I picked up John Harwood and Gerald Seib’s Pennsylvania Avenue: Profiles in Backroom Power on the day after Teddy Kennedy spoke at the Democratic National Convention, and the more I read, the more I was struck by the appropriateness of the subtitle. This is not a book about profiles in courage, such as Teddy’s brother John crafted, but about profiles of a much different kind altogether.
These are stories about people concerned with power — the acquiring of it, and the keeping of it. These are stories about the use of power in the backrooms — not out of any sense of modesty, but out of a desire to avoid being challenged. These are stories of the clashing of powerful forces, but clashing done mostly out of sight and behind the scenes.
These are not profiles in courage.
Those profiled include both Republicans and Democrats, government insiders and those on the outside, and longtime DC figures as well as relative newcomers. Each is given a quick descriptor — such as the Spinner (Brendan Daly), the Republican Strategist (Karl Rove), the Advocate (Hilary Rosen), and the Netroots Warrior Meets The Establishment (Eli Pariser meets Kyle McSlarrow) — which sums up the profile painted of each.
As both the Acknowledgments and the Notes state, "The bulk of the material in this book came from a series of on-the-record interviews the authors conducted with the subjects . . ." The citations from other sources are few and far between, presenting the readers with generally benign glimpses of these power players. Little seems to have been challenged in these portraits, and none of the figures are portrayed in less-than-flattering light.
Thus, we have "The Democratic Strategist" Rahm Emanuel, who led his party to victory in 2006 and has led the challenges to Bush’s war in Iraq. His profile ends: "Rahm Emanuel — the boy-wonder politico with the cellphone that never stops — had set off tremors that spread not only up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, but across the globe to the Middle East as well." I’m sure this is the picture Emanuel wants the nation to see, though others may disagree. (Howie Klein and Paul Lukasiak, for instance, have a very different take on the victory claim.)
In the same way, we see Elliot Abrams, highlighted as The Policy Adviser. Harwood and Seib describe him as one of the"new foreign-policy thinkers [Bush the younger] represented and empowered" (p. 147) as Bush pursued policies "to change governments." Calling Abrams and this policy "new" seems odd, given Abrams’ role in the State Department and the Iran/Contra scandal under Ronald Reagan. Iran/Contra merits three entire paragraphs in Pennsylvania Avenue, one of which is devoted to his pardon by Bush the elder. By contrast, Judge Walsh gave Iran/Contra (and Abram’s role in it) slightly more attention.
But remember: these are profiles largely crafted from interviews with the principals themselves. Taken together, Pennsylvania Avenue is a virtual group self-portrait of some of the major players of DC. Almost all of the profiles speak of crossing party lines, bipartisanship, and other lofty-sounding phrases that bespeak cooperation, public service, and the public good. The details, however, say very little about these matters. Reading between the lines, the reader gets the sense that what matters to these DC backroom players is personal power and making that power felt.
Don’t get me wrong — there is much to be learned from these profiles, as long as you aren’t expecting them to be hard-hitting and digging into the claims made by the subjects. You learn what they think, and how they either see themselves or want to be perceived. Careful readers will also see the idols they worship and the illusions they exploit.
Missing from the book, though, was even a single profile representing one of the major groups of backroom power players in DC: the members of the Washington press corps. Just in the past few days, for instance, the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward has revealed yet another one of his "you give me access, and I’ll write your story" books on the front page of the Post, raising again questions of who Woodward is serving — his employers at the Post, the readers of the Post, the Bush administration, or those who purchase his book. Whoever he is serving, the backroom power arrangements that allow him to write his books are surely a part of the story of Pennsylvania Avenue.
But perhaps the late Tim Russert best exemplifies need to include the DC media’s in any collection of DC "profiles in backroom power." On the day after Tim Russert testified in the Scooter Libby trial, WashingtonPost.com’s Dan Froomkin wrote:
If you’re a journalist, and a very senior White House official calls you up on the phone, what do you do? Do you try to get the official to address issues of urgent concern so that you can then relate that information to the public?
Not if you’re NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert. . .
And get this: According to Russert’s testimony yesterday at Libby’s trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record.
That’s not reporting, that’s enabling. . .
Many things are "on trial" at the E. Barrett Prettyman federal courthouse right now. Libby is the only one facing a jail sentence — and Russert’s testimony, firmly contradicting the central claim of Libby’s defense, may just end up putting him there.
But Libby’s boss, along with the whole Bush White House, for that matter, is being held up to public scrutiny as well.
And the behavior of elite members of Washington’s press corps — sometimes appearing more interested in protecting themselves and their cozy "sources" than in informing the public — is also being exposed for all the world to see.
DC is a city built around power, and as Pennsylvania Avenue accurately notes, much of it is developed, nurtured, exercised, and protected not in broad daylight, but in the backrooms. I am pleased to welcome authors John Harwood and Gerald Seib, two savvy veteran analysts of the DC political scene, for this conversation about their new book on the backroom power players of Washington DC.
(As is the practice for our Book Salon chats, we ask that you please keep the discussion on this thread on topic as a favor to our guests. Other discussions can continue on the prior thread. Thanks!)