Bethany McLean is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a co-author of “All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis.”

Kenneth Vogel’s new book is an attempt to explain in a splashy, insidery way one of the most important happenings in our sort-of democracy: the role that big donors are playing in elections, especially after the Citizens United decision, which gutted campaign finance restrictions. In February 2012, according to Vogel, President Obama told a group of rich donors that included Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, “You now have the potential of 200 people deciding who ends up being elected president every single time.”

This is Vogel’s beat for Politico. He knows the characters and gets the game. Want to understand Mitt Romney’s fundraising operation, how Jim Messina mobilized big donors for Obama’s 2012 campaign or the war chest growing underneath Hillary Clinton? Vogel tells the stories. He also offers lots of detail on one of the most fascinating frenmities in modern right-wing politics: Karl Rove and the Koch brothers.

And he offers great facts to bolster his overall claim. He reports that in the 2012 election, “roughly eight million small donors gave a total of about $500 million to Obama, Romney, and the main groups that backed them. It took only forty six hundred big donors to match that tally.”

To his great credit, Vogel is also pretty even-handed. Yes, he blasts what he calls the Kochtopus for its shadowy ways and hostility toward its critics. But he also recounts how Obama dropped his supposed opposition to money from big donors, and he is gleeful about Democratic hypocrisy. Vogel writes: “Democratic congressional leaders including Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid were among the leading critics of the new big money, yet they were also among their party’s leading super PAC fund-raisers.”

“Big Money: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp — on the Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics” by Kenneth P. Vogel (Public Affairs)

This is a book by an insider, for insiders. Vogel wants to show you who and what he knows. He doesn’t want to explain. Characters come and go with little context and sometimes a blithe disregard for any nuance. Of David Brock, the self-described “right wing hit man” turned Democrat, Vogel writes that his “compelling biography and fleet of bare-knuckle non profit attack groups made him a golden boy among rich Democrats.” Vogel offers nothing more. He characterizes former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who partly governed as a Republican, as a “lone-wolf liberal” billionaire. He rightly makes a big deal about his own reporting that tied Rove to something called Freedom’s Watch, but then he explains Freedom’s Watch’s lack of success with this theory: “Rove discouraged donors by sharing qualms about Freedom’s Watch.” Huh?

And while explanation is anathema to Vogel, details are catnip. For instance, there’s a whole, pointless paragraph about Haley Barbour getting off an elevator on the wrong floor.

As is clear from the book’s title, “Big Money: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp — on the Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics,” Vogel also considers himself part of his story. On some level, this is entertaining, but it is awfully repetitive. He sneaks into meetings, gets recognized (he’s important!) and gets thrown out in some manner, polite or not. After the first few times, we get it: Rich donors don’t want journalists at their events.

Nor does Vogel seem to know when the escapade contributes to the overall story and when it doesn’t. There’s a paragraph about how, after sneaking into a Koch event, he sits at a bar next to a guy who works at Toyota — and has never heard of the Kochs. The “pimp” in the subtitle is an utterly irrelevant character, a private security guard at a Democratic fundraiser in Charlotte who is in the story only because he told Vogel to leave the event. So Vogel researched the guy whose misfortune it was to cross his path, and he turned out to have a tawdry background. So what?

Vogel isn’t helped by the complexity of his subject. Not only are there lots of characters, but there’s obviously a complicated legal context for what’s happening. Vogel flicks at the importance of Citizens United, and in several spots he provides very brief summaries of other seminal events in the history of campaign finance law, including Watergate and McCain-Feingold, but he never pauses to clearly explain what’s permissible, how the law changed, who changed it and what the unintended consequences have been. Readers may grasp the Cliffs Notes version of Citizens United without help. But when Vogel writes that a nonprofit was registered under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code so as to be eligible to accept anonymous donations, or that, by adding state parties to the Democratic National Committee, the Obama campaign was able to dramatically increase the contribution limit, he offers zero context for how or why it works this way, or how it fits into the overall picture.

Vogel’s resistance to explanatory journalism also means that he buries what appear to be key points. At several places in the book, he mentions the “coordination rules,” which supposedly prevent a super PAC from coordinating with the candidate it supports. In a glancing way he criticizes Jon Huntsman, who was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, and Tommy Thompson, who was a 2012 Senate candidate from Wisconsin, for apparently cooperating with PACs just the same, seemingly demonstrating that these rules are nice in theory but ignored in practice. But he never sets up the issue or addresses it head on, and in Thompson’s case he mucks up the point by making too much of the candidate’s unappealing display of appetite for the buffet.

One of the key themes of Vogel’s book is how the Koch brothers, Charles and David, went from being independent libertarians to increasingly partisan Republicans with links to the tea party. Vogel seems to have done yeoman’s work in tracking down tax returns, finding insiders who could speak to the history and explaining the Kochs vs. Rove vs. the Republican Party.

But then, at the end of a chapter, he writes about an interview he scored with David Koch — who expressed, among other things, support for same-sex marriage and a belief that taxes would have to be increased in order to balance the budget. “The discordance between David Koch’s stances and those of the GOP orthodoxy — and even Koch backed groups — left me wondering if David Koch had a clue about the types of political activity his network was funding,” Vogel writes. Wow. If it’s true that the Kochs’ beliefs aren’t in line with the causes they support, couldn’t Vogel have used his sources to explain this, instead of just leaving it hanging?

There’s also a conundrum at the book’s core. Thus far, whether it’s George Soros throwing money at John Kerry, or Foster Friess at Rick Santorum, or Sheldon Adelson at Newt Gingrich, or the entire Republican fiasco of 2012, big money has mostly struck out. Vogel spends a lot of time doing an autopsy of what one of his sources calls the Republican “disaster” in 2012. He traces it in part to the fragmentation among donors, wonders if the same thing will happen to Democrats and writes this: “The party’s big money, in other words, was shaping up as its own worst enemy. Sparring sects were positioning themselves to take control of the party by determining its nominees, shaping the issues, and electing the candidates. But there was a very real possibility that they would instead cancel each other out.”

Despite this “very real possibility” and all the evidence of failure that Vogel presents, his core message is that the rich are “hijacking American democracy.” We’re at the dawn of a new era of mega political contributions, not the end of it. It feels too optimistic to believe otherwise. But given Vogel’s work chronicling all the failures, the book cries out for some explanation as to why past isn’t prologue and how those 200 people are going to be able to buy their president, instead of just losing their money.

Bethany McLean is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a co-author of “All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis.”


2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp — on the Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics

By Kenneth P. Vogel

PublicAffairs. 304 pp. $27.99