'Homo Politicus': A Journey Through Potomac Land

Dana Milbank

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank's new book, Homo Politicus, looks at the people and rules that govern Washington. Julia Ewan/The Washington Post hide caption

itoggle caption Julia Ewan/The Washington Post

Read an Excerpt

'Potomac Land' Speak

Select phrases from Potomac Land (a.k.a. Washington, D.C.), followed by their English equivalents:

 

"You're doing a heckuva job."
You will be fired in ten days.

 

"Frankly..."
The following statement is false.

 

"You are either with us or against us."
You are against us.

 

"The senator will deliver a major policy address."
The senator is desperate to get on television.

 

"I will continue to do the people's business."
I expect to be indicted.

 

From Homo Politicus by Dana Milbank

It's a land where things are often not what they seem — at least to outsiders. They are, in fact, the opposite of what they seem. In his new book, Homo Politicus, Dana Milbank describes this place as Potomac Land, also known as Washington, D.C.

In his humorous "anthropological" study, Milbank profiles the people and rules that govern the nation's capital.

Whenever visiting a foreign place, tourists must first understand the local language. The oft-flung word "bipartisan" is designed to appeal to people outside what Milbank calls the "Homo politicus tribe."

So, the positive-sounding phrase, "I hope we can work together in a bipartisan way," actually means, "I need to pick off one or two votes from the other side to ram this thing through the Congress," Milbank tells Renee Montagne.

"'Frankly...' means the thing I am about to say to you is false," he says. "That's sort of the code we use among ourselves in the land of Homo politicus."

Potomac Land is a very tribal place, complete with its tribal ways.

"When you step back and look at people who live in Washington, they steal from other tribes, like Jack Abramoff," Milbank says. "They hide their treasures in ice boxes like Congressman [William] Jefferson. And, if you follow the Scooter Libby case, they even engage in human sacrifice."

Anthropologists often discover that tribal structures aren't always what they seem. Potomac Land is no different.

"Many Americans make the mistake of thinking that the president of the United States is actually in charge, [a] very common misconception," Milbank says. "It is people like Karl Rove who are, in fact, the most important people in Potomac Land. And the people whose names we often see on the news or hear about are, in fact, figureheads."

Excerpt: 'Homo Politicus'

'Homo Politicus'

Totem Poles

Potomac Man jealously guards his gotra with various rites and rituals. He has developed a wide array of symbols that instantly convey his high place within and among the castes.

At the White House or in the Capitol complex, a person's rank is displayed by the proximity of his parking spot to the building. A person's true rank can be found not in the person's title but by how near the front of Air Force One that person's seat is when the president travels. To make status comparisons simpler across agencies, government bureaucrats are sorted by fourteen grades that determine their salary and clout — and all fourteen are of a lesser grade than the political appointees serving at the president's pleasure.

Among the highest ranking of Potomac Men, status distinctions can be made by gauging the size of the motorcade: just one car for a minor cabinet official, and up to twenty plus motorcycles and a helicopter for the president. Among diplomats, status can be determined by the frequency of visits to the White House, Camp David (better), or the president's ranch (best). Among the lowest of Potomac Men, trinkets show some element of status: a wooden egg from the White House Easter Egg Roll, a Christmas party photo with the president and first lady, or perhaps M&Ms or cuff links with the presidential seal or a certificate stating the bearer flew aboard Air Force One. The most tragic of Potomac Men attempt to display their status by wearing their security badges around their necks during lunch or after work at bars.

Clothing, though important in many cultures, has proven to be an unreliable gauge of Potomac status. During his confirmation interviews, for example, Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito — automatically one of the most important of Potomac Men — wore an ill-fitting suit, had a shoelace untied, and moved his head in a disconcerting bobblehead motion. The chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, trying to reassure Wall Street with his testimony before a House committee in 2007, wore a large Band-Aid on one finger and brown socks with his black shoes; his suit jacket was bunched up like a life vest around his neck, and his sleeves were too short. Likewise, journalists, even prominent ones, wear the frayed chinos, blue blazers, and rubber-soled shoes that are the uniform of the trade, while even the lowest White House aide, earning $20,000 a year, wears a sharp business suit every day. On the other hand, nobody was fooled by Bill Reynolds, chief of staff to Senator Arlen Specter, when he attempted to inflate his status by sucking on a cigar in committee meetings as if it were Tammany Hall. And even Potomac Men are unsure what to make of Rob Woodall, who, as chief of staff to a backbench Republican, lived in an office supply closet in a House office building. Mary Ann Akers, who wrote a gossip column for a Capitol Hill newspaper called Roll Call, found that the man slept in a storage space known as the cage and had furnished the five-foot-by-ten-foot space with a cot, towel, blanket, and decorative throw pillow.

The need for symbols has made Potomac Man exceedingly vain. Members of Congress — even the men — routinely get plastic surgery and risk public embarrassment by regular trips to the manicurist. Some exhibit their status by appearing busy, as when Bobby Jindal, a Republican congressman from Louisiana, was caught by Roll Call sending e-mails from his BlackBerry while attending Ash Wednesday services. Others use symbols to their financial advantage: Rebecca Cox, the wife of a congressman, wore her "spouses pin" on a necklace while visiting the Capitol to lobby for Continental Airlines; this allowed her to reach lawmakers where the public was forbidden.

Even in death, the powerful can demonstrate clout: an Arlington Cemetery burial, a funeral at the National Cathedral (the highest ranking have former senator John Danforth preside), perhaps followed by a reception at the Cosmos Club. The most prestigious of three eating clubs — along with the Metropolitan Club and the University Club — the Cosmos Club takes itself extremely seriously. Haughtily, its members say that the Cosmos is for those with brains, the Metropolitan is for those with money, and University is for those with neither. After the September 11 attacks, the Cosmos Club tasked a committee with developing a continuity of operations plan so that the club could continue to function after a terrorist attack. Its Web site lists the number of Nobel Prize winners and Medal of Freedom winners who have paid dues there. And when the District of Columbia government banned smoking, the Cosmos Club debated whether to seek a hardship exemption for its annual cigar dinner.

One of the best displays of Potomac Land's status obsession, and the role of the Cosmos in it, was uncovered by the Senate committee examining the Jack Abramoff affair. Abramoff wrote an e-mail to a friend who was a rabbi. "I hate to ask you for your help with something so silly but I've been nominated for membership in the Cosmos Club, which is a very distinguished club in Washington, D.C., comprised of Nobel Prize winners, etc.," he wrote. "Problem for me is that most prospective members have received awards and I have received none. I was wondering if you thought it possible that I could put that I have received an award from Toward Tradition with a sufficiently academic title, perhaps something like Scholar of Talmudic Studies? Indeed, it would be even better if it were possible that I received these in years past, if you know what I mean."

The rabbi, conservative radio host Daniel Lapin, gave his blessing. "I just need to know what needs to be produced," he replied. "Letters? Plaques?"

Even among the one hundred members of the Senate, there is a craving for symbolic displays of status. The leading symbol is the chairman's gavel, which entitles the holder to preside over committee meetings and boss around other senators. A chairmanship is, in fact, an anachronism. In the modern Senate, the chamber's leaders determine how legislation will be written and whether it will pass; actions taken by the committee are largely symbolic and are easily overridden if the leadership does not like the results.

Still, the vestigial status of the chairmanship has a powerful appeal to some senators. In 2004, Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was so keen to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he went through a humiliating hazing ritual just to win what was little more than a title.

Specter's saga began the day after he won reelection in 2004 and was next in line to become the committee chairman. Momentarily forgetting that committee chairmen have no actual clout, he called a press conference in Philadelphia and attempted to display his status by warning President Bush not to send his committee judicial nominees who would make abortion illegal. "When you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, overturn Roe v. Wade, I think that is unlikely," he taunted. "And I would expect the president to be mindful of the considerations which I am mentioning."

Conservatives, infuriated by Specter's effrontery, demanded that as punishment he not be given the gavel. "For the social conservatives who just elected Republicans to office for the very purpose of getting sound judges confirmed," the National Review thundered, "Specter's elevation would not just be a symbolic slap in the face but an actual betrayal. Find the man another sinecure." The Family Research Council accused Specter of the "height of arrogance and ingratitude."

Specter suddenly realized his precious symbol might be taken away. The next day, he issued a statement reassuring that "I did not warn the president about anything and was very respectful of his constitutional authority on the appointment of federal judges." This wasn't sufficient. Conservatives wanted a full grovel.

"We are looking at a variety of ways to keep the gavel from going to Arlen Specter," a committee staffer told the Washington Times.

Specter became frantic. He went on CBS's Face the Nation and pleaded, "I have supported all of President Bush's nominees in committee and on the floor. I have never applied a litmus test." While confessing that he was "pro-choice," he assured the world that "I have supported many pro-life nominees." He did a flurry of radio and television interviews pleading the same case.

Specter spent days meeting privately with his colleagues to apologize for his loose tongue. For ninety minutes in Majority Leader Bill Frist's office, Specter begged party leaders to let him have the gavel.

"Arlen has done a tremendous job reaching out to senators over the phone and in person," said Frist, who was not yet offering support. In fact, he stripped Specter of another perk — serving on an ad hoc committee working out a spending deal with the House.

The ten Republicans on the Judiciary Committee held a closed-door meeting to see if Specter had done sufficient groveling. He had not. "I expect him to have the support of the committee," teased the outgoing chairman, Orrin Hatch of Utah. But not just yet. More remorse was required.

While antiabortion forces protested outside, one of the committee Republicans, Jeff Sessions, warned pointedly, "I haven't announced any decision." Said another, Mike DeWine, "I'm just not going to comment."

After more negotiations, Specter and the other senators agreed that he would need to make a more thorough show of contrition in the form of a new and more humiliating statement. "I'm working on it," he said after his private talks.

Finally, two weeks after his offense, Specter offered the full monty. At a press conference with his fellow Republicans, he read a lengthy statement reminiscent of a hostage video. "I have not and would not use a litmus test to deny confirmation to pro-life nominees," he pleaded. "I have voted to confirm Chief Justice Rehnquist after he voted against Roe v. Wade. Similarly, I have voted to confirm pro-life nominees Justice Scalia, Justice O'Connor, Justice Kennedy. And I led the successful fight to confirm Justice Thomas, which almost cost me my Senate seat in 1992." Promising "quick committee hearings" for all nominees, he vowed, "I have no reason to believe that I'll be unable to support any individual President Bush finds worthy of nomination. I believe I can help the president get his nominees approved just as I did on confirmation of two controversial Pennsylvania circuit court nominees." The groveling went on and on — and this time, Specter's colleagues were satisfied.

"He deserves to be chairman of this committee and he's going to be," Hatch said. Specter had lost his dignity — but he would get his gavel. In his campaign for the symbolic title, he had lost whatever trace of actual power that might have come with the chairmanship.

Over the next two years, he approved two Supreme Court justices opposed to abortion rights. And while he frequently clashed with the White House or fellow Republicans on matters of policy — over gay marriage, a shield law, immigration, habeas corpus, and wiretapping — in each case he either surrendered or lost the fight.

Excerpted from Homo Politicus Copyright 2007 by Dana Milbank.

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