Friday, August 24, 2007

How to Read a Beltway Book

With an eye toward who looks good and who's absent without leave.

Mike Lux, of Open Left, explains (in a review of Matt Bai's Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics):

A love for his best sources. One of the most disturbing things that strikes me when reading books by big media journalists about the inner workings of the Clinton White House is how different some of the meetings were in the book to the meetings that I was actually in on. Certain people described in those meetings seemed so much more clever, more insightful, braver, funnier, etc. than I remembered. And others' roles, usually the ones arguing the opposite of the clever-sounding staffers, were downplayed or even distorted. . . .

It's all about the stars. I know we're in a winner-take-all culture, and maybe to sell books in general you have to focus on the best-known personalities. But again . . . a longstanding problem I have with a lot of traditional journalists [is] . . . their focus . . . almost entirely on the biggest names. This again felt like the case here. In the Democracy Alliance, there was a ton of information about founder Rob Stein, deservedly so. But Kelly Craighead (to take just one example), the calm, steady presence who helped hold the entire organization together at times when it was on the verge of completely melting down, got one throw-away line at the end of the book. In terms of bloggers, Bai spend a lot of time profiling Jerome and Markos, again deservedly so. But the brilliant Digby didn't get a mention, nor did John Amato and Crooks and Liars. Atrios got one, I think. Jane Hamsher and Firedoglake got a couple of quick mentions, both of them negative. Stoller and Bowers, who in my own obviously biased opinion, have done so much to organize the blogosphere, a couple quick mentions, one a very cynical one about Matt. Very few other bloggers, even some of the most influential, got even a mention.

Update (10/15/07): Reviewing Jeffrey Toobin's new book about the Supremes, David Margolick comes away with the same conclusion:

[T]o anyone who watches the court, or watches those who watch it, Toobin’s descriptions afford . . . the chance to ponder which of those justices talked to him for this book, and which did not. And talk to him some of them clearly did. Without their off-the-record whispers, there would be no “inside” story of any “secret” world to tell in The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. . . .

First there’s Stephen Breyer, wtih what Toobin calls his “gregarious good nature.” Odds are he spoke, a fair amount. Then Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “frail” and “shy” and, Toobin says, with only marginal influence on her colleagues. Maybe, but she’d have said precious little. Clarence Thomas, we learn, had gotten old and fat since his famously bloody confirmation battle. No way. David Souter “detested Washington” and “cared little what others thought of him.” Probably not, but he’s quirky enough to have tossed off a tidbit or two. Then Anthony Kennedy, far more worldly and influential than the “conventional, even boring” burgher he first appeared to be. Almost certainly yes.

Antonin Scalia looked “lost and lonely” that day: absolutely not. Then Sandra Day O’Connor, about to entrust her seat to President George W. Bush, whom she considered “arrogant, lawless, incompetent and extreme.” Her fingerprints—or voice prints—practically leap off the page: how else could Toobin write something so incendiary so confidently? And finally there’s John Paul Stevens, “respected by his colleagues, if not really known to them.” Highly unlikely.