Jim Cullen: Review of Robert Draper's "Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives" (Free Press, 2012)
Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, is slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.
Texan Robert Draper is a journalist's journalist. A former reporter for the highly esteemed Texas Monthly, in recent years he's worked as a reporter for GQ and wrote a good history of Rolling Stone magazine that I read on a summer vacation some twenty years ago. Draper hit the bestseller list five years ago for his account of the Bush presidency, Dead Certain. In his latest book, he shifts his gaze to the legislative branch in the Age of Obama.
Though it has some important differences -- among them a more systematic approach to documenting its sources -- this is a book in the vein of Bob Woodward instant, insider history. Do Not Ask What Good We Do (the title comes from a plaintive remark of Founding Father Fisher Ames, lamenting an era of partisanship and obstructionism that seems mild by comparison) is an account of a year in the life of the House of Representatives. The premise, as Draper explains in the acknowledgments, is that 2011 was not just any year -- it marked the arrival of the Tea Party to the House in the aftermath of a 2010 midterm election that put the Republican Party back in the majority. “My intuition was that as the Republicans’ point of the spear against the administration of Barack Obama, the House was sure to be relevant, and at the risk of sounding crass, highly entertaining."
Draper is certainly not crass -- he’s an empathic observer who tried to be fair to all sides as he conducted hundreds of interviews with dozens of members of Congress to write the book -- but he’s not exactly entertaining, either. To a great degree, that’s because he doesn’t have much of a narrative arc to work with. The House is a process-driven institution, and while there’s an element of novelty in the arrival of a bloc of 87 newcomers, not all that much happened in 2011. In large measure, that’s exactly Draper’s point: to depict a government institution hopelessly gridlocked by factions, even those in the same party, talking past each other. The Tea Party freshmen sometimes have an appealing idealism, but they seem surprised and flummoxed to find themselves representing districts of people (some of them poor, some of them representing large corporate interests) who actually expect the government to work in ways that defy the hatchet mentality that got them elected. Conversely, seasoned veterans from Republican Eric Cantor to Democrat John Dingell are shown exercising levers of power in ways seem competent but not particularly noble, even when Draper seems to give them the benefit of a doubt. But we kind of already know this story; in one form or another it's been told many times in the mainstream media.
The book is essentially a set of profiles. We get sketches of important players like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi along with the newly elected Speaker of the House, John Boehner. Draper gives significant and recurring space to Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, subject of a New York Times Magazine piece last year that formed the germ of this book. He narrates the tragic shooting of Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords and the way it deeply troubled even the most die-hard right-wingers. He also chronicles the rise and fall of Anthony Weiner, a smart, politically effective, and deeply unlikeable person who had no goodwill to draw upon when a sexting scandal erupted and ended his political career. But the heart of the book are the Tea Party freshmen, particularly media lightning rod Allen West, the sole Republican in the Congressional Black Caucus. We also get portraits of the likeable, if misguided, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina as well as the appealingly down-to earth Renee Ellmers of North Carolina.
The climax of the book is the debt ceiling fight of last summer, which makes for competent if not especially riveting reading. One good point that Draper makes here that applies more generally, however, is his observation that party discipline has declined, in part because of political pressure to eliminate much-criticized earmarking. There’s an element of be-careful-what-you-wish-for in such political reforms; people like Boehner have fewer resources than the Sam Rayburns and Dan Rostenkowskis once did. Politics may be less corrupt in this respect, but also less efficient.
One wonders how much longer books like Do Not Ask What Good We Do will be published in hardcover form -- this genre of political journalism seems more suited to the e-books of the kind Politico has begun publishing. Whatever form they take, they’ll remain catnip for political junkies. The rest of us may be more inclined to wait for the Caro treatment.
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