Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Corrupting Influence

Two veteran reporters explain how Washington fell apart

By Neil Miller

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999: 

The Corruption of American Politics: What Went Wrong and Why, by Elizabeth Drew (Birch Lane Press), 271 pages, $21.95.

Shadow: Five Presidents and The Legacy of Watergate, by Bob Woodward (Simon and Schuster), 517 pages, $27.95.

In the 25 years since Watergate, the life of American politics has been coming apart at the seams. Congress is increasingly led by mediocrities and ideologues. The presidency has been stripped of its myth and mystique, even of its dignity. Scandal follows scandal, each one less consequential -- and more hyped -- than the one before.

Campaign contributions increasingly determine policy. The political center vanishes, even as politicians make obeisance to it. These developments culminated in the 1995 government shutdown, the apparent attempts by foreign governments and companies to influence the election of 1996, and the impeachment follies of 1998 and '99.

In The Corruption of American Politics, Elizabeth Drew, who was the New Yorker's Washington correspondent for 19 years, examines the reasons for Washington's decline. Many of its problems are due to changes in the culture of Capitol Hill, she argues. Things were simply better in the good old days of compromise and conciliation, when senators and congressmen socialized across party lines, brought their families to Washington to live (many of them don't do so today), and went on junkets where they learned firsthand what was going on in other parts of the world. Drew dates at least some of the rise in partisanship to the arrival of the "inexperienced ideologues" of Newt Gingrich's Class of 1994. She also attributes the change to the fact that other House members -- traditionally more aggressive, more partisan, more confrontational -- moved over to the Senate. "Taken as a whole, the Members of Congress today are less rounded, less reflective than before," she contends.

Even more destructive has been the ascendancy of the money culture. As of the 1996 election, Drew notes, the post-Watergate campaign-finance reforms have been essentially null and void. The overall limit on political contributions became meaningless. Senate and House members now spend a large part of their days raising money and are keenly aware of how each vote they cast will affect their fundraising.

All of this has meant a decline in the ability to get things done and a rise in crippling factionalism, what Drew calls "the self-centered, short-sighted, limited-vision, reactive politics of today."

These observations are not terribly new, of course. But Drew is as knowledgeable a reporter as any in Washington and has never been one to pull her punches. Her analysis is sharp, incisive, and utterly convincing, buttressed by a wide range of inside-the-Beltway sources. For the reader who has never really been able to understand the difference between "hard" and "soft" money, Drew offers a lucidly presented crash course. One can't help but come away from this book with an appreciation of the absolute necessity of campaign-finance reform, as well as an enhanced understanding of how Washington works -- and how it continues to go awry.

For a more in-depth look at the decay of the presidency, there is Washington Post editor (and Watergate investigative reporter) Bob Woodward's Shadow. The book examines how the legacy of Watergate has overshadowed the five administrations since Nixon's, how the post-Watergate presidents have failed to learn from it, and how it eventually helped destroy their presidencies. After Watergate, in Woodward's view, the presidency was diminished. The problem is that all the presidents who followed him have refused to acknowledge it. When questionable activity occurred within their administrations, they tried to avoid releasing information and, as a result, allowed their relationships with prosecutors and the media to deteriorate into "a permanent state of suspicion and warfare."

Shadow often reads like fiction, full of fast-paced re-created dialogue. Take this recounting of a conversation Bill Clinton had with James Carville: "Later in August, Clinton called Carville from the Vineyard. 'Good God,' the president said. He was as down as Carville had ever heard him. . . . Finally, the president admitted his chief concern. 'She is not going to forgive me,' Clinton said." The content of such conversations is often provided by "knowledgeable sources" whose identities can be surmised with a glance at the footnotes or a bit of simple deduction.

If Drew's book is mostly analysis with some stories thrown in, Woodward's is all story with little analysis. Shadow is often fun, the way reading People or Vanity Fair is fun. You can dismiss it as junk history, but you can't put it down. Oddly enough, it becomes less fun during the half of the book devoted to Clinton. The revelations turn out to be surprisingly few, the characters are not particularly well drawn, and the whole business -- as in Drew's book -- is just too familiar. (Not the blue dress again!) The scattershot treatment of the early days of Whitewater -- providing little context for the scandal or Arkansas politics or even the Clintons -- reads like outtakes from the more precise book on the subject that Woodward never wrote.

By the time you finish reading Shadow, the scandal-driven siege of the presidency seems so contemptible that presidential flaws and failures -- as eager as Woodward is to point them out -- take second place. Or was that Woodward's purpose after all? Perhaps Shadow is Woodward's mea culpa for the culture of investigation and exposé that has gripped Washington for the past 25 years.

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