Arts & Entertainment
Biased history of congressional representatives and Tea Party movement serves up little of interest
I first heard about “Do Not Ask What Good We Do” from the media. Several progressive talk show personalities, such as syndicated radio host Thom Hartmann, held the book up as proof of Republican leaders’ perfidy, or dishonesty, toward the nation. On the basis of their comments I expected a meaty, mouthwatering expose of Republican backroom collusion and obstructionism. Unfortunately, what I got failed to generate even a single drop of saliva.
Author Robert Draper is an experienced journalist whose work has appeared in such diverse publications as The New York Times, National Geographic and gq. His previous book, “Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush,” was a New York Times best-seller. In “Do Not Ask,” the author points his sharpened steak knife at the United States House of Representatives. Specifically, he slices into the 112th Congress (convened after the 2010 election), with its unusually large freshman class of 93 new representatives, most of them Republican. Stories about the experiences of these newly minted legislators and the effect they have had on the House make up the bulk of the book.
At its heart, this is a book of, by and for policy wonks. If you are jonesing for light vignettes about what it’s like to be a first-term member of the House, “Do Not Ask,” definitely delivers. Draper has done a good job of gaining access to numerous elected officials and their staffs and getting them to open up about their experiences. In the case of the freshmen, often these tales take on an almost surreal tone. For example: “He [Florida Representative Allen West] convened a meeting with his new staff. His instructions to them were in fact his standing orders as a battalion commander, written on a three-by-five index card that he had laminated because he carried it with him on the campaign trail: Keep your bayonet sharp. Keep your individual weapon clean, Be the expert in your lane, and knowledgeable in another. Be professional.
While the stories are entertaining, the book’s believability is compromised by its biases. Republicans are invariably presented as noble and principled — if somewhat intransigent. When Democrats are mentioned at all, their treatment is usually much less complimentary, as in former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner “who was not content simply to tell his subordinates that they were wrong, but to describe, at very high volume, the many ways they were, fucking idiots.”
Adding to my suspicions of the author’s objectivity, Draper continually refers to newly minted representatives as “Tea Party” candidates, as if the Tea Party were an actual separate political party with an approved slate of candidates. No attempt is made in the book to reveal the real impetus behind the Tea Party movement. There is only one passing mention of the Koch brothers, David and Charles, who fund conservative causes. There is scarcely any reference to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United and its effect on electoral politics. By contrast, whole paragraphs are devoted to conservative media loudmouths such as Rush Limbaugh and Andrew Breitbart, who recently died.
Evidently, what set Hartmann’s and the other talk show hosts’ hair on fire was a brief description in the book’s prologue of a 2009 inauguration night banquet at which 15 leading Republican conservatives got together and pledged to “take back the House in November 2010. They would use the House as the Republicans’ spear point to mortally wound Obama in 2011. Then they would retake the White House and the Senate in 2012.” While this passage certainly suggests that Republicans may have colluded to politically gum up the works for the new president, the book contains no definitive evidence that would even remotely support a charge of treason. Draper certainly doesn’t come to that conclusion. In fact, he doesn’t come to a conclusion about the meeting at all. Instead he seems content to leave the scene hanging from the ceiling, like a forgotten salami, never even referring to it again for the rest of the book.
“Do Not Ask What Good We Do” is well written and easy to read. Sadly, however, like the book’s title, the author never asks the hard questions that one expects from an experienced journalist. It’s as if Draper is content to slice off small crispy bits from the outside of the roast, leaving the reader to speculate whether the inside is even cooked.
In the end, “Do Not Ask” is best summed up by the following quote: “Each day the House is in session begins with a period known as ‘morning hour debate.’ The phrase is not to be taken literally, since the period sometimes begins at noon, sometimes lasts less than an hour and rarely involves actual debate. It has evolved, in any event, into a peculiarly postmodern custom of the lower body. Morning hour entails a procession of House members standing in the well of the chamber and for five minutes passionately orating to an audience of virtually zero … on topics of almost absurd boundlessness.”
If you feel compelled to purchase a book about a deliberative body whose members spend an hour each morning literally giving speeches to an empty room, I say go for it. As for me, I’d rather read a biography of Julia Child. Much more filling, and tastier, to boot.
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