The Magazine Reader

Fed Time for Gonzo at Rolling Stone

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson is dead and P.J. O'Rourke is writing for the Atlantic and delivering after-dinner speeches to Republican fat cats. But that's okay because Rolling Stone magazine has a new political reporter with the gonzo spirit that made Thompson and O'Rourke so much fun. His name is Matt Taibbi and here's how he describes Tom DeLay in RS's Dec. 15 issue:

"Watching DeLay wade through a crowd of his own party members during a critical vote is an awesome thing, a nature show worthy of Sir David Attenborough. DeLay moves through the aisles like some kind of balding incubus, and as he passes, Republican members instinctively turn their backs on him, not wanting to be caught in the Gorgon's gaze (or, more to the point, be threatened with the loss of a chairmanship or reelection funding)."

Thompson, who committed suicide last February, invented the "gonzo" style in the 1970s by combining on-the-scene reporting, off-the-wall comedy and inventive invective. In the '80s, O'Rourke kept up the gonzo tradition from a conservative perspective. Both were gutsy guys: Thompson rode with the Hells Angels and O'Rourke traveled to various Third World war zones. Taibbi shows his guts by spending time with a group that's far more vicious and dangerous than bikers or guerrillas -- the United States Congress.

Taibbi has been watching Congress on and off for much of this year, filing dispatches filled with acid portraits of our elected representatives:

On Jean Schmidt, the Ohio Republican freshman who called Jack Murtha a coward: "a wrinkly, witchlike woman with a penchant for dressing like a harbor buoy."

On Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader from Nevada: "a dour, pro-life Mormon with a campaign chest full of casino money."

On James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee: "perfectly cast as a dictatorial committee chairman: He has the requisite moist-with-sweat pink neck, the dour expression, the penchant for pointless bile and vengefulness."

Obviously, this is vicious, nasty name-calling and there's absolutely no excuse for it -- except, of course, accuracy. I've spent my share of time covering Congress, and as far as I can tell his descriptions are pretty much on the money. Of course, he does sugarcoat things a bit, but that's excusable: If a reporter tried to reveal what really goes on in Congress, he'd start howling like a banshee and the men in white coats would carry him off to the booby hatch.

Taibbi's favorite target is Bill Thomas, the autocratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Whenever Taibbi mentions Thomas, he describes him as "the first congressman to have been found literally in bed with the pharmaceutical industry (he got caught having an affair with a female lobbyist . . .)."

In his latest dispatch, Taibbi describes Thomas voting against a bill because it would have prohibited Medicaid from paying for erectile-dysfunction drugs: "In other words, Thomas couldn't vote without Viagra. If there is a better metaphor for the Republican troubles, I haven't heard it."

Of course, name-calling is easy and anybody can do it, even an Oxycontin-addled Rush Limbaugh. But Taibbi also exhibits a fairly sophisticated knowledge of the inner workings of Congress. Wonks will recognize the aptness of his description, in a story last August, of the House Rules Committee, the place where amendments go to die, as "perhaps the free world's outstanding bureaucratic abomination -- a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish."

In that same story, Taibbi wrote the best description of the Export-Import Bank that I've ever read: "A federal slush fund that gives away massive low-interest loans to companies that a) don't need the money and b) have repeatedly made gigantic contributions to the right people."

Taibbi is the author of "Spanking the Donkey," a book on the 2004 presidential campaign, and he has covered a range of stories, including the Michael Jackson trial and the recent earthquake in Pakistan. But I like him best when he's aiming his ire at the lords of Congress. They deserve him.

An Army of None

Last week, President Bush unveiled his "Plan for Victory" in Iraq and it turned out to be a longer version of his oft-repeated stump-speech line: "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." Perhaps the president should read "Why Iraq Has No Army," James Fallows's very pessimistic and, alas, quite convincing article in the December issue of the Atlantic.

Fallows, author of "National Defense" and other books, has written several long, well-reported pieces on Iraq for the Atlantic, one of which won a National Magazine Award in 2003.

For this latest piece, Fallows interviewed dozens of American military officials, ranging from ground-level grunts to a three-star general. Few were optimistic about the ability of the Iraqi army and police to beat the insurgency anytime soon. The Iraqi forces are crippled by poor training, lack of equipment, low morale and deep ethnic divisions.

"Measured against what it would take to leave Iraqis fully in charge of their own security, the United States and the Iraqi government are losing ground," Fallows concludes. "Absent a dramatic change -- in the insurgency, in American efforts, in resolving political differences in Iraq -- America's options will grow worse, not better, as time goes on."

This is an important and disturbing story. Read it and weep.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company