Inside the Corridors of Power
by Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein
Routledge, Chapman and Hall 224 pp.
REVIEW BY JASON VEST
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
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
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
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
Nation contributors and coeditors of CounterPunch, the
spiritual successor to I.F. Stone's Weekly
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
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
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
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
While the book is long on a detailed description of problems, it
doesn't come out and propose specific solutions
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.