Below The Beltway: Cockburn & Silverstein

There is a curious paradox about our nation's capital. In a town that thrives on insider accounts written by those who boast of special access to the corridors of power, rarely does one encounter a book that actually tells it like it is. Indeed, what passes for "reality" in this town is reportage that sticks to a specific paradigm: Republicans vs. Democrats, Congress vs. the White House, radical factions vs. mainstream factions. Etcetera, addenda, ad nauseam. It isn't often that anyone here bothers to stridently raise the question, let alone make the point, that perhaps something is terribly, terribly wrong with this political methodology.

Which isn't to say that the pillars of book-length political journalism are totally devoid of value. Taken primarily as intriguing chronicles of the curious games Washingtonians play, the accounts dished to the public by Bob Woodward, David Broder, Elizabeth Drew and a host of others aren't half-bad. There is, after all, a wicked pleasure in reading about officials who appear dignified in public flying off the handle behind closed doors. And reading reconstructed accounts of important high-level negotiations and semi-secret strategy sessions, some feel closer to, if not a part of, the process.

But don't for a second think the people who run Washington are particularly upset by the "secrets" revealed in these books. In fact, they rather like them, because they perform a valuable service: They protect the system. Relentlessly respectful of power, authority, title and ritual, always happy to grant anonymity and give the benefit of the doubt, few Washington writers ever raise the possibility that the entire way of doing things is corrupt. The campaign-finance loopholes, the lobbyists and consultants who whiz through the revolving door, the collusion between corporations and politicians, the conflicts of interest, the philosophical facileness -- all are uncritically accepted as part of The Way We Govern.

So let us now praise the dynamic leftist duo of Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein for providing the masses with Washington Babylon<> (Verso, 316 pages, $14.95), a high-quality and scathingly funny phillipic against The Powers That Be. From Babylon's<> first page, it's crystal-clear that the boys aren't writing for their Washington friends or their official anonymous sources for one simple, refreshing reason: They don't have any. Relying instead on careful research, original reporting and common-sense analysis rooted in an intrinsic skepticism of politicians and government, Cockburn and Silverstein -- both Nation<> contributors and co-editors of CounterPunch<>, the spiritual successor to I.F. Stone's Weekly<> -- provide a devastating appraisal of that which official Washington would have you believe doesn't exist: an American political oligarchy based on greed, hypocrisy and self-indulgence that spans from wing to wing of both major political parties.

There are, of course, a few good books that have tread into this realm before (William Greider's Who Will Tell The People<>, Phillip Stern's Still the Best Congress Money Can Buy<>, Charles Lewis' The Buying of the Presidency<>, Jeffrey Birnbaum's The Lobbyists<>, Christopher Hitchens' For the Sake of Argument<>, among others). But Washington Babylon<> breaks new ground in a few ways.

First, whereas other authors have focused on segments of the political establishment, Cockburn and Silverstein provide detailed overviews of all: Congress, the presidency, the media, the defense complex, lobbyists. Second, whereas others have accurately noted the sins and profligacy of the Democratic Party (which still claims to be the party of the working and disenfranchised), Cockburn and Silverstein don't merely note it -- they harp on it. Third, Washington Babylon<> examines the oft-overlooked role of nonprofit corporations (particularly environmental groups) and think tanks -- and, more specifically, how their sources of funding make them not quite the benign institutions one might think they are.

Indeed, the chapters on what the authors call "The Green Establishment" will probably be an eye-opener for average readers. Think that environmental groups are populated by stereotypical tree-hugging hippies? Think again. As Cockburn and Silverstein show, many of the so-called "green" groups are of, by and for millionaires who have a better record protecting corporate profit margins than they do the environment. (Did you know, for example, that millions of dollars go from oil companies to environmental groups via the Pew Charitable Trusts -- which also used to fund the ultra-rightist John Birch Society?)

Indeed, the whole book is a sort of harsh reality check. Doubtless some will be irked or offended, but the authors take an almost giddy glee in sticking it to the recently deceased Ron Brown. Much venerated in death as a servant of peace, humanity and the goodness of the Democratic Party, Brown is held up by the authors as a prime example of the self-serving hypocrisy that runs rampant in Washington. Brown, they remind us, raked in a lot of dough while a lobbyist at Patton, Boggs and Blow to play image doctor for such egregious human-rights violators as Baby Doc Duvalier and Guatemalan sugar barons.

Unlike most books, which seek to gradually engage the reader, Washington Babylon's<> tenor is much more challenging. How much of an appreciation do you, the citizen, have regarding the degree to which foreign and defense policy has been set by self-serving idealogues and hacks? Did you question the accuracy of the stories done by conservative millionaire journalists Bob Woodward and Dianne Sawyer that maintained that an effective federal subsidy for disabled children was, according to them, a scam? Isn't there something patently ridiculous about liberal lobbyist Frank Mankiewicz saying he's uneasy about his firm, the behemoth Hill and Knowlton, working for Roman Catholic Bishops because he's pro-choice, when Mankiewicz isn't bothered at all by representing tobacco companies and Third World dictatorships that hate democracy?

In fact, Washington Babylon<> is worth picking up just to read Cockburn's equally acerbic photo captions. Under a picture of Phil Gramm: "Whether he's beating up on welfare moms, calling for the death penalty for shoplifters, or exiling federal employees to Alaska for challenging his duck shoots in eastern Maryland, Gramm really is the vicious brute people once considered Bob Dole to be." Below Newt Gingrich's photo is this one: "One of the greatest welfare cheats of all time, from troughs both federal and corporate." Rush Limbaugh's caption: "The Dirigible of Drivel. Unusually swollen specimen of Homo sapiens. Note the steady degradation from Gorilla savagei." Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt? "Breaks strikes, makes water run uphill, cuts old-growth, extinguishes species in a single bound." Referring to David Broder as a sufferer of Reston's Syndrome, a disease named for the late New York Times columnist, Cockburn captions his photo with this: "Symptoms include occlusion of the cerebral faculties, suffusion of ego amid belief that Republic's well-being largely depends upon the keen insights of the pundit."

Indeed, for those on the left or right who are wary of the media, the first chapter ("Babel's Tongues") will make for delightful reading. (Journalists on the Washington-New York political axis have been either laughing with glee or howling with agony since the book hit the stores last month.) And although Cockburn and Silverstein are by no means right-wingers, adherents to the Patriot/militia movement (and even mainstream conservatives) will probably enjoy the duo's no-holds-barred critique of Henry Kissinger ("Kissinger: Still Vile After All These Years"), the Clintons, Janet Reno and, well, just about everyone else.

Although the book is long on a detailed description of problems, it doesn 't come out and propose specific solutions -- which is also part of its char m. By the time thinking, compassionate readers reach the end of the chronicled litany of abuses, hypocrisies, myopias and lies, they'll want to go out and raise hell while reveling in a devotion to independence and democracy. Given the apathetic nature of society today, it's doubtful many will do that. But at the very least it's nice to come across a book that will have the elites squirming with discomfort as they read the writings of the heretics in their midst.

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