Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


Homo Politicus: The Strange and Scary Tribes that Run Our Government by Dana Milbank








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Dana Milbank’s new book, Homo Politicus: The Strange and Scary Tribes that Run Our Government, uses the structure of anthropological fieldwork to examine political life in Washington. This isn’t quite satire, although it is witty and often funny. It really falls outside the usual range of tragicomedy. Perhaps Milbank has introduced a new genre: politicomedy, where those who take themselves too seriously fail to see the humor in their own behavior while everyone around them roars with laughter. Here’s an excerpt, featuring current presidential candidates, from the end of Chapter Six, “Shamanism,” pp. 139-141:


One of the most fascinating aspects of Potomac spirituality is the abil­ity of a very small number of Potomac Men to escape the party frame- work that imprisons all others. While it is quite common for ordinary Potomac Men to shift their shapes from time to time—Bill Clinton looked like a Republican when he condemned rapper Sister Souljah, and George Bush looked like a Democrat when he criticized "leave us alone" conservatives—almost nobody can criticize people in his own party for an extended period of time and yet survive in Potomac Land.

The most notable exception to the partisan dichotomy in recent years has been John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona who was able to shift his form into that of a Democrat on a regular basis. He drew his extraparty strength from his time as a Navy pilot; his fam­ily's long history of military service; and, particularly, his years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. This left him with extraordinary powers in Potomac Land: the only member of the Keating Five to survive the savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s and arguably the leading deal maker in the Senate.

This power came despite—or perhaps because of—his incessant and almost fratricidal criticism of his fellow Republican Bush. This began when he challenged Bush in the 2000 GOP primaries and said, among other things: "Bush wants to give 38 percent of his tax cut to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans"; "Governor Bush is one of the great polluters in history"; and "Bush's plan has not one penny for Social Security, not one penny for Medicare, and not one penny for paying down the national debt." Later he criticized Bush's policies on global warming, prescription drugs, and veterans. He objected to a Bush campaign ad in 2003, and in 2004 defended Democrat John `- Kerry against attacks on his military record and accused his fellow Republicans of "spend[ing] our nation into bankruptcy while our sol­diers risk their lives."

Then, in 2006, he ridiculed the happy talk Bush administration of­ficials used to describe the war in Iraq. " 'Stuff happens,' 'mission ac­complished,' 'last throes,' 'a few dead-enders': I'm just more familiar with those statements than anyone else because it grieves me so much that we had not told the American people how tough and difficult this task would be. . . . They were led to believe this would be some kind of day at the beach."

With an eye on another presidential run, McCain shifted back to Republican form at critical times. He voted for the Bush tax cuts. He championed the war in Iraq. He gave a warm speech at the 2004 Republican convention celebrating Bush's leadership.

This created some awkwardness. McCain, for example, was on the record as stating both that Bush has "earned our trust" on national se­curity and that he (McCain) had "no confidence" in Bush.

Such shape-shifting alienated Republican primary voters as McCain sought the party's 2008 presidential nomination; he quickly fell from front-runner to nearly bankrupt. But in Potomac Land, this flexibility allows figures in both parties to see McCain in any shape they wish. At a Senate hearing on torture techniques, for example, lawmakers in both parties hid behind McCain's skirts. Asked for an opening statement, Senator Mark Dayton, a Minnesota Democrat, said only, "I just wanted to salute Senator McCain for his comments." Added Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, "I'd also like to associate myself with Senator McCain."

Things become tricky for McCain, however, when he tangles with another politician who has shape-shifting powers. This happened early in 2006, when McCain attacked Senator Barack Obama, a black Democrat from Illinois and prospective presidential candidate who was developing a following for his crossover appeal to Republicans. It began when Obama, after a meeting in McCain's office, sent him a letter—a press release, really—about proposed lobbying reforms.

"Dear John," the freshman senator wrote, "I know you have ex­pressed an interest in creating a task force to further study and discuss these matters, but I and others in the Democratic Caucus believe the more effective and timely course is to allow the committees of juris­diction to roll up their sleeves and get to work on writing ethics and lobbying reform legislation that a majority of the Senate can support."

McCain replied with some of the most caustic language ever heard in Potomac Land.

"Dear Senator Obama," he began. "I would like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate in our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform leg­islation were sincere.... Thank you for disabusing me of such no­tions.... I'm embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble.... I have been around long enough to appreciate that in politics the public interest isn't always a priority for every one of us."

Obama, wisely, responded mildly. "Dear John," he wrote. "I confess that I have no idea what has prompted your response.... The fact that you have now questioned my sincerity and my desire to put aside politics for the public interest is regrettable but does not in any way diminish my deep respect for you nor my willingness to find a bipartisan solution to this problem."

McCain quickly realized he had erred. He wasn't attacking the president, after all. He was attacking a fellow shape-shifter. "We're still friends," McCain announced after patching things up with Obama by phone, not letter. Obama said McCain is "an American hero" who is entitled "to get cranky once in a while."

At a hearing a few days later, McCain and Obama posed jointly for the cameras. "Senator Obama and I are moving on and will continue to work together, and I value his input," McCain recanted. Contrition was an unusual form for the senator to assume.


Even when Milbank’s ethnographic motif fails a little, he remains funny, and those at whom he pokes fun are shown at their worst. Homo Politicus is a fun distraction from the serious politics in a rhetorically heavy political year. When you’re not laughing, you may be crying in frustration about whether these people are the best we have to run our government.


Steve Hopkins, March 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2008 issue of Executive Times


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