A Sledgehammer Approach, Made Heavier by the Pound

Right-wing broadcasters Rush Limbaugh, above, and Bill O'Reilly, right, are
Right-wing broadcasters Rush Limbaugh, above, and Bill O'Reilly, right, are "dolts" in the words of author David Sirota, who has worked for Democrats. (By William Thomas Cain -- Getty Images)
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Friday, June 2, 2006


How Big Money & Corruption Conquered Our Government --

And How We Take It Back

By David Sirota

Crown Publishers, 373 pp., $24.

The literary palette has many hues. The best works of fiction and nonfiction convey a wide range of views and emotions because art, like life, isn't just black or white.

And then there are political books. More and more often, they are screeds that take one side of an argument and attack the other side without mercy or remorse. These sorts of books pander to our badly polarized electorate and do little to benefit democracy or to add to our knowledge of Washington. Also, they aren't very satisfying.

The latest book in this polemical style is "Hostile Takeover" by David Sirota. Its subtitle leaves no doubt that it is meant more as a political talking-points memo than an effort at serious nonfiction: "How Big Money & Corruption Conquered Our Government -- and How We Take It Back."

Sirota, who has worked for Democrats, admits his biases. He calls broadcast conservatives Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly "dolts." He writes that his book "is not for people like Senator Rick Santorum (R), who call themselves 'moral.' "

"People like that," he adds, are "wild-eyed, deranged lunatics [that] no amount of sanity in this book or any other is going to get through to them."

In other words, conservatives need not read further. Sirota insists that his project does not tilt in favor of either party, but his words betray him. "Hostile Takeover" is a vicious and sometimes ugly apologia for pro-labor, pro-trial-lawyer Democrats, which its publisher obviously hopes will capitalize on the current lobbying scandals.

To be fair, the concept behind "Hostile Takeover" is praiseworthy, even if it isn't new. No one doubts that Washington is too steeped in money. The power of lobbyists -- and, more important, of the interests that pay their fees -- is immense. Plenty of government policies, including some that Sirota examines, such as health care and energy, are highly influenced, if not directed, by these forces.

Indeed, Sirota's book is filled with facts along with the invective. A reader can learn here and there about some of the more colorful misadventures in Washington that helped to shape Medicare's new prescription drug plan and that led to the problems that plague employee pension funds.

What's more, Sirota is a careful reader of periodicals and effectively selects the stories he uses to make his debating points. John D. Podesta, the head of the liberal Center for American Progress, was insightful when he told Newsweek in 2003 that Sirota had "an eye for critique and an instinct for the jugular."

But the venom with which Sirota lashes out at his many enemies undermines whatever merit his arguments may have. He repeats the words "myth," "lie," and "hack" throughout the text to denote the opinions and the people with whom he disagrees. The labels are superfluous. From the first chapter, no one will have any doubt that Sirota is no fan of lawmakers and regulators who in his view have been "bought off" or who have "sold out" to evil corporations.

I only wish that the world were so simple! My job as a reporter and a columnist would be a snap. Unfortunately, federal policy and politics is a complicated game.

Sirota's black-and-white Washington allows no shade in between, a fact that deprives the reader of a much more interesting and credible story. Surely many people will be helped by Medicare's new prescription drug program. And low income-tax rates do have some positive impact on economic growth, which, in turn, assists people who need jobs. Yet those positions are hard to find in Sirota's rendition.

Also, labor unions have their legitimate detractors, as do trial lawyers who sue major corporations. But, again, these opinions are obscured in favor of unrelenting advocacy. I submit that Sirota's stands would have been stronger if he had more often acknowledged the validity of his competition. But that's not how political books are written these days.

And that's a shame. Too much of our political discourse is combat between unyielding ideologies. Facts are used as weapons, not as windows to a higher understanding. Ideas are too often filtered through the prism of partisanship, rendering them useless in the cause of better government.

Maybe it's too much to wish away the public's desire for easy solutions to complicated problems. But it's not too much to expect books on federal policy to color their analyses with at least a little doubt.

Birnbaum covers lobbying and politics for The Post.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company