book saloon: so damn much money
While I was traveling I finished Robert Kaiser’s So Damn Much Money, The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government. (Knopf, 2009.) It was an enjoyable if intermittently infuriating read, tainted as always by a Villager perspective characteristic of but hardly limited to Washington Post reporters like Robert Kaiser. Corruption, like weather, is just a thing that blew through on the breeze, and surely no one, least of all the fourth estate, could ever have seen it coming, much less stopped it. Like those perky local weather “teams,” WaPoo denizens chat endlessly about today, muse about tomorrow with a thick overlay of plausible deniability, and then quickly cut to commercial before anyone watching could accidentally be, contrary to policy, informed of something. Some days it’s a close call, though.
Kaiser approaches his history with a no doubt agent-generated “narrative,” which requires him to attempt to encapsulate a dreary, money-driven descent into a politics that disfavors informed consent over a one dollar/one vote system based on focused-grouped, bread-and-circuses deceit, into the career arc of a single man, Gerry Cassidy, and his eponymous, nominally liberal lobbying firm, in a story largely told by the man himself and insiders there. This works in a literary sense, drawing the reader into a winding saga of compromised altruism, but is somewhat less successful, and I think blinkered, as a work of journalism. After all, the process Kaiser is describing has inexorably led to the greatest upward transfer of wealth and the deepest global crash in nearly a century, and yet he bothers to interview multiple sources to document and reconstruct a drink-throwing incident in CSI-level detail. The strains of Nero’s fiddle waft in the night air; not an unusual occurrence at the WaPoo.
The story Kaiser has tapped, that of the gradual corruption of a pair of boomer liberals and their subsequent decline from a couple of idealistic twenty-somethings working on federal nutrition programs to obscenely wealthy political fixers hitching their wagons to Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay is indeed the stuff of which a more than usually interesting opera could be concocted, but the story it tells is woefully incomplete. The levels of corruption, and the flagrant favoritism toward wealthy and powerful interests specifically operating against the public interest was a new phenomenon, along with the sudden and complete abolition of truth in budgeting, brought to us by the Republican Revolution, quite openly, but clearly Kaiser finds that glaring, partisan-y fact unmentionable. Those FOX watchers can make or break book sales, you know. Democrats like Cassidy did dutifully tag along, of course, to their everlasting regret, and not solely because the money was so good; they’d passed the Kennedy threshold of income that turns liberals into conservatives. Kaiser turns this human failing into a bipartisan tide that washed over an unsuspecting Washington, seeing Cassidy’s corruption, like his own, in the same forgiving light. Too bad his timing was about as good as Dennis Miller’s, and his studied nonpartisanship blinded him to the real story.
In the end, though, as events had clearly already began to press a sell date on his opus, Kaiser couldn’t help but sort of outline what’s happened since the drink-throwing, and it kind of makes you wish he’d started over. He was an obviously smart guy, very close to an astonishing story, and he seems to pretend that it sailed over his head. As I’m sure it did a lot of his readers at the WaPoo and its far-too-numerous regurgitators. That’s another story for another day, evidently.
In the not so distant past, grippingly engrossing and startlingly raw analyses of government and corporate meltdowns were an inevitable byproduct of having good reporters cover beats and cultivate sources for years… the primary employer, the newspaper, essentially subsidized the research for the book. This happy equation has now been turned upside down, as Kaiser’s book illustrates. The lazy, rolodexed insiderdom of the Village reporter is marketed to the “content” industry as a “story,” and the tidy returns from a noncontroversial, miniseries-like “book” helps subsidize the failed newspaper’s “staff,” while furthering corporate goals like the endless replay of Condi’s “No One Could Have Predicted…”
Nice work if you can get it, but kind of a disappointing airplane read, even for someone already enamored of Ignatius, Hiatt, Marcus, Cohen, Broder, Krauthammer, Murray, and on and on. Kaiser’s been at the Wapoo since 1963, and I suggest he take a buyout. Maybe then he could write something good; or at least worthy of a cross-country flight,.