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Homo Politicus: The Strange and Scary Tribes That Run Our Governmentby Dana Milbank
Synopses & Reviews
Washington’s most acerbic (and feared) columnist, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, skewers the peculiar and alien tribal culture of politics.
Deep within the forbidding land encircled by the Washington Beltway lives the tribe known as Homo politicus. Their ways are strange, even repulsive, to civilized human beings; their arcane rites often impenetrable; their language coded and obscure. Violating their complex taboos can lead to sudden, harsh, and irrevocable punishment. Normal Americans have long feared Homo politicus, with good reason. But fearless anthropologist Dana Milbank has spent many years immersed in the dark heart of Washington, D.C., and has produced this indispensable portrait of a bizarre culture whose tribal ways are as hilarious as they are outrageous.
Milbank’s anthropological lens is highly illuminating, whether examining the mating rituals of Homo politicus (which have little to do with traditional concepts of romantic love), demonstrating how status is displayed in the Beltway’s rigid caste system (such as displaying a wooden egg from the White House Easter Egg Roll) or detailing the precise ritual sequence of human sacrifice whenever a scandal erupts (the human sacrificed does not have to be the guiltiest party, just the lower ranked).
Milbank’s lacerating wit mows down the pompous, the stupid, and the corrupt among Democrats, Republicans, reporters, and bureaucrats by naming names. Every appalling anecdote in this book is, alas, true.
"Mix one part freshman anthropology with nine parts Washington insider politics and you'll get this caustic sendup of 'Potomac Man.' Veteran Washington Post political reporter Milbank rummages through a bagful of (sometimes forced) ethnographic clichs — consultants and pollsters are shamans, lobbyists are the Beltway version of Melanesian Big Men — but takes none of them seriously. These pseudoscholarly conceits are just pegs on which to hang his colorful accounts of recent Washington scandals, humiliations and felonies. Many of these, like the three-ring circus surrounding superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, are well known, but the author also spotlights the everyday antics of congressmen and the behind-the-scenes skullduggery that propels the ship of state. His contempt is resolutely bipartisan, targeting both Democratic Congressman Patrick Kennedy for his drug-induced vehicular mishaps and Dick Cheney for concocting 'folk tales' — duly debunked by Milbank — to sell the Iraq War. Sometimes the author's derision seems knee-jerk rather than considered; when he diagnoses Democrat Harry Reid with 'Potomac-variant Tourette's syndrome' because the senator uses phrases like 'intractable war in Iraq,' one wonders about the media's role in enforcing Washington's euphemistic double-talk. Still, Milbank knows where the fossils are buried and offers a canny, entertaining field guide to the manners and misdeeds of the political species." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The story is told of an anthropologist of yore, returning from fieldwork abroad, who is asked to report on the manners and customs of the natives. 'Manners? None. Customs? Atrocious!' The location of the tribe is no longer in question, now that Dana Milbank has published 'Homo Politicus.' In his latest book, The (Washington) Post's Washington Sketch columnist reaches into the ethnographer's tool kit... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) to take an amusing pseudo-scientific look at a curious tribe he calls Potomac Man, satirically surveying its kinship system, mythology, folklore, norms and, of course, taboos. If you're amused by the antics of lawmakers and lobbyists and delight in tales of political corruption, you'll enjoy Milbank's cheerfully wicked account. In the spirit of Horace Miner's classic, 'Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,' through which generations of anthropology students discovered American customs simply by reading the last word of the title backward, Milbank's mock ethnography playfully exoticizes Potomac Man's cultural institutions by juxtaposing them with those of other lands. 'In India, there is the priestly caste ...,' 'The Arunta, an aboriginal tribe from central Australia ...,' 'In the tongue of the Piscataway Indians who first occupied Potomac Land. ...' Of course, these cursory cultural excursions are merely tongue-in-cheek setups for the Potomac Land institutions that follow: the curious rituals (face time), rites of solidarity (fundraisers), fictive kinship (party affiliation), Kabuki theater (judicial confirmation hearings), purification rituals (the Gridiron Club) and shadow puppets (pundits), to name only a few. When the conceit works, it works well. Take the book's discussion of lobbyist-cum-felon Jack Abramoff, whom Milbank likens to a Melanesian Big Man, those 'self-made figures who gain power by showering gifts on their followers. The Big Man has no actual authority; his power comes merely from his ability — usually fleeting — to influence others. The Big Man amasses the largest possible assortment of tangible wealth: shells, sheepskins, yams, wives. He demonstrates his wealth, and thereby gains clout, by favoring his fellow tribesmen with large moka, or gifts. Through this generosity, the Big Man wins the hearts and minds of his followers, who do as he tells them.' Like a modern anthropologist picking through trash to uncover patterns of conspicuous consumption, Milbank meticulously inventories the redistribution of casino boats, arena skyboxes and golfing trips that abruptly ended the careers of Abramoff and his moka partners. In one of the book's funniest chapters, 'Norms and Deviancy,' Milbank dispenses with cross-cultural funalogies altogether (apparently because nothing in the anthropological literature can rival the eccentricity, paranoia and megalomania he uncovers in Washington). 'Potomac Land is extraordinarily tolerant of behaviors that other cultures would immediately attribute to psychiatric disorders. Here, people who are thought by the outside world to be utterly mad are commonly embraced as respected members of the community. This is all the more strange because Homo politicus, in his public utterances, hews to the straight and narrow, pronouncing his fealty to 'heartland values' or 'traditional values.' The happy result of this calculation is that Potomac Land has long encouraged eccentricity.' As elsewhere in the book, Milbank strings examples like cowries on a necklace: 'There was Helen Chenoweth, a Republican congresswoman from Idaho, who held 'endangered salmon bakes' and sounded the alarm that federal 'black helicopters' were threatening the freedom-loving people of her state. There was 'B-1 Bob' Dornan, Republican from California, also known as the 'Mouth of the House.'... And there was James Traficant, Democrat from Ohio, who ended his speeches with 'Beam me up, Mr. Speaker.'' Potomac Man would rather suffer the weird than risk losing his seat to another clan. But Milbank's faux social scientist isn't a notebook-toting ethnographer doing fieldwork. He's more of an armchair anthropologist whose stories, like those in Sir James Frazer's 'The Golden Bough,' are a compendium of familiar facts, recast and retold. In fact, Milbank's illustrations are often so predictable that readers may just fill in the blanks themselves: ceremonial battle (Swift Boat Veterans for Truth), human sacrifice (Scooter Libby) and scapegoats (FEMA's Michael Brown). And it's worth noting that, although the rites of Potomac Land's rival parties are identical, Milbank the ethnographer reserves his sharpest pencil for only one clan. Thus, John McCain's amorphous party identity is an example of shapeshifting, while Hillary Clinton's voting record is not. 'Homo Politicus' is often most compelling in those rare moments when Milbank is least funny. His keen observations of the natives' social networking and sociality ('Fertility Rites and Mating Behaviors,' 'Festivals and Social Rituals') are more interesting than his chronicles of their crimes and scandals. Still, those who relish Schadenfreude on the Potomac will find no better book than this. Robert Leopold is director of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution." Reviewed by Robert Leopold, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The (Bush) Administration's least favorite journalist. And it's not hard to see why." The American Prospect
"The most anti-Bush reporter currently assigned to the White House by a major news organization." National Review
"Milbank hilariously compares the beliefs and rituals of primitive cultures with things that happen every day inside the Beltway... The political-tell-all-as-cultural study conceit wears surprisingly well; Milbank's comparisons are sharp and funny enough to keep it fresh." Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post staff writer and author of the "Washington Sketch" column. He won the White House Correspondent Association's Beckman award for "repeated excellence in White House coverage" and the National Press Club award for humor writing. He was named one of the nation's top political journalists by Columbia Journalism Review.
Milbank also serves as a political analyst for MSNBC. Before joining the Post, Milbank was a senior editor of the New Republic and a staff reporter of the Wall Street Journal. Milbank also has written for the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine and other publications. He is author of Smashmouth, a book about the 2000 presidential campaign. Milbank is a graduate of Yale University, where he received his B.A. cum laude in political science. Milbank lives in Washington with his wife and daughter.
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