Page 13


BOOKS & THE CULTURE WHAT YOU HAVE IS A RAUCOUS PORTRAIT OF A POLITICAL ESTABLISHMENT CORRUPTED AT BOTH THE MARGINS AND CORE. give us a bevy of Congressmen, among them Newt Gingrich, who spell F-A-M-I-L-Y V-A-L-U-E-S by chasing skirts behind the backs of their wives. They give us portraits of sordid lobbying firms like Patton, Boggs, & Blow, which buffed the image of Guatemalan death squad backers in the early 1980s, and then that of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. They introduce us to the likes of Jon Roush, the head of the Wilderness Society who was recently caught logging environmentally-sensitive forests on his own lands. Add to this much gossip and a good deal of the just plain loopy and absurdsuch as Pentagon analyst Dr. John Alexander, the former manager of the Los Alamos Laboratory who, according to the authors, has experimented with ESP on dolphins and believes space aliens are abducting human beings on earthand what you have is a raucous portrait of a political establishment corrupted at both the margins and core. With all the mudslinging and scandal mongering it contains, the reader may well wonder: is Washington Babylon a serious book? The answer is yes, though it is sometimes difficult to tell. Mixing gossip and anecdote with hard-hitting investigative reporting, Washington Babylon often reads as if I.F. Stone had stumbled into the Washington offices of a tabloid magazine like the National Enquirer or Star. The danger of such an approach is in losing the distinction between serious muckraking and petty intrigue, so that Bill Clinton’s ideal woman blur in the reader’s mind with the more serious matter of his dubious conduct as governor of Arkansas, which Cockburn and Silverstein chronicle in careful detail. On the other hand, it is a fact that political corruption has to do not only with the mechanics of the systemlaws, public agencies, policies, etc.but with the lives and habits, and indeed the character, of those who are running it. If Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich will stand at the podium and lecture Americans about responsibility and chastity, as both frequently do, and then turn around and engage in a lifetime of extra-marital escapade, as both reportedly do, it is fair enough to claim that their sex 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER lives illuminate something important about the substance and the style of their rule. Given the political establishment’s inflated sense of power and self-importance, Cockburn and Silverstein also seem to be saying, why not laugh and have fun at its expense? The mugshots they present are there for this reason. In a ghoulish closeup, Attorney General Janet Reno looks like a victim of the satanic abuse rituals she ritually decries. Two shots of Henry Kissinger appear, the first showing a finger plunged deep into the nostril, the second depicting Kissinger in munching mode \(“A nose in every pie, a finger in every nose,” reads the caption, accompanied by an account of Henry K.’ s salacious career as a portly Rush Limbaugh appears opposite a giant silverback gorilla. “The Dirigible of Drivel,” the caption announces: Unusually swollen specimen of Homo Sapiens…says he’s the champion of the ordinary Joe, but speaks for the elites… singing hymns to the innocence of the tobacco companies and assuring small business people that the Reagan tide lifted them in Eighties along with the super-rich. At various points, similar depictions appear of Ted Kennedy, Jesse Helms, Charles Murray, Michael Kinsley, Bruce Babbitt, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and more. As the names imply, Cockburn and Silverstein’s aim is bipartisan. It is the hypocrisy and corruption of both parties, they believe, which has the public yearning for change. Washington Babylon does not, alas, offer us a way out of the muck and the mire that it rakes, but the book certainly does clarify why the media, which has recently been fretting about the decline of public trust in America, is once again getting the story all wrong. According to a spate of recent press analysis \(see, for example, James Fallows’ Breaking the News: How the Media Undermines Democracy, of a gloomy April 18 special report on the role of the media in the Los cynicism is on the rise because the “adversarial” press has grown so relentlessly critical of our public leaders and institutions. If only the media showed more civility \(and, implicitly, towards politicians who are trying to do the right thing, such accounts imply, the public’s faith would be magically reborn. The last time we were hearing this, Cockburn and Silverstein relate in the opening pages of Washington Babylon, was in the late fall of 1974. President Nixon had just been deposed and Katherine Graham of the Washington Post, contemplating the lessons of Watergate and Vietnam, rose before the annual meeting of the Managing Editors Association to council restraint. “The press,” she warned sternly, “should…be rather careful about its role…. We had better not yield to the temptation to go refighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist.” Then, as now, such complaints are a reliable sign that the system has indeed devolved into a corrupt and hoary charade. Washington Babylon depicts that system in stark and naked light, the way it might appear were. the press as adversarial as it claims. For those disheartened by the spectacle of Clinton versus Dole, and fed up”with the system as it is, this spirited, iconoclastic book, veering from the scandalous to the evil to the just plain funny, offers a badly-needed breath of fresh air. Eyal Press is a freelance writer based in New York. %.4 Sea ow Horse Inn 0 0 Kitchenettes Cable TV Heated Pool beside the Gulf of Mexico o t, I$ on Mustang Island 411 ..k. Available for private parties 00 O Unique European Charm & Almosphere AFFORDABLE RATES ‘ ,,,,,. Pets Welcome to 1423 11th Street I’ ilk Port Aransas, TX 78n3 9$ for Reserralions I …0 iloir4 10. 13 …01.% A 1101%,,:eoloi two 1r JULY 26, 1996