Homo Politicus: The Strange and Scary Tribes That Run Our Governmentby Dana Milbank, Johnny Heller
Washington's most acerbic (and feared) columnist, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, skewers the peculiar and alien tribal culture of politics. Deep within the forbidding land encircled by the Washington Beltway lives the tribe known as Homo politicus. Their ways are strange, even repulsive, to civilized human beings; their arcane rites often impenetrable; their
Washington's most acerbic (and feared) columnist, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, skewers the peculiar and alien tribal culture of politics. Deep within the forbidding land encircled by the Washington Beltway lives the tribe known as Homo politicus. Their ways are strange, even repulsive, to civilized human beings; their arcane rites often impenetrable; their language coded and obscure. Violating their complex taboos can lead to sudden, harsh, and irrevocable punishment. Normal Americans have long feared Homo politicus, with good reason. But fearless anthropologist Dana Milbank has spent many years immersed in the dark heart of Washington, D.C., and has produced this indispensable portrait of a bizarre culture whose tribal ways are as hilarious as they are outrageous. Milbank's anthropological lens is highly illuminating, whether examining the mating rituals of Homo politicus (which have little to do with traditional concepts of romantic love), demonstrating how status is displayed in the Beltway's rigid caste system (such as displaying a wooden egg from the White House Easter Egg Roll), or detailing the precise ritual sequence of human sacrifice whenever a scandal erupts (the human sacrificed does not have to be the guiltiest party, just the lower ranked). Milbank's lacerating wit mows down the pompous, the stupid, and the corrupt among Democrats, Republicans, reporters, and bureaucrats by naming names. Every appalling anecdote in this book is, alas, true.
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This amusing and shrewd look at Washington politicians, bureaucrats and even Milbank's fellow reporters is endlessly entertaining, and Johnny Heller is in on the joke. He has a familiarity with the material as if he wrote it himself, allowing him to capture the true intent of every moment, be it comedy, melodrama or purely informational. His pace is swift and his "average guy" tone makes this reading work. His conversation is engaging and enjoyable; he seems to know when you're laughing and when you simply can't believe how inane politics can really be, and he's right there with you every step of the way for this fun, charming and true tale of Washington politics. Simultaneous release with the Doubleday hardcover (Reviews, Oct. 1). (Jan.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The conceit of Homo Politicus is that Milbank approaches Washington as an anthropologist would. Each chapter starts out with some motif stolen from an introduction-to-anthropology text. This provides a fun organizing pattern at the outset, but around the point he calls bribe money "moka" for the 12th time you start to wonder if Milbank couldn't just call it "cash." But forgive the man his flourishes, for he is a felicitous writer with a keen eye for the absurd. He has an uncanny ability to unearth exactly the right quote and discover just the right detail, elevating a silly situation into an absurd one or transforming the unseemly into the unconscionable. After detailing former congressional majority leader Tom DeLay's brutal leadership tactics, Milbank notes that the now-deposed politician "still was a warrior. And so he devoted his considerable talent to getting country singer Sara Evans declared winner of the Dancing with the Stars television show... 'We need to send a message to Hollywood and the media that smut has no place on television by supporting good people like Sara Evans.' " Absurd, yes, but Milbank isn't done. "Evans...made it to the final six couples but then pulled out of the show, saying she had filed for divorce from her husband," he writes, sinking the knife deep into DeLay's moralistic pretensions.
This sort of affair, however, composes the whole of the book. Homo Politicus is an endless series of two- or three-page vignettes, some tawdry, some silly, some perverse, some evil. Milbank's Washington -- excuse me, Potomac Land -- is a grim place, populated by the base and the arrogant, run by the corrupt and the stupid. Milbank, in fact, hardly seems able to tell the two apart. One minute he'll be questioning Howard Dean's mental stability because he yelled in a way that sounded strange, and a few pages later he'll be marveling at Congressman Tom Tancredo's suggestion that we should drop an atomic device on Mecca. The difference between a cheer that should have been throatier and a comment that should have chilled the electorate is not explored. The result is the most dispiriting parade you've ever seen; all the sights depressing and grotesque, none going slowly enough for you to understand what you're seeing or evaluate its importance, and most couched in anthropological jargon that doesn't really fit.
Indeed, it's a shame that Milbank didn't take his conceit more seriously. The American Association of Anthropologists says of their varied and broad discipline, "always, the common goal links these vastly different projects: to advance knowledge of who we are, how we came to be that way -- and where we may go in the future." That would be a wonderful guiding spirit for a book on Washington. But Homo Politicus is not an anthropologist's take on Washington. It is a cynic's single-minded search for that which will arch his eyebrow.
Milbank gives us the perverts and the liars, the fools and the frauds. But speaking as a Washingtonian, his book is most notable for those who are absent. The young intern, chewing on ramen and working till midnight because he believes in social uplift, never appears. The exhausted Capitol Hill staffer, deleting emails from headhunters explaining that her law degree could make her three times as much money ("moka") in the private sector, must not be invited to the same living rooms as Milbank. The lonesome nonprofit worker, newly transplanted from a city he loved to a town he loathes because he thinks his cause more important than his comfort, is forgotten. We never meet the think-tanker who has spent 30 years learning everything there is to know about his policy area, who churns out daily reports that are largely ignored, and who never gives up hope that one day his work will make public policy a bit better, wiser, and more just. We are never treated to the company of the congressman from the safe district who could settle into his cushy chair and treat his office as a sinecure but insists on doggedly attempting to legislate, investigate, and reform -- even when he's in the minority, even when the cause is hopeless -- or, if we do glimpse his bald pate, it's only to see him mocked because after 15 years of service, he uttered an intemperate comment while C-SPAN was filming.
What we get from Milbank is the worst of Washington. He boils honorable careers down to a regrettable soundbite, and he gleefully skewers the most grievously offensive individuals but never suggests that they are exceptions. In fact, the whole anthropologist theme forces him to pretend that they are representative examples of the broader forces that govern the nation's capital. It's worse than untrue, it's pernicious. As any anthropologist knows, self-perception is enormously important to both individual and aggregate behavior. Children asked to mark down their demographic information before taking a test will see their performance conform more closely to the stereotype of their group than if they had met the exam without being reminded of how they're seen on the street. Milbank, by offering this parade of horrors to Washingtonians and civilians alike, helps assure the former that their misbehavior is perfectly normal and helps reinforce the latter's decision to ignore politics altogether. Indeed, you have to give Milbank this: like a real anthropologist, he appears content to study his subject rather than seeking to better it. There is no attention to the structural factors that aid corruption or the underlying trends that feed polarization. There is no talk of reform or renewal, no vignettes describing those who are trying to better the process and need the support of Milbank's readers.
But they are just as much a part of this city's fabric and character as the villains who populate Milbank's book, and without their presence, "Potomac Land" is a far darker and more dispiriting place than Washington itself. --Ezra Klein
Ezra Klein is a staff writer at The American Prospect.
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Read an Excerpt
Among the many paradoxes of Potomac Land is that it is, ostensibly, the capital of the most egalitarian people on the planet, and yet it has embraced a status system that is both hierarchical and byzantine. In substance, it is most similar to the varna caste system that has divided India for millennia. But while the caste system has become increasingly irrelevant and anachronistic in India—driven out by educated urbanites who dismiss it as primitive—the antiquated system grows ever more powerful in the mind of status–conscious Homo politicus, ever on the prowl for ways to demonstrate his power.
In India, there is the priestly caste (Brahmans) for teachers and scholars, the warrior caste (Kshatriyas) for kings and landowners, the trading caste (Vaishyas) of merchants and artisans, and a lower class (Sudras) of farmers and service workers who do not read the sacred texts. Below all the castes are the untouchables, those considered too filthy even to live among others in a village. Each caste is further subdivided into jati, or gotra, a band of people in a similar occupation; by performing daily rituals, members of a gotra allow their sect to survive.
In Potomac Land’s highest caste are the top appointees and advisers to the president and congressional leaders, as well as justices who interpret the sacred texts and prominent strategists who use their shamanic powers to keep officials in power. Next are the rank–and–file lawmakers, who are in a constant state of aggression; though the kings and landowners of Potomac Land, they are in status inferior to the top strategists who put them into office and keep them there. Journalists, lobbyists, and bureaucrats form the various gotra that are part of the Vaishyas, the third caste responsible for the daily transactions that keep Potomac Land functioning. Finally, there are the backward castes, the Sudras and the untouchables—those who live in and around Potomac Land but have no interest in politics. They are by far the largest group in number, but they are invisible to the upper castes.
The crucial difference between varna castes and Potomac castes is that Potomac Man has a severe shortage of indigenous wise men and scholarly figures and therefore must draw its Brahmans from other levels of status or from outside Potomac Land entirely. By simply attaching oneself to a rising political star, a Sudra can easily become a Brahman—as illustrated by young and unknown Dan Bartlett’s ascent to a top position in the White House because he got a job out of college with Karl Rove. Others, such as George Soros, can propel themselves to higher castes by spending large sums of money. Rock star Bono, embraced by the White House, has found that his musical fame has a certain reciprocity in Potomac Land. Then there is just plain luck: in the 1994 Republican landslide, a man with a history of homelessness, unemployment, and drug charges was elected to Congress from Texas. Still others, such as Barack Obama, a Democratic senator from Illinois, have gained status through good looks and oratorical gifts; Obama surged in popularity and announced his presidential candidacy shortly after a photo appeared in People magazine of him in a bathing suit as part of a “Beach Babes” spread also showing Catherine Zeta–Jones and Penelope Cruz.
It is not uncommon for a prominent member of Potomac Land to become outcaste—evicted from his caste and denied privileges to associate with his former peers. In the nasty, brutish, and short life of Potomac Man, it is possible for a perfectly upstanding member of the community to become, within a matter of days, the punch line of a joke. This is in part because partisan opponents will use any excuse to bring down a foe and in part because members of Potomac Land’s ever–present Greek chorus—“the press” in the local dialect—take great enjoyment in these campaigns. Thus a powerful Potomac Man can be destroyed by what would be, by common criminal standards, fairly minor transgressions.
Sometimes the cause of the hasty social demotion is entirely self–inflicted. There were, for example, few people predicting a rapid comeback for Claude Allen. He resigned his job as White House domestic policy adviser in February 2006, using the familiar line that he wished to spend more time with his family. A month later, word got out that Allen had been arrested—for shoplifting.
While Potomac Man is often willing to condone high crimes such as perjury or obstruction of justice, he rarely tolerates the misdemeanors associated with the common criminal. And Allen was positively petty. He stole some $5,000 from Target and Hecht’s stores—Bose speakers, a Kodak printer, a jacket, and knickknacks worth as little as $2.50—by requesting refunds for items he had not, in fact, returned. Potomac Land was agog at this discovery, and nobody accepted his lawyers’ denials. Allen entered his inevitable guilty plea in August.
“Something did go very wrong,” he confessed, with a lawyer at his side who had previously represented Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy. Allen wept in court as he blamed the hard work of responding to Hurricane Katrina. “I lost perspective and failed to restrain myself.” His wife concurred that “this was not the man I married.” She blamed “fourteen–hour workdays” and a stretch of three months with fewer than two hours of sleep each night.
He got away with two years of probation, a small fine, and community service—but for Potomac Man, admitting such low behavior might as well have been a death sentence. “You are a classic example,” the judge told him, “a fresh and enlightening example, that shame is not dead.”
Another former high White House official turned outcaste is Sandy Berger, who as Bill Clinton’s national security adviser was one of the most powerful in Potomac Land. In 2003, this man, who once controlled the fate of millions, walked out of the National Archives with documents related to his performance on terrorism. Berger said he merely walked off inadvertently—twice—with copies of classified documents and then lost them. His political opponents alleged that he carried them off in his underwear, or even ate them. In either case, he was clearly trying to avoid an embarrassing write–up in the 9/11 Commission’s report of his actions, or inaction, on the rising threat of terrorism.
A report by the National Archives’ inspector general, issued in December 2006, described Berger’s crime: “He headed towards a construction area on Ninth Street. Mr. Berger looked up and down the street, up into the windows of the Archives and the DOJ, and did not see anyone.” He folded the notes “in a V shape,” then “walked inside a construction fence and slid the documents under a trailer.” Later, “Mr. Berger left the building, retrieved the documents and notes from the construction area, and returned to his office.”
In 2005, he accepted a three–year suspension of his security clearance and paid a fine. And he had to admit that he didn’t misplace the missing documents; he shredded them. And things would only get worse. Two days after that court plea, he got in more legal trouble, this time for reckless driving. He was going eighty–eight in his Lexus on a fifty–five miles per hour part of I–66 in Virginia. For ordinary men, it would have been an annoying matter but not an embarrassing one. For Berger, it meant another round of news stories. If people missed those stories, they probably caught the ones about House Republicans demanding a congressional investigation into Berger’s document heist or the ads from a conservative group alleging Berger “stole and ate classified documents that exposed the failures of the Clinton antiterrorism policies.”
The cases of Berger and Allen, however, must be contrasted with that of Harriet Miers, who did nothing wrong but, over a fortnight in October 2005, saw her reputation destroyed anyway. Miers’s sin: rising too high, too quickly in Potomac Man’s status structure.
When Miers, who had been the Texas lottery commissioner and Bush’s lawyer in Texas, came to the White House with President Bush as staff secretary, nobody was surprised. When, at the start of Bush's second term, she became White House counsel, people thought it was a bit of a stretch for the lottery commissioner but did not protest. Then, when William Rehnquist died and Bush nominated Miers for a Supreme Court seat, all hell broke loose.
First, conservative commentators and interest groups protested that Miers was insufficiently conservative. Then they protested that she was insufficiently intelligent. Then the State of Texas was forced to release dozens of painfully fawning messages Miers wrote to Bush when he was Texas governor. “You are the best governor ever—deserving of great respect,” she wrote in 1997. She pronounced the Bushes to be “cool” and said that Bush and his wife were “the greatest!” She advised, “Keep up the great work. Texas is blessed.” “Texas has a very popular governor and first lady!” Miers gushed at one point. She also wished: “Hopefully Jenna and Barbara recognize that their parents are ‘cool’—as do the rest of us.”
The White House, trying to rebuild Miers’s status as more than a cheerleader, had supporters hold a conference call vowing that Miers would overturn Roe v. Wade. But by then, observations had turned to the excessive use of eyeliner by the unmarried Miers. She went to the Hill to meet with senators and quickly wound up in a dispute with Arlen Specter over birth–control law. The Judiciary Committee complained that Miers was late submitting the standard questionnaire, then called her responses “inadequate” and “insufficient.” Miers was forced to acknowledge that, in 1989, her Texas bar license was suspended because she didn’t pay her dues.
Her courtesy calls on the Hill made her look more out of her depth. She talked about the weather with senators. Comedians adored her. David Letterman devised a “Top Ten Signs Your Supreme Court Pick Isn’t Qualified” (8. “Her legal mentor: Oliver Wendell Redenbacher”). Others recalled then–senator Roman Hruska’s 1970 defense of doomed Supreme Court nominee G. Harrold Carswell: “[T]here are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. Aren’t they entitled to a little representation and a little chance?”
Bush, growing desperate, hauled in some Texas jurists who backed Miers and called reporters into the Oval Office to remind everybody of her “high character” and “integrity.” John L. Hill, Jr., a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, gave it his all. “I would trust her with my wife and my life,” he announced.
But by then, senators weren’t even arriving on time when Miers visited their offices. She dodged their questions with phrases such as “I need to sort of bone up on this a little more.” Three weeks after her nomination, Miers finally bowed to the inevitable and withdrew. She returned to the White House counsel’s office—still a competent lawyer but now also a Potomac Land joke.
It surprised nobody when, shortly after the Democrats took control of Congress in late 2006, Bush eased Miers out of her job as White House counsel and sent her packing in favor of former Reagan and Nixon administration lawyer Fred Fielding. The woman Bush once called the most qualified person in America to serve on the Supreme Court was not qualified enough to protect him from the expected congressional subpoenas. Within a few months, Congress was indeed approving subpoenas—to Miers herself, for her bungled effort to fire federal prosecutors and replace them with more loyal “Bushies.”
Though Potomac Land is ostensibly meritocratic, the accident of birth is still a powerful indicator of status for Potomac Man. Dozens of members of Congress and one in five senators are there because their parents, spouses, or other relatives held the position before them. The offices are not technically inherited, but because the kin of an officeholder often benefit from broad name recognition (and perhaps confusion) among voters, the effect is the same.
Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, was elected to the Senate after being appointed to that position by her father, who vacated the seat to become governor. And in Illinois, Democratic congressman William O. Lipinski announced his retirement too late for a primary to be conducted, allowing him to persuade party elders to select his son, Daniel, to represent the comfortably Democratic district. Likewise, four days after the funeral of California Democrat Robert Matsui, his widow, Doris, announced her candidacy for his seat in Congress.
This happens at the very highest level. After President Bush won his office because he shares a name with his father, the former president (himself the son of a senator), he began to populate his administration with former aides to his father. He also appointed his secretary of state’s son as the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the chief justice’s daughter as a top official at the Health and Human Services Department, another justice’s son as a Labor Department official, a senator’s wife as labor secretary, and the vice president’s daughter and her husband to positions in the State and Justice departments.
Likewise, Hillary Clinton parlayed her marriage with President Clinton into a Senate seat and her own presidential run. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is the daughter of the late congressman and Baltimore mayor Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr. John Sarbanes won his seat in the House at the same moment his father, Paul, retired from the Senate; young Sarbanes joined scions Connie Mack, Dan Boren, Russ Carnahan, William Clay, John Sununu, Chris Dodd, Mark Pryor, Robert Bennett, Judd Gregg, Mary Landrieu, John Rockefeller, and many others in a club of the children of former officeholders.
The powerful in Potomac Land have mechanisms to perpetuate the family influence. Senators Al Gore and Birch Bayh, for example, enrolled their children in St. Alban’s School in northwest Washington; the scions, bred to lead, followed their fathers to the Senate. The most successful at perpetuating dominance has been the family of Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican who is the sixth generation of Frelinghuysens to represent New Jersey in Congress, dating from 1793. “You sort of get it in your blood,” he explained.
Powerful clans compete for Potomac Land dominance. The last of the powerful line of Cabot Lodges, for example, was defeated by the first representative of a new line, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s brother Teddy used his president brother’s name to get a Senate seat of his own in 1962 and has kept it to this day. The name has permitted him to withstand scandals that would have destroyed those from lesser lines, from the monstrous (Chappaquiddick) to the simply amusing (Kennedy’s speech referring to the nuclear Stockpile Stewardship Program as the “Stockpile Stewardess Program”). In fact, the name even allowed Ted Kennedy’s son Patrick to win election to Congress and to survive his own slate of scandals.
The younger Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat, crashed his Mustang convertible into a Capitol Police barrier in the wee hours one spring day in 2006. The thirty–eight–year–old lawmaker, his speech slurred and his eyes watery, announced to the surprised cops that he was late for a vote—even though the House was not in session. Police drove him home without demanding a breath test.
After the usual range of written denials and hiding from the press, Kennedy finally paid a visit to the House television gallery, confessing to an addiction to prescription drugs such as Ambien. His hands trembling, he began to speak, but something sounding like “argh” came out and he cleared his throat and began again.
“The incident on Wednesday evening concerns me greatly,” he said, tripping over the last word. “I simply do not remember getting out of bed, being pulled over by the police, or being cited for three driving infractions.” As he spoke, he began to shake more noticeably. Perspiration built on his upper lip. “I need to seek expert help,” he continued. “This afternoon, I’m traveling to Minnesota to seek treatment at the Mayo Clinic.” On the decorative bookshelf behind the lectern where he spoke, there was a copy of the Warren Commission’s report on his uncle’s assassination.
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Meet the Author
Dana Milbank writes the Washington Post's must-read Washington Sketch column, a takedown of the ridiculous and the powerful that appears four times a week.
Johnny Heller has earned multiple Earphones Awards from AudioFile magazine, including one for Closing Time by Joe Queenan, and has earned two Audie Awards and many more nominations. Named one of the Top Fifty Narrators of the Twentieth Century by AudioFile, he has recorded over five hundred titles.
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