Money, power and corruption a new genre in political nonfiction

With the guilty pleas of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the recent resignation of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the next major trend in nonfiction could be deconstructing the increasingly suspicious nexus of money and governance.

Matthew Continetti and David Sirota take their shots with their respective works, The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine and Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government — and How We Take It Back.

 
 


While one would assume ideological differences between the works — Sirota, a former Democratic staffer on the Appropriations Committee, has his own blogs and writes for the liberal In These Times, while Continetti works for the conservative Weekly Standard — the separation between these two books exceeds the contrasts of their authors’ beliefs.

The dual paths that faced the Republican Party in 1994 and the road ultimately taken are what resonate most for Continetti. The fate of the party was embodied in two House Republican leaders.

One is former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), whom Continetti describes as “fiercely ideological, tirelessly combative, and endlessly inventive.” The other is DeLay, who “combined the convictions of an ideological conservative with the street smarts of a machine politician.”

DeLay, seeing his opportunity to leapfrog into leadership by cultivating his own House following, created the Americans for a Republican Majority PAC (ARMPAC). That resulted in an improbable Republican congressional majority, DeLay’s ascension to House whip and 13 years of ruling as the de facto GOP leader in the House, the man pulling all the strings behind the scenes.  

But as Continetti contends, it also represented the deviation from the Republican Revolution. Instead of the onset of a new conservative enlightenment, DeLay’s machine became the greenhouse for the cross-pollination of lobbyist largesse and lawmaker avarice.

Continetti writes from the standpoint of the jilted intellectual. He is the boy who came from New York to achieve professional manhood in Washington, only to find what he thought he left behind, “a city that had grown rich and fat and happy, filled with expensive gourmet restaurants, chic bars, and a social life reminiscent of” the Big Apple.

He also focuses on people and their human foibles. Continetti’s initial scope encompasses three characters: Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform; former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed; and Abramoff. DeLay plays an important yet peripheral role as the creator of the K Street Project, a program intended to have the Republican Party monopolize the lobbyist-legislator relationship.

Continetti is at his best when he expounds on the root causes of the project’s successes and failures: the limited time lawmakers have to read bills, which fosters dependence on lobbyists to provide information; the legislative response to the Watergate scandal; and the newly luxurious lifestyle available to lawmakers in D.C.

Sirota’s book, conversely, is rarely insightful. Notwithstanding his allusion to Morpheus — the prophetic leader from the “Matrix” movie trilogy — when describing himself, his brand of truth rarely exceeds oft-repeated talking points.

In his defense, Sirota’s intent is a populist one, to incite readers into action. He relies heavily on the assertion that lawmakers’ need for campaign money makes them susceptible to corporate influence.

But Sirota’s populist motivation serves as his greatest handicap in providing the reader a deeper understanding of how money influences government. He is clearly more motivated by a desire to direct his readers toward a visceral endpoint. When condemning Bill Clinton for supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, he uses a literary allusion — that of Clinton “hamming it up with the Great Gatsby over white wine and caviar” — to make his point.

Additionally, those who do not share his viewpoint become subject to ad hominem attacks. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan possesses a ‘usual monotonous response that deliberately puts people to sleep,” Gingrich is a “reliable, industry whore” and President Bush is a “slimy politician.”

ABOUT THE BOOKS

The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine
By Matthew Continetti
Doubleday, 2006
288 pages, $24.95

Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government — and How We Take It Back
By David Sirota
Crown, 2006
384 pages, $24