perfectly as “impossibly dour, his lips sagging in one corner, emerging occasionally to speak about the imminent demise of humanity, the absolute correctness of the Bush administration, or both.”

Milbank is at his least amusing and convincing when he critiques the Washington social scene of which he’s a part, taking a few swipes at his more gregarious colleagues.

He’s at his best penning an explanation for an empty index, which Milbank knows will frustrate Potomac Man, who narcissistically flips there first to find his own name and those of his rivals.

The highlight of the book is the glossary, which translates famous phrases such as George W. Bush’s “I don’t pay attention to the polls” (My job approval rating is 32 percent) and John Kerry’s “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it” (I am trying to lose the election).

Milbank’s true genius is mixing self-deprecation with sublime self-promotion. His back-cover reviews include Sen. Barbara Boxer slamming him for “taking trash journalism to new heights” and a poll by snarky “Dana Milbank is … emblematic of the deterioration of the American media, 12.1% … the savior of American journalism, 13.5% … a publicity whore, 74.4%.”

In the end, “Homo Politicus” is a mirthful, breezy read – at least for those of us hankering for a break from C-SPAN’s “Road to the White House” or CNN’s “Ballot Bowl.”

No comments: