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Books: Dana Milbank's 'Homo Politicus'

Dana Milbank
Dana Milbank

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Dana Milbank
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, January 23, 2008; 12:00 PM

Post columnist Dana Milbank, who writes Washington Sketch, fields questions about his time among the natives of the mid-Atlantic swamps of North America -- documented in his new treatise, "Homo Politicus: The Strange and Scary Tribes that Run Our Government," took your questions Wednesday, Jan. 23 at noon ET. Read the review: Capital Anthropology, (Post, Jan. 6).

The transcript follows.

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Dana Milbank: Hello, dear reader. Your no-longer-fearless anthropologist, afraid of a scalping by the barbaric tribes who are Homo politicus, has escaped the confines of Potomac Land. I'm doing this chat from a Food Lion parking lot on US 76 in between Columbia and Sumter, S.C. (If you happen to be here too, I'm in the gray Grand Prix. Feel free to stop in.) Actually, I'm here to see Barack Obama this afternoon, but now it is time to discuss my new book, "Homo Politicus: The Strange and Scary Tribes that Run Our Government." Please send your questions. And, most importantly: Buy the book!

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Freising, Germany: I haven't had a chance to read your book yet but I was wondering how much similarity there is between the Potomac Man's DNA and that of the Thames, Spree or Seine Men. Any thoughts?

Dana Milbank: A fine question, Freising. But just because you live in Germany you are not exempt: Buy the book! Or several. Preferably from one of those stores that reports to the bestseller lists.

In my extensive anthropological studies (I have degrees from both Google and Wikipedia) I came to understand that Homo politicus has a direct lineage from Homo neanderthalis, apparently skipping the whole Homo sapien thing. This has made him a particularly barbaric type. He steals from other tribes (Jack Abramoff), hides his treasure in his icebox (William Jefferson), applies war paint to his face (Katherine Harris), gives frightening war yells (Howard Dean) and performs bizarre public fertility rites (Larry Craig). Actually, you're probably safer staying in Germany and having them ship you the book.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: As I understand your anthropological research, you identified two clearly defined tribes you named Democrats and Republicans. How stable are these tribes, and do you think there are any forces that could severely fragment tribal loyalties? For instance, what is this Bloomberg I hear about, and could a Bloomberg at least temporarily shatter tribal stabilities?

Dana Milbank: You are correct, Harrisburg, which leads me to believe you already have purchased the book. If you have not, and this is just a lucky guess, let me remind you: Buy the book!

The primary family unit in Potomac Land is the tribe, or party. While Homo politicus has spouses (several, in the case of the great Homo politicus Rudy Giuliani), children and parents, these relationships are less important than his standing in his party. By strengthening his party and building his majority, he is better able to enjoy the fruits of the Potomac economy, namely the acquisition of earmarks and other forms of government funds. This type of hunting and gathering comes from the early days, when the Piscataway Indians first coined the word "Potomac," meaning, "where the goods are brought in."

Also true is that this Bloomberg fellow has the potential to irritate the Potomac tribes. He also appears to have frightening shamanic abilities. I read in the paper this morning that he has grown from 5-foot-6 to 5-foot-7.

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Fairfield, Calif.: You take my question, I buy your book. LOL.

Dana Milbank: Buy the book! If you buy three books, I will give you a three paragraph answer!

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wiredog: So, you've followed in the footsteps of the fearless anthropologists Eugene McCarthy and James J. Kilpatrick. But does your book have illustrations as good as MacNelly's were for their book, " A Political Bestiary"?

Dana Milbank: No illustrations, but there is a photo of an aging explorer with binoculars on the cover who resembles my former Post colleague Tom Edsall.

However, Michael Cavna, an excellent artist at The Post, made drawings of all the presidential candidates in caveman garb for a piece I did for Outlook. Maybe the smart people on washingtonpost.com can post a link to it here. (But reading it does not excuse you from buying the book.)

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washingtonpost.com: Who Will Rule Potomac Man? (Post, Dec. 30)

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Philadelphia: Why do all those who seek lead these tribes promise change, but only implement little changes? Is memory loss common among the leaders and populace?

Dana Milbank: On the contrary, Philadelphia, Homo politicus has an excellent memory. And he is a hardy type, very good at protecting his way of life. When you hear the word "change" on the campaign trail, this is in fact an incantation made up by the Potomac medicine men; they have read the public opinion polls (the Potomac equivalent of Holy Scriptures) and know that voters want "change." But once the victors arrive in, or return to, Potomac Land, they  happily will go on about their business of taking cash from lobbyists (I compare them in the book to Melanesian Big Men) and fighting like bloodthirsty warriors (I compare them to the viking berserkers).

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Ames, Iowa: Given your long and close observations of the Homo Politicus, how do you discern the level of relative sanity among them? Months on the campaign trail would render normal humans into gibbering, drooling shells of their former dullard selves. Yet these tribal members soldier on with only the occasional (well-documented) flare-up.

Dana Milbank: Very astute, Ames. You will learn all about this in the chapter titled "Deviancy" -- when you buy the book! But to summarize: Potomac Man is extraordinarily tolerant of deviants because he wants to include as many people in his party as possible. This explains why Republicans embrace a cross-dresser such as Giuliani, or why Democrats accept as one of their leader Harry Reid, who suffers from Potomac-variant Tourette Syndrome ("Liar! Loser! Hack! Incompetent!"). Of course, there are times when a Potomac Man becomes too unstable to keep in the tribe, and he is jettisoned, as was the case with Man on Dog Santorum, Macaca Allen and Sandy "The Trailer" Berger.

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Washington: Any chance of pushing through the Coastal Zone Management Act reauthorization bill languishing in Senate Commerce, with an add-on to get coastal states to look at what they can do to stave off effects of global warming? Makes so much sense -- may never pass but thought you could check. Thanks.

Dana Milbank: Now here's somebody who definitely needs to buy the book.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Have you found an explanation for how a leader is selected? Is there a reason why those seeking to be the chief spend a year in Iowa and then stand outdoors freezing in New Hampshire? Have you been able to find any relationship between these strange rituals and the actual duties of becoming chief?

Dana Milbank: What you describe, Harrisburg, is indeed a barbaric ritual. This can be explained by the fact that the politicians -- even presidential candidates -- are not the most important people in Potomac Land. That honor goes to the high priests, or shamans, who manipulate public opinion and call themselves "strategists" or "consultants." The shamans devised the primary system, and the candidates, who are from the second caste, warriors, merely go along with it.

This relationship continues once a president actually arrives in Potomac Land. Though many outsiders assume that the president is the guy in charge, that role falls to people such as Karl Rove, in Bush's case, Mark Penn in Clinton's case or David Axelrod in Obama's case.

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New York: Milbank -- don't confuse your anthropological studies with the history of this tribe. Simply put, even though the more things change the more they stay the same, the "things" that have changed are significant -- both tribes, especially the Democrats have become wimpish in the past three decades!

Dana Milbank: On the contrary, New York. They practice human sacrifice, much like the Aztecs of the 15th century who ripped out the still-beating hearts of their victims. Just ask Scooter Libby. Indeed, I am so concerned about violence among Homo politicus and all the revenge killings that I dedicated the book to Tom DeLay and have agreed to donate a portion of proceeds to the Alberto Gonzales legal defense fund (but only if you buy a million books).

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Fairfield, Calif.: Okay, you got me -- three books it is, hell next three birthdays.

Dana Milbank: Excellent. I owe you three paragraphs on a question of your choice. As long as it's not about the Coastal Zone Management Act reauthorization bill.

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Annapolis, Md.: How has John McCain's recent resurgence affected his place in the taxonomy of Homo politicus? By the way, have you personally bought the book? If not, let me remind you to buy the book.

Dana Milbank: Sorry for the delay in answering this question. I was busy ordering a copy of the book.

The case of McCain is an important one, Annapolis. In the book I describe him as a shape-shifter, a rare figure capable of winning the loyalty of members of the opposite tribe. He has gone from being a maverick to a Bush lover to the new front-runner in the race. I also have described him as suffering from violating an important Potomac taboo: He called the sacred cows Robertson and Falwell "agents of intolerance," and still hasn't recovered with conservatives. In one tribe I describe in the book, one tribal chief is required to eat a man each time he gets a haircut, to escape the haircut taboo. McCain has tried the equivalent -- seeking the mercy of Regent University and the like -- but has not been forgiven.

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Sewickley, Pa.: Certain members of the Democratic tribe argue that we need to enter a new era of bipartisan comity with the rival Republican group. Do you see a shift in mores, or will these factions be scrapping like warring baboons come fall?

Dana Milbank: "Bipartisanship," like "change" is an incantation done only for the benefit of outsiders to Potomac Land. I provide a glossary at the end of the book for those who wish to speak Potomac, and in it I explain that "bipartisan" means the speaker needs to pick off one or two votes from the other side to ram his or her legislation through the Congress.

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Of course we want Bubba: You make a funny point or three in your story today about Bill Clinton's campaign efforts being about ... well, mostly him.>Great! I like and want more of his ideas and inspiration, but of course I think my vote for Hillary (and I early voted already in the Florida primary) will be a vote for her. So what if we get him thrown in? People talked for decades of the appeal of Jackie, or Eleanor. It is a package deal. They're all in, and so am I. Bring 'em...

Dana Milbank: I should note that when I was listening to Bill Clinton at the breakfast restaurant in Columbia yesterday, he remarked that "family feuds" -- such as those between Obama and Clinton -- were in some ways nastier than battles with the "other clan" (the Republicans). This indicates to me that Clinton, a legendary warrior and a Big Man if ever there was one, has bought the book. And so should you.

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Academia: Does your book address the cognitive dissonance experienced by the white male tribal elders when members of a subgroup (i.e. females) challenge them for positions of power? (Your book is at the top of my Amazon wish list.)

Dana Milbank: Wish lists are not good enough, Academia, but I will give you a brief answer for the effort.

The book does indeed deal with the female Amazon warriors -- a Potomac variant much like those of Greek mythology who cut off one breast to make better use of the bow and arrow. In this sense, Homo politicus is highly egalitarian. Figures such as Nancy Pelosi (who has spoken of ripping off opponents' faces), not to mention Barbara Boxer and Ann Coulter, are among Potomac Land's most feared warriors.

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Ocala, Fla.: How do you account for the stories of the lost tribe that supposedly will return one day and bring peace and harmony and universal health care? Is this just a myth?

Dana Milbank: Ah, it is one of the great founding myths of the Democratic tribe, and every two years the party has rites of solidarity to renew the effort. But in Potomac Land, universal health care is as much a part of folklore as Dick Cheney's view that it was "pretty well confirmed" that Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. All in the "mythology" chapter, by the way.

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Chicago: You remind me of the kid who hated being a medical student, whined about all the time, but kept up their studies because they liked to look at human cadavers!

Dana Milbank: How did you find out about the cadavers?

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Baltimore: Dear Dana: I always enjoy your sketches and really like your book as well. I recently read a blog (tankwilson.com) where the author uses sports metaphors to describe politics, and it made me want to ask your opinion of whether politicians (and political reporters) think that "the show" of politics is more important than "the work" of the profession? In other words, does everyone find the issues of taxation, health care, etc., so boring that we have to make them more entertaining just to discuss them? Thanks.

Dana Milbank: Glad you've read the book, Baltimore! The question makes me think particularly of the media in Potomac Land. I call them the "chorus" because, like those in ancient Greece, they perpetually are interrupting the action to sing and dance and draw attention to themselves. I suspect my reluctance to answer the question about the Coastal Zone Management reauthorization proves your point.

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"I ... have agreed to donate a portion of proceeds to the Alberto Gonzales legal defense fund": Well, I was going to buy the book, but now I'm only going to check it out from the library. After all, the Decider-In-Chief's favorite lickspittle was/is a lawyer, right?

Dana Milbank: Fear not! We are still well short of the million copies sold that would require me to make the donation. Also, the Doubleday publicist -- the inimitable Nicole Dewey -- has added asterisks and fine print so that if Fredo is already in the pokey by the time I hit a million copies, I only need to buy him a phone card.

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Washington: Dana -- great Sketch today about former President Clinton. Are you going to keep your column going while you do your book tour? (Please!)

Dana Milbank: Your "Washington" dateline isn't fooling anyone, mother. And I know you already have bought the book.

I've already missed a couple of weeks of Sketches because of the book, but I aim to be back on A2 three or four times a week now.

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New York: Need I play your silly game to get airtime, or am I allowed to dispel the myth (lie) that the vice president said that it was " 'pretty well confirmed" that Iraq had something to do with Sept. 11"? You know that is not true, so why say it in public, even in jest? You know he was referring to members of al-Qaeda who traveled to Iraq -- never has he or anyone in the administration said or even hinted that Iraq had anything to do with Sept. 11! Have you no shame? That some idiot in the Midwest gets confused and thinks they said something they didn't is not the fault of the president or the vice president of the United States of America! Sorry I am not joking around, but I happen to take my country seriously. About time you do as well, Dana!

Dana Milbank: Aha, the vice president's secure, undisclosed location is New York! And he continues to spread the great Saddam mythology. Well done, sir.

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South Park: Can optimism be found (for this nation as a whole)?

Dana Milbank: An excellent question. And that is exactly what I'm searching for here on U.S. 76 outside Columbia. I haven't found optimism in the Food Lion or the Dollar General, but I'm about to resume my journey to Sumter, where I hear there's a guy talking about "hope." So, thanks for tuning in, and remember: Buy the ... well, you get the point.

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