April 1, 1988
Some years ago, an astute reviewer (me, actually) of Seymour Hersh’s “The Price of Power” observed that “perhaps the price of being a great investigative reporter is having a wholly empirical mind.” Hersh’s splendidly indignant, fabulously factual book ached with unexplored questions about American political culture. Whence the ascendancy in the last two decades of “national security” doctrine, the foundation of Kissinger’s specious claim to expertise, and therefore to power? Why did the national security subculture, especially within the Executive Branch, emphasize “toughness” to an almost pathological degree—so much so that Kissinger, in order to avoid appearing “soft,” lost an opportunity to ban MIRVs, a step that might have set back the arms race by decades? And what accounts for Kissinger’s lionization by the media? Could it be, as Theodore Draper suggested, that the image of an intellectual in power appealed deeply, unconsciously, to a “journalistic elite that is itself largely made up of intellectuals manqués”? Hersh supplied 600 pages of evidence about these questions, and not a word of interpretation.
An unkind reviewer (not me, of course) might remark, apropos of Hedrick Smiths “The Power Game: How Washington Really Works”, that perhaps the price of being a consummate journalistic insider is having no mind at all. Smith, “The New York Times’s” chief Washington correspondent, supplies 700 pages of the bad, the ugly, and (more rarely) the good about the inner workings of Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon. He concludes with an interpretation and a prescription so bland and banal that one may wonder how well he understands what he has revealed.
“The Power Game” delivers on its subtitle: Smith has chronicled and classified nearly every gaffe, gambit, scam, snafu, boondoggle, bottleneck, blitz, and dirty trick seen inside the Beltway in the last 10 or 12 years. The classifications provide the book’s structure, but the juice is in the enormous detail: Ways and Means chairman Dan Rostenkowski’s hanging Reagan out to dry during the tax reform battle of 1985; Senator Tom Eagleton’s savage grousing about the encroachment of fund-raising on politicians’ schedules (“from awful to odious, from odious to obscene”); Congressional Republicans finally rebelling against Caspar Weinberger’s insensate greed; the Navy’s withholding and falsifying test data on its Aegis cruiser (a $90 billion program, compared with which, as a Congressional critic points out, the more controversial $20 billion MX missile program is “peanuts”); and David Stockman’s account of how he arrived at the fictitious “Rosy Scenario” on which Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts were based. None of the problems Smith highlights is new. All have been the subject of sober political-scientific analyses or of journalistic muckraking. But Smith’s book is neither of these, exactly. It’s the political equivalent of pop psychology, full of jazzy labels like “the power float,” “porcupine power,” and “the blame game.” Another sensibility might have fashioned a dunciad or a jeremiad from this mountain of material. But the responsible journalist knows how to turn the potentially epic into the manageably quotidian.
Smith is very good at what he does. Researching “The Power Game”, he talked to everyone in official Washington, it seems, and has told the story straight. Another way to put it, though, might be that no one appears to have been afraid to talk to him, and his final chapters snake clear why. For years, I’ve been reading Smith’s “Times” columns and listening to his commentary on “Washington Week in Review”. “The Power Game” confirms my impression that he’s a moral eunuch, entirely untroubled by unruly critical impulses. For the parade of abuses he surveys—and their staggering human costs outside the Beltway, which he never so much as alludes to—he offers only one remedy, and that a technical one. Not sweeping campaign-finance reforms, which might reduce the legislative influence of special interests (and that doesn’t mean women, workers, racial and ethnic minorities, and homosexuals—a large majority of Americans). Not an attack on government secrecy, whose latest manifestations are the Pentagon’s effort to shield all weapons procurement and testing from public scrutiny and the Labor Department’s deliberate degradation of economic statistics. Not federal subsidies to citizen groups trying to influence public policy, which might be a step toward genuine, rather than nominal, democracy in the United States.
Instead, Smith is worried about “divided government,” or what Samuel Huntington used to call “democratic distemper.” If some electoral mechanism or other could be found to insure that every president would be backed by strong majorities of his own party in both houses of Congress, then there would presumably be less need for shenanigans—for “power games.” Possible reforms include synchronized terms, team tickets to prevent ticket splitting, and lengthening House terms from two to four years. Smith would also increase the power of political parties and party professionals, to maximize “competence” and “cohesion” among office holders. Maximizing public participation, at least to some level beyond answering poll questions and watching television, is not discussed.
And for good reason: the whole mess, it turns out, is our fault. “By and large, politicians deliver what voters collectively show they want—either by deliberate choice, by inaction, or by ambivalence. We get the kind of Congress, the kind of President, the kind of campaign system that we want.” Well. maybe. But this ought to be the first word on the subject, not, as in “The Power Game”, the last. What leads us to want what we seem to want? And whom does it suit? These questions hint at the existence of other, profounder power games, which legions of objective, responsible, extremely proficient, and morally neuter Hedrick Smiths will never, I fear, get down to.