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Power Game

by Hedrick Smith

Buy the book: Hedrick Smith. Power Game

Release Date: 29 September, 1996

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Hedrick Smith. Power Game

Interesting but too long with too many anecdotes

"You never get in trouble in politics for lying. You only get in trouble for tellinng the truth." These wise words, from Tip O'Neill, former Speaker of the House, sum up the bottom line of what it takes to stay polotically alive in Washington. Interestingly enough they are quoted almost at the end of "the Power Game" by Hedrick Smith. It is as if Smith wants you to read the entire book before giving you the Grand Finale about what Washington is really like. Hedrick Smith, the author of this bestseller, was a the Washington bureau chief for the Washington Post during the Reagan era and his book gives good inside information about how Washington really works. It goes into details about how the game of power gaining and keeping is really played, what it takes to get something on the Agenda, the influence of the Iron Triangle, the power of special intrests and their lobbies and, not to forget the Iran-Contra affair. He also shines a spotlight on how coalitions are made across party lines and the big influence of the National Security Council. Of course the most important issue is how the use of the Media has changed the way politics are "done" from the old fashioned "breed" of politician with long term ideas to the glitzy, image only, political contender, who talks in soundbites. Smith's style is that of a typical journalist. Not too heady and easy to read. Unfortunately, it seems that the book is written in episodes, beefed up with too many anecdotes. Many "sources" are quoted, making it look more like a gossip column than the work of an expert of Washington DC. An overall better organization of related topics could have served the reader better. The way the book is written the reader has to piece the parts together from different sections in the book. Through vignets about the quircks and character of the people discussed, the reader gets to know the personalies who play the power game. A real conclusion is not given but is left up to the reader to figure out. Also this book requires a very thourough background of knowledge of names of politicians and staff members in the Reagan era and the maze of the numerous committies within the political system. Smith starts in his book with a baffeling discription on what is involved in security measures for a presidential visit. He definitely captures the audience's attention with this. Then he goes on describing how, since Watergate and Nixon's abuse of power, the power structure has changed between the president and congress. "Congress seized for itself the legal authority and the expertise to insure that its challenge to the chief executive would be permanent" (p21) and the House of Representatives created an incredible number of subcommittees for each different sector of national policy. Smith blames the weakening of the parties within themselves and the rapid upcoming importance of the TV as the factors contributing to this change of how politics are played. He takes the year 1974 as the split between the "old breed" of politicians with the "new breed." The rise of TV politics brought with it a wave of "political shamans: the media advisors, political strtegists, pollsters [and] direct mail operatives" (p137) who replaced the old political bosses. "New breed" politicians have learned how to manipulate the media by i.e. waiting for a slow news day for their press releases and counting on the competetiveness of reporters to cover the story. (140) Practices of political "junkmail" to rally up support and personalizing of letters made by assembly line like operations of staff are also exposed in the scope light of Smith. The mention that some politicians even use ink that smudges so it will look like they personally answered the letter is a good illustration of the make-believe world of mass media politics. On the bottom of page 152, Smith quotes David Himes of the National Republican Congressional Commettee saying that"... people's image of a congressman is more important to their vote than his stand on the issues. It is questionable who is to blame for this, the Media, the congresssman, or the voter. In my opinion, it is the voter who does not take the time to investigate in enough. But also some blame could be with the other two who don't cover the issues enough. Within congress is a group of scrupulous protesters who make up the Dissident Triangle, according to Smith. These are the congressmen who fight for effectiveness and efficiency within the operations of the Pentagon. One mentioned is Denny Smith of Oregon. Interestingly enough it seems that his motiviation to object to defective weaponry for the military stems from his being a former Air Force officer. He knows from experience what is needed and how the military works on the inside. His realism caused me a few moments of trust in the system and a sigh of relief. Smith goes in his next session into the "old breed" of lobbying and the "new breed" of lobbying. The new breed seems to be more backed up by grass roots activism. However money still oils the machine which seems to need more and more in order to produce the same effect. Activism is also practiced among the staff on Capitol Hill. Staffers are by no means powerless. On page 283 Smith quotes a member of the House of representatives as saying:"....I never thought I'd give up that much power voluntarily" to staff members."


The definitive book on inside Washington

Hedrick Smith's "The Power Game" is easily the best, and most informative, political book to come out in the last 25 years. Through his myriad of stories, Smith pieces together a definitive profile of Washington: what its like, who wins, who loses, and what the games are. It gives an informative outline as to the fundamental strategies and actions are in Washington, and what the role of certain circles of power are, such as the media, the military, and the lobbies.

The examples Smith uses to illustrate his points on Washington come mainly from the Reagan administration. Smith's analysis of the Reagan era is very troubling, and he specifically says that the actions of the Reagan team are similar to all the teams of "successful" Presidents. Inadvertently (or perhaps purposefully), Smith raises serious questions about the ethics of Washington today, and the actions of the present day administration. He also points out the actions of Congress, and the faults with the present-day system. Smith also delves into the origins of our system, tracing the impact of various political events throughout history. Smith manages to make this not only readable, but highly interesting. He mixes humor and wit with biting sarcasm and investigative journalism, all making for a very intelligent and thorough analysis of Washington. Even Smith's solutions are concise and cogent.

Smith is not a brilliant writer: he is adept, but he is not brilliant. His strength lies in research and presentation of his extensive material. Surprisingly, Smith is able to deliver the material in a very readable, friendly way. Despite being an insider for so many years, he is able to write as a tourist, stunned by the denigration of Washington over the years. He is also able to use his experience to give first-hand insight into corrupt Washington, all of which leads to a very smart, very good book. Smith is a little wordy, and he has many passages which are extraneous, but despite the flaws, he has packed this book with information every American must know. A must-read for all interested in our government at all. In fact, this is a book that every person who votes must read, because it gives tremendous insight into our system. A fine job.


Nizhniy Novgorod

© FAB Russia, 2003-2005

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