The Barnes & Noble Review
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Dave Barry is back in the ring, and he's sucker-punching American politics from the wing-tipped halls of the Beltway to the dimpled and pimpled voting booths of South Florida, and back again. Barry sets his column-writing aside to deliver what he calls "A Vicious and Unprovoked Attack on Our Most Cherished Political Institutions" in his new book, Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway.
Barry is in top form, attempting to chronicle our journey in human government throughout the ages -- including the Dark Ages ("a bad time, lasting about one thousand years, during which hardly anybody read books and there was widespread ignorance. It was a lot like now, only without TV") and the Age of Barbecue, or the 1.2 million years "during which the human race gradually developed a powerful hankering for side dishes. This in turn led to the invention of agriculture"). In his bratty, rambunctious style, Barry shares his views on everything from the Modern American Political Campaign (featuring expertly satirized commercials in the mock campaigns of Bill Humpty and Bob Dumpty), to why we should "Kick Florida, or at Least South Florida, Out of the Union" ("South Florida is one of the weirdest places in the nation, and...as long as we keep it in the nation, we are running the risk that our national political process will be infected by this weirdness"). Along the way, he also draws attention to the unseen historical significance of the giant prehistoric zucchini (a.k.a. "the hydrogen bomb of the Dark Ages"), and "rarely seen footnotes" of the U.S. Constitution, such as Article IV, Section 1, "There shall be a bunch of States," and Amendment I, "Congress shall make no law regulating the capacity of toilets."
Fans of Dave Barry's popular syndicated columns have cause to be excited about this new batch of entirely original material. Both a Barry-butchered history of Western civilization and an outsider's guide to the U.S. government, Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway is a panoramic look at America's politics and people that makes good on its promise of being "inaccurate and poorly researched," as well as being hilarious, snide, and of course, downright silly. (Elise Vogel)
Sporting red trunks, white and blue boxing gloves and an American flag towel on the cover, pugilistic Pulitzer-winner Barry (Dave Barry Turns 50, etc.) appears ready for all contenders in this satirical, hard-hitting political commentary ("Whatever the needs of the public are, the government responds to those needs by getting larger"). Beginning with a study of "Early Human Governments" when homo sapiens "were short, hairy, tree-dwelling creatures that strongly resembled Danny DeVito," the sardonic Miami Herald columnist breezes through the centuries to the U.S.'s birth and then to the present, amending the Constitution en route: "If a citizen is arrested, and that citizen hides his or her face from the news media, then as far as the Constitution is concerned, that citizen is guilty." He tours D.C. sites like the Mall, the Smithsonian (which "will pay you top dollar for your Beanie Babies, Cabbage Patch dolls, Pokemon cards, refrigerator magnets, ceramic cats") and the White House ("To take a tour, simply climb over the fence and hold very still until men come sprinting to assist you"). He aims jaundiced japery at presidential "language problems" and elections ("One of these years we're going to elect a president whose first official act will be to launch nuclear strikes against Iowa and New Hampshire"). Once again, the winner is... Dave Barry. 22 illus. and charts not seen by PW. Agent, Fox Chase Agency. (On sale Oct. 2) Forecast: Syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, Barry continues to widen his readership. A nine-city author tour will help launch this onto bestseller lists. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
This reviewer has been told all his life that foods like chicken livers, tofu, brussels sprouts, and other gagging delights are good for him and he is just in a weird little minority. Well, here's another trend he'll buck. Most libraries will buy Barry's book just because he's written it and because most normal people sit down to chuckle with his witticisms after consuming a meal of Cornish game hen or haggis. The author purports to poke fun at politics in the vein of P.J. O'Rourke and Al Franken, but it seems as if he gathers a lot of funny words, throws them at a Velcro board, and sees what sticks. There is no cohesion to his ramblings, and there is very little to laugh at, which is a shame, because O'Rourke and Franken have found that politics is ripe for the picking. The work is read by Dick Hill, but one would swear it is Arte Johnson trying desperately to spin gold out of this verbal dross. Go ahead and buy it your customers will love you for it but don't say you weren't warned. Joseph L. Carlson, Lompoc P.L., CA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Once again Barry meets the challenge of finding humor in United States politics, beginning with a history of how things seemed to have evolved. His perspective is different from the traditional textbook approach to government, history, and perhaps everything else. He good-naturedly pokes fun at great American documents including the Mayflower Compact and the Constitution and provides a unique view of famous events from our past, such as the Boston Tea Party, where he insists that a giant zucchini had an influence on the resultant events. He spends some time pointing out problems in the government, federal spending, and the legislative branch, but he really hits his stride once he starts retelling Florida's role in the last presidential election. For Barry's fans, this will be another book to enjoy and for those who haven't encountered him before, this is a good place to start.-Pam Johnson, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Read an Excerpt
From the Introduction
To do even a halfway decent book on a subject as complex as the United States government, you have to spend a lot of time in Washington, D.C. So the first thing I decided, when I was getting ready to write this book, was that it would not be even halfway decent.
I decided this because I'm not comfortable in Washington. Don't get me wrong: Washington is a fine city, offering statues, buildings, and plenty of culture in the form of Thai restaurants. But when I'm in Washington, I always feel as though I'm the only person there who never ran for Student Council.
I started feeling this way back in 1967, when, as a college student, I got a job in Washington as a summer intern at Congressional Quarterly, a magazine that, as the name suggests, came out weekly.
I was totally unprepared for the Washington environment. I came from an all-male-college environment, where a person's standing in the community was judged on the basis of such factors as:
-Was he a good guy?
-Would he let you borrow his car?
-Would he still be your friend if your date threw up in his car?
But when I got to Washington I discovered that even among young people, being a good guy was not the key thing: The key thing was your position on the great Washington totem pole of status. Way up at the top of this pole is the president; way down at the bottom, below mildew, is the public. In between is an extremely complex hierarchy of government officials, journalists, lobbyists, lawyers, and other power players, holding thousands of minutely graduated status rankings differentiated by extremely subtle nuances that only Washingtonians are capable of grasping.
For example, Washingtonians know whether a person whose title is "Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary" is more or less important than a person whose title is "Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary," or "Principal Deputy to Deputy Assistant Secretary," or "Deputy to the Deputy Secretary," or "Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary," or "Chief of Staff to the Assistant Assistant Secretary." (All of these are real federal job titles.)
Everybody in Washington always seems to know exactly how much status everybody else has. I don't know how they do it. Maybe they all get together in some secret location and sniff one another's rear ends. All I know is, back in my internship summer of 1967, when I went to Washington parties, they were nothing like parties I'd become used to in college. I was used to parties where it was not unusual to cap off the evening by drinking bourbon from a shoe, and not necessarily your own shoe. Whereas the Washington parties were serious. Everybody made an obvious effort to figure out where everybody else fit on the totem pole, and then spent the rest of the evening sucking up to whoever was higher up. I hated it. Of course, one reason for this was that nobody ever sucked up to me, since interns rank almost as low as members of the public.
Today I have many good Washington friends, and I know that not everyone who lives there is a status-obsessed, butt-kissing toad. But there are still way too many people there who simply cannot get over how important they are. And do you want to know why they think they're important? Because they make policy! To the rest of America, making policy is a form of institutional masturbation; to Washingtonians, it is productive work. They love to make policy. They have policy out the wazoo. They can come up with a policy on anything, including the legal minimum size of the holes in Swiss cheese.
A good depiction of the Washington worldview, I think, is the hit TV show The West Wing. Don't get me wrong: I think this show is well written, well acted, fast-paced, and entertaining. But Lordy, those characters are full of themselves, aren't they? They can't get over how important they are. They're so important that they can't even sit down. They're always striding briskly around the White House, striding striding striding, making policy with every step. We never see the bathrooms, but I suspect some of the characters stride while they pee.
Of course they rarely get a chance to go to the bathroom, because on The West Wing, they're always having a crisis. Like, in one episode I watched, the cast spent an hour hotly debating the question of whether the president should chide some environmental group for not condemning ecoterrorism. In other words, this issue was totally about wordsówhether the president should say harsh words to a group because that group had failed to say harsh words to another group. Nobody was talking about doing anything.
But to the characters on The West Wing, this was a very big, very dramatic deal. They were anguishing over it, while of course striding. Watching them, you cannot help but get caught up in the drama: Should the president chide? Or not chide? What would be the repercussions of the chiding? Should the president stride while chiding?
You forget that, outside of Washington, the vast majority of regular American taxpaying citizens truly do not care about things like this. The chiding issue is exactly the kind of hot-air, point-scoring, inside-politics nonevent that matters to Washington and four people at The New York Times, but that regular taxpaying Americans instinctively recognize as irrelevant to their lives. The reason you forget this is that regular taxpaying citizens are never depicted on shows like The West Wing. Presumably they're off doing some boring, nondramatic, non-policy-related thing, like working.
Anyway, my point is that, even though this book is largely about the federal government, I spent very little time doing research in Washington, or for that matter anywhere else. I mainly sat around and made stuff up. So if you were concerned about encountering a lot of actual information in this book, relax! There's almost none. To compensate for the lack of facts, I have included a great many snide remarks.
That is not to say that this book is useless. On the contrary, I believe you will find that, of all the books ever written about the United States government and political system, this book contains, by far, the largest number of illustrations involving zucchini. And maybeójust maybeósomewhere in this book you'll find some tidbit that will actually inform you, and help you to be a better citizen!
If you do, please let me know, so I can eliminate that tidbit from the next edition.
From the Hardcover edition.