Homo Politicus: The Strange and Scary Tribes that Run Our Government [Secure]
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by Dana Milbank
Description: 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.
eBook Publisher: Random House, Inc./Doubleday Publishing,
Filament eBookStore Release Date: January 2008
Available eBook Formats [Secure - What's this?]: OEBFF Format (IMP) [520 KB]
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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 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?"
Copyright © 2008 by Dana Milbank.