Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Review: Pennsylvania Avenue

John Harwood and Gerald F. Seib, Pennsylvania Avenue: Profiles in Backroom Power, (New York, Random House, 2008).

Pennsylvania Avenue is the capital’s best address, the street of status, where the powerful work, and meet, and where the ambitious come to get things done….Over the span of American history, the powerful have come together here to accomplish great things—to free the oppressed, to win great battles, to launch great public works, to comfort the downtrodden. The people of Pennsylvania can be vain, greedy, downright nasty as well. Sometimes the Avenue is where they manage to stop things from getting done. Interspersed with the moments of great glory are those occasions when fear, mistrust, or simple disagreements run out of control to produce confrontation and gridlock on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Thus begins this compendium of Beltway Biographies compiled by Harwood and Seib. Various behind-the-scenes characters are profiled and one or two of their individual successes and failures in “getting things done” are highlighted.

Throughout, the authors try to illustrate—indeed, seem to yearn for—a time when relations between the parties were better. To be sure, while the politics of bygone eras saw their own tensions and fundamental differences, more often than not, most politicians of different stripes could at least agree on big picture issues such as the Cold War.

According to the authors, that changed—and they make their case in the sections on Ken Mehlman and a few, sprinkled allusions to Barack Obama—when the Baby Boom generation developed ideological fault lines during the Vietnam War. The differences that separated the factions born of that conflict exist to this day. In short, there is a basic distrust between the two main factions and both work to undermine the ideas of their opponent, no matter the cost.

To this basic explanation, they would also seem to add the significant role the modern mass media has played. This factor they highlight in their profile of Karl Rove, who also holds this view, and whose position is that a mass media explosion led to more outlets competing against each other. This provided incentive to produce compelling content. The subsequent emergence of the “talking head” format on television has only served to continually feed the partisan beasts. We talk past each other an awful lot these days.

There are also some good bits not related to the main thesis. The chapter on Elliot Abrams includes as fair and concise an explanation of the much maligned “neocons” as I've seen, for example. Abrams also explains that a Presidential speech is a major event because it “compels the administration to decide what it really believes.” Perhaps. Though I suspect more than one politician has delivered a major speech based more on what he thought the audience wanted to hear rather than what he really believes.

In summary, the authors are even-handed with their subjects, including fair and illuminating portrayals of some selected successes and failures enjoyed (or not) by these beltway insiders. It is a well-written and informative work that concisely describes how things get done. Yet, the authors' obvious desire for a kinder, gentler Washington sometimes seems overwrought. I don't believe I'm alone in being neither as optimistic, nor desirous, of a Washington, D.C. where everyone gets along and gets things done. Sometimes, the best thing that Washington can do is nothing, after all.