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Irreverence by Half-Measure

Homo Politicus
By Dana Milbank
Doubleday, 2008
 
While Dana Milbank, political satirist for The Washington Post, was promoting his new book Homo Politicus at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C., an audience member asked him about the “fine line between humor and outrage” and whether there was a point at which he did, in fact, get angry. In the spirit of his new book, Milbank gave a fluffy and facetious response: he joked that “seething” is bad for the health, and that he didn’t want to wind up “bloated” and “dyspeptic”; he’d prefer to present the information alongside a few jokes and leave the anger to the rest of us.
 

 
Formerly a contributor to The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal, Milbank has been with The Washington Post since 2000. He spent his first four years there as White House correspondent and earned the disdain of the Bush administration by questioning its secrecy and, to be charitable, its relative unfamiliarity with the truth. Finding the formerly closed door of the executive branch thus bolted shut, Milbank turned his sights elsewhere. He now writes a column called “Washington Sketch,” which the paper describes as “an observational column about political theater.” Taking himself less seriously than before, he reports on politics with an eye towards hypocrisy and farce. Milbank’s columns are often informative and insightful, but no more daring than any topical sketch from Saturday Night Live. They’re just a bit funnier.

Homo Politicus apes the tone of his regular column and covers the same subject matter, but, in a conceit that’s meant to carry the whole book, Milbank poses (tongue in cheek, of course) as an anthropologist. His quarry is the eponymous Homo politicus, or Potomac Man, who makes his home in political Washington, D.C. (or Potomac Land, as he calls it). Here he expounds on the fruits of his labor:

As I gained their trust over time, they allowed me to join them in their homes, war rooms, and tribal councils…. In his natural state, Homo politicus was so defined by tribalism that he placed tribe, or party, above even family and nation-state. Thought he was equipped with the tools of modern civilization, his work proved to be less efficient—and his rituals more bizarre—than those of even the most primitive cultures.

There’s certainly precedent for satirizing politicians as members of a different species, but Milbank has no designs on becoming the next George Orwell. The author never lets the evils of his subject matter divert the tone of his book, which is light as cotton candy and no more filling. But the danger of dealing with serious subjects through humor is that you risk sedating the reader when you want him to recoil, and Dana Milbank dulls every outrage with a shot of absinthe.

To be fair, Homo Politicus has a few virtues. Many of the anecdotes are funny, and twelve years of experience in Washington allows the author a few revealing insights into what makes Potomac Man tick. One of the funniest moments in the book comes in the early pages, when Milbank notes how the introduction of television cameras into the chambers of Congress “has given Potomac Man another way to demonstrate, and possibly enhance, his status…. This leads to the cautionary tale of Joe Biden, a Democratic senator from Delaware.” A few choice excerpts follow from the legendary motormouth. A day after a question and answer session in which Biden got out a mere six questions in thirty minutes of babbling to Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, he showed up on the second day wearing a Princeton baseball cap.

“I understand, Judge, I am the only one standing between you and lunch. So I’ll try to make this painless” he began, then offered to say “a few very brief things.” …Five hundred forty-five words later, Alito tried to interrupt the senator. But Biden continued, for another 1,390 words.

 

“Here I was, a University of Delaware graduate, a sitting United States senator” he continued. “I didn’t even like Princeton. No, I mean, I really didn’t like Princeton. Yeah, I was an Irish Catholic kid who thought it hadn’t changed like you concluded it had. I mean, you know, I admit I have a little—you know, one of my real dilemmas is I have two kids who went to Ivy League schools. I’m not sure my grandfather Finnegan would ever forgive me for allowing that to happen. But all kidding aside, I wasn’t a big Princeton fan.”

The senator kept going, of course. Aside from highlighting the astounding vanity on parade in the capitol, Biden’s soliloquy also illustrates one of the successes of Milbank’s faux-anthropological approach: he can play it straight and allow the absurdity to speak for itself.

Again, the author is not without some insight into the machinery of politics. In a section entitled “Rites of Solidarity,” Milbank notes the ubiquitous flag-waving, flag-draped backgrounds, flag graphics, and flag lapel pins displayed in the capitol:

But while he tolerates this symbolism because it plays so well outside Potomac Land, Potomac Man’s genuine efforts at solidarity are within his own political party. Members of Congress meet Wednesday for breakfast with their party caucuses. Senators do the same over lunch on Tuesdays. The White House issues talking points to lawmakers so that each member of the party will be “on message” and deliver the same party line. Those who are the most adept at sticking to the talking points become known as surrogates for the president, meaning that what they say is a strong gauge of what the president would say.

These are the highpoints of the book, when Milbank combines farce (all the more ridiculous for the seriousness of its participants) with a little insight. But instead of sticking to the shallows, our reporter dives deeper, into darker territory, where his carefree sarcastic tone and the charming euphony of his descriptive terms are too soothing to have any impact.

When you move away from the vainglorious and weird toward the hucksters, the liars, and the dangerously inept, the internal logic of the goofy approach often stops the narrative after the action and before the result. You are permitted to mention that Jack Abramoff stole millions from Indian tribes, but you musn’t dwell on it. You can mention the quid-pro-quo lobbyist-lawmaker relationship, but you can’t delve too far into the effects it has on the laws that govern us; a few funny examples will suffice. You can mention the economic and human cost of the war in Iraq, but only in a sentence or two. And don’t make them too pointed or emotional either, it would ruin the mood. Think P.J. O’Rourke. In order to actually remain light (if not funny) throughout, the book has to plant itself in that strange liminal period between cause and effect.

There were other ways to go, even if Milbank had remained wedded to his role as the observant court jester. Voltaire’s caustic wit never suffered for the anger he felt. In the realm of cinema, Dr. Strangelove’s black comedy is all the more memorable for the “seething” just beneath the surface. But Dana Milbank is still something of a reporter, and one gets the feeling that his blasé approach is meant to keep more doors from closing on him. So he prances on.

Imagine, when you read the following passage that the author actually seemed to care about what he’s talking about. Imagine that he’s not just sarcastic but angry, even “seething.” Returning to the theme of self-importance, Milbank notes that

prestige mythology extends through most aspects of Potomac life and has left Potomac Man singularly impervious to reason, nuance, and scientific truth. The most incidental of policy disagreements inevitably becomes a clash between good and evil. War is justified merely by saying that “we love freedom” and the enemies “hate freedom.” Each lawmaker, regardless of the position he or she takes, invariably professes to be acting in “the national interest” and conducting “the people’s business.” Walking in the marble corridors of the classical temples of Potomac Land, Potomac Man holds a firm belief that his town, like Troy, was built by the hands of gods.

This passage would fit comfortably in the midst of a righteous polemic, but we must remember that by now Potomac Man is just a trifle too cute, and, as if to say “no big deal,” Milbank moves on to poke fun at some crackpot Senator who thinks global warming is a liberal hoax.

Again he pulls back in a chapter titled “Norms and Deviancy”:

Potomac Land is extraordinarily tolerant of behaviors that other cultures would immediately attribute to psychiatric disorders. Here, people who are thought by the outside worlds to be utterly mad are commonly embraced as respected members of the community. This is all the more strange because Homo politicus, in his public utterances, hews to the straight and narrow, pronouncing his fealty to “heartland values” or “traditional values.”

Perhaps at last Millbank will charge, knife in teeth, into the issues. But no, our court jester pulls the trigger of his pistol only to unfurl a banner that reads “bang.” He goes on to gently lampoon a congresswomen afraid of “black helicopters” and another who ends his speeches with “Beam me up, Mr. Speaker.” There’s a sense of pet owner-like affection from the author. These amusing little anecdotes don’t jibe with the darker side of “Potomac Land,” and he should have stuck with them and avoided discussion of things like war, where people actually get hurt.

General Eric Shinseki’s honesty earned him his walking papers when he said, contrary to White House officialdom, that an invasion of Iraq will require hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Milbank makes this paltry effort to impart the gravity of events on the reader: “Rumsfeld kept his job, tens if not hundreds of thousands died in Iraq, and Shinseki was pushed into retirement. For Potomac Man, telling the truth is a perilous activity.” On to the next amusing tableau. Like O’Rourke, his counterpart on the right (Milbank has a vaguely leftward bias), Milbank’s approach isn’t really suited to the full spectrum of his chosen subject. When O’Rourke decided to travel the war-torn and poverty-stricken areas of the globe in Holidays in Hell, he (as Christopher Hitchens pointed out) felt compelled “to try to see the funny side of the world’s trouble spots and plague houses.” Ditto Mr. Milbank in Washington.

The worst instance of this clash between approach and substance, and the final nail in the coffin for this reviewer, was the author’s story of Deal Hudson, former advisor to President Bush on Catholic affairs. He’d lost his job as a professor at Fordham University for sexually harassing an eighteen-year-old girl. Milbank notes the paradox of a Catholic advisor/sex predator, and then goes on to actually recount the episode. This girl had confessed to Hudson that she was depressed and suicidal, and he decided to invite her out and get her drunk. Remember the tone of the book as you read this:

He then offered her a ride to school. “Dr. Hudson told me to lay my head on his lap, suggesting fellatio when he unzipped his zipper. I did both,” the student reported. He then took her to his office “and laid me down on top of [his desk]. He began touching me, unzipping my jeans, and pulling up my shirt. I was just glad to be laying down, I could barely feel my body.” After exchanging “sexual acts,” Hudson took Poppas to her dorm, then went home to his wife.

The reader doesn’t sense any outrage on Milbank’s part; he simply prattles on about how the Potomac Man has no shame, as any other culture would. His goofy, pseudo-anthropological approach precludes the appropriate disgust. That is left to the reader, who knows what to think about Deal Hudson, but isn’t so sure anymore about Dana Milbank.

  A few years ago, Dana Milbank was labeled a “policy bimbo” by John Podhoretz, son of Norman and writer for The National Review. Anyone who earns the ire of John Podhoretz (or any Podhoretz for that matter) must have something going for him, but one can’t help but conclude that there was more than a kernel of truth in that stinging sobriquet. If authors wish to deal with the evil alongside the inane, they commit themselves to a precarious balancing act, and the stakes are high. Milbank falls flat on his face; every chuckle is a pyrrhic victory.


Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.