Inside the Corridors of Power

Washington Babylon
by Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein

Routledge, Chapman and Hall 224 pp.


There is a curious paradox about the nation's capitol: 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; etc., addenda, ad nauseam.

    It isn't often anyone bothers to stridently raise the question, let alone make the point, that perhaps something is terribly, terribly wrong with our 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 by reading reconstructed accounts of important high-level negotiations and semi-secret strategy sessions, perhaps 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 uncritically accepted as part of The Way We Govern.

    The sad truth, of course, is that while our perceived leaders offer up homilies to the sanctity of American democracy, party politics today is really nothing more than a show put on for the amusement of insiders and the stupefication of the masses. Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, politicians, journalists, lobbyists, activists almost all ultimately feed from the same monied trough, and almost all exist in what is arguably the narrowest political continuum in American history.

    And while they may snipe at one another over this program or that bill, few ever question the propriety (or lack thereof) of the system.

    So let us now praise the dynamic leftist duo of Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein for providing the masses with Washington Babylon, a high-quality, low-cost and scathingly funny jeremiad against The Powers That Be.

    From the first page, it's crystal clear that the boys aren't writing for their Washington friends or their official anonymous sources for the simple, refreshing reason that 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 coeditors 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 (Greider's Who Will Tell The People, Stern's Still The Best Congress Money Can Buy, Birnbaum's The Lobbyists, Hitchens' For The Sake of Argument). But Washington Babylon breaks new ground in a few ways.

    First, while 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 Establishment, Lobbyists.

    Second, while 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 just note it, but 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.

    Did you know, for example, that millions of dollars go from oil companies to environmental groups via the Pew Charitable Trusts and that groups with righteous-sounding names like the Environmental Defense Fund actually have an abysmal record of green partisanship, but a better one when it comes to rolling over and doing corporate America's bidding?

    Did you know the recently departed Ron Brown, much-venerated in death as a servant of peace, humanity and the goodness of the Democratic party, took lots and lots of money 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 growers?

    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 ideologues and hacks? Did you question the accuracy of the stories done by conservative millionaire journalists Bob Woodward and Dianne Sawyer which maintained (erroneously) that what was in fact an effective federal subsidy for disabled children was a scam?

    Isn't there something patently ridiculous about liberal lobbyist Frank Mankiewicz saying he's somewhat 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?

    Even if you don't want to read the whole book, Babylon is worth picking up just to read Cockburn's 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 duckshoots in eastern Maryland, Gramm really is the vicious brute people once considered Bob Dole to be."

    Newt Gingrich: "One of the greatest welfare cheats of all time, from troughs both federal and corporate."

    Rush Limbaugh: "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: "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."

    While 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 charm. Because by the time you reach the end of the chronicled litany of abuses, hypocrisies, myopias and lies, if you're a thinking, compassionate person, you 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.

    Jason Vest is a D.C.-based freelance writer.


The sad truth is that while our perceived leaders offer up homilies to the sanctitiy of American democracy, party politics today is really nothing more than a show put on for the amusement of insiders and the stupefication of the masses.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 5/9/96