'Homo Politicus': A Journey Through Potomac Land Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank's new book, Homo Politicus offers a humorous "anthropological" study of the people and rules that govern Potomac Land, the place otherwise known as Washington.
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'Homo Politicus': A Journey Through Potomac Land

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'Homo Politicus': A Journey Through Potomac Land

'Homo Politicus': A Journey Through Potomac Land

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The presidential results are a special interest to people we'll hear about next. They're the subject of a book called "Homo Politicus." It's a satirical, anthropological study of the people it rules that govern the place Dana Milbank calls the Potomac Land, also known as Washington, D.C., or the nation's capital.

Dana Milbank is a columnist for the Washington Post. He joined us from Des Moines, Iowa.

Good morning.

Mr. DANA MILBANK (Columnist, Washington Post; Author, "Homo Politicus"): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So let's begin this conversation by talking about the glossary that's at the back of your book. And I'd like try out a few of the terms or phrases that you include so that you can give us a brief example of what they tell us about Potomac Land and the people who inhabit it. The first one would - might be, quote, "I hope we can work together in a bipartisan way."

Mr. MILBANK: Ah, yes. Bipartisan is - that's a word that is said only to appeal to people outside of the Potomac Land, outside of the homo politicus tribe. What they are really meaning is I need to actually pick off one or two votes from the other side to ram this thing through the Congress.

MONTAGNE: And a one-word expression that I think gets us into the whole, rest of your book: frankly.

Mr. MILBANK: Yes. Frankly means the thing that I am about to say to you is false. That is generally not perceived by people outside of Potomac Land. But sort of the code we use among ourselves in the land of homo politicus.

MONTAGNE: So the premise here is that a homo politicus, the emergence of a group of creatures from the line of homo Neanderthalis(ph), which will led to homo sapiens, which led probably through a few more evolutions, and finally found its way to Potomac Land. You are shining a light on this world as an anthropologist?

Mr. MILBANK: Yes. And I'm not an expert anthropologist, I got my degree from Wikipedia and Google. But I suspect that homo politicus descends more directly from a homo Neanderthalis without so many of those intervening links. But you have to - when you step back and look at people who live in Washington, they steal from other tribes like Jack Abramoff. They hide their treasures in ice boxes like Congressman Jefferson. And, if you follow the Scooter Libby case, that even engage in human sacrifice.

MONTAGNE: And as this - it's so often the case with anthropologists, they discover that tribal structures aren't always what they seem.

Mr. MILBANK: Very much the case. In fact, I dedicated the book to Tom DeLay who was, for many years, the most important person in Potomac Land, even though he was perhaps the number three man in the House of Representatives. But, in fact, the speaker of the house, Denny Hastert, was very much, sort of a puppet, a figure very much controlled by DeLay.

Similarly, many Americans make the mistake of thinking that the president of the United States is actually in charge, very common misconception. In fact, 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.

MONTAGNE: Now, you have been leaning towards speaking about one of the tribes, the Republican tribe, there is, of course, another tribe that has rather permanently inhabits this area. What about them?

Mr. MILBANK: Yes, indeed, I've tried to look at both of them in recent years. The Republican tribe has been dominant but more recently we have seen the rise of some of the Democratic tribe.

I wrote about the Amazon warriors such as Barbara Boxer, a senator from California and, indeed, Nancy Pelosi. I took a look at the Senate, now, Majority Leader Harry Reid. I was able to identify him - in him a certain I call it Potomac variety turret syndrome. He frequently blurts out things and, say, calls the president a loser or a liar, calls the chairman of the Federal Reserve a hack. We've also seen, on the Democratic side, Howard Dean who is given all some of the most extraordinary war whoops and the most exotic forms of battle being displayed as chairman of the Democratic Party.

MONTAGNE: Dana, as funny as all of this is and can be when you're reading about it, it's also quite horrifying. You lay out a world in a system that, as you described it using actual examples, is rather pathological, having closely worked with studied and lived, as you would call the barbaric tribes of the beltway, any hopes that they'll evolve?

Mr. MILBANK: Well, it hasn't happened yet, Renee. And the truth is it only seems barbaric to people who are not really of an among Potomac men. It seem perfectly natural to people who live here. And in a way it's a person's belief that the rules do not apply to himself.

And in that sense it's a very happy place. It's a place where almost anything is possible. I remember sitting down to lunch with the great Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, before he was disgraced, and he told me how he was opening up a kosher Jewish deli, but he had located a particular breed of pig from Asia that would be able to follow the Jewish dietary laws, therefore he would be the first person in the world to have actually kosher bacon.

MONTAGNE: Of course the punch line to that is, no such pig.

Mr. MILBANK: Sadly, we have not yet located the kosher pig, and sadder still Jack Abramoff, a great, great, big man in Potomac land now sits in federal penitentiary.

MONTAGNE: You know, in this election, as in the most recent presidential elections, the candidates are all talking about the need to change Washington. And more particularly, how they are the ones to change Washington. But it sounds like you don't think it will ever change.

Mr. MILBANK: Yes, and in fact, I think when you hear a politician say they are going to change Washington they should add the word frankly at the beginning to say they don't mean it at all. Now, that's done entirely for the consumption of people who are not familiar with the ways of homo politicus.

MONTAGNE: Dana, I know you know you have to hop on one of those campaign buses, so we'll let you go for now.

Thank you very much.

Mr. MILBANK: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Dana Milbanks' new book is called "Homo Politicus: The Strange and Scary Tribes that Run our Government." And for more example of Potomac speak, you can go to npr.org.

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