Inside The Plastic Heart Of Congress
A new book from the authors of Politico Playbook promises an inside glimpse at our congressional leadership during the time of Trump.
“Washington is not like New York or Los Angeles, the nation’s other two primary power centers. Money, for the most part, is a secondary currency in DC,” declares the fourth page of The Hill To Die On, the new book from the authors of Playbook, Politico’s twice daily newsletter.
“Power — gaining it, maintaining it, and being in proximity to it — is what matters.”
Setting aside that this isn’t true of Washington, at all, that the bounty of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area flows through government contracts, that politics is an expensive endeavor, that, accordingly, the next 395 pages of The Hill To Die On catalogue politicians raising and spending money, sexless, boring money, the kind of money that moves from Excel spreadsheet to Excel spreadsheet to a line about an ad buy in Politico Playbook (presented by JUUL), that in The Hill To Die On, people never forget when they are in The Presence of Money, that, according to The Hill To Die On, “money is the lubricant that keeps the town running,” that “money is like oxygen for politicians,” that seven pages of this book fall under “Paul Ryan’s retirement and fundraising” in the index, that you can lose “the most important game: the cash race” — setting aside all this, consider being in proximity to power.
Proximity is what this kind of book, an inside glimpse at the halls of Congress in the Trump era, promises: power, closely observed.
The operating premise of Playbook, the politics-and-gossip newsletter that Mike Allen launched in 2007, was slightly different. Playbook was about sharing with you of what the powerful speak — creating a degree of separation from the underlying news and conferring importance by the existence of conversation. “How It Looked,” “How It Played,” “What They’re Saying” vs. “how it actually was.” (Case in point: The Hill To Die On opens with Donald Trump telling the authors he wants a cut if their book does well. This exchange, the authors write, was “the most satisfying and fitting encapsulation” of the way Trump makes everything about him.) Started in the early, early Twitter days, the newsletter conceptually shares some of the same qualities as the platform (links, an emphasis on the overheard, an interest in process news). And like any contained community on Twitter, a conversation-above-else ethos is chained to our human flaws; important people can fight in vanity about something stupid.
In practice, though, there’s no need to overthink this: Axios, Allen’s new project, and Playbook, now run by Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, are lists of links, sent twice daily. Though it’s fallen out of vogue in the time of Trump, they both retain the value-neutral, who’s-up-who’s-down approach to politics championed by Politico, and adopted by many others, in the Obama era.
“We don’t have a rooting interest in either party,” Sherman and Palmer note in the acknowledgements of The Hill To Die On. Instead, they write elsewhere, “our job as reporters lets us exist alongside the legislative process.”
Nobody likes it when you announce stuff like this anymore. What They’re Saying: Centrism and objectivity are their own ideologies; be smart; go deeper; cast off this false idea that politics is a game. But the relentless grind of practical, functional work that Sherman and Palmer — and their Playbook partner Daniel Lippman — undertake (every morning, every afternoon, every day of the week, forever) requires an ideological commitment of some sort (in this case, hyper-neutrality), and rules out deeper examinations of character or policy (which can require reporters to almost isolate themselves from the world for long stretches). It’s just the news.
Sherman and Palmer extend that ethos to The Hill To Die On. With this book, they write, “we’ve tried to capture the essence of the nation’s legislature.”
Take The Hill To Die On on the terms of Politico Playbook: as a reflection of what the powerful speak. The authors interviewed most people directly in line for the presidency for this book, they’ve each reported for about a decade on Capitol Hill, and, there can be real value in a value-neutral style. While reading, you might need to pencil in your own view of the world, consider what’s missing, recreate for yourself the last two turbulent years of American life, and wonder what the hell is happening with the United States House of Representatives — but here, in The Hill To Die On, our political leadership is on display. This is the inside view. How Congress sees it. What they value. How they see themselves.
Take the following, which opens the chapter on #MeToo:
Lawmakers getting overeager with their hands is not a new phenomenon. Congress is filled with middle-aged men who spend at least three nights a week away from their wives and hang around women looking to impress them. Men behaving badly at fundraisers after a few too many cocktails was hardly a novelty, and many Washington women considered it the cost of doing business.
A real dispatch from the 1954 edition of A Girl’s Guide to the Office! The chapter details the political ups and downs in the accusations of sexual misconduct or inappropriate touching against former lawmakers John Conyers, Al Franken, Trent Franks, Blake Fahrenthold, and Ruben Kihuen, and key storylines along the way, like Nancy Pelosi’s frustration that Chuck Todd asked her about a senior Democrat settling a discrimination complaint in secret, rather than the tax bill.
The Hill To Die On leaves unmentioned the baroque, prohibitive system Congress previously used to adjudicate harassment and discrimination complaints and, in turn, quietly fund settlements with taxpayer money. In a way, the omission is understandable; making any fix to that system took Congress about a year to do, and the main hold-up involved the Senate not wanting members to be personally liable for racial discrimination settlements. You perhaps understand the leadership's priorities here. By late November 2017, “panic had set in among Washington men,” Sherman and Palmer write about rumors of more allegations. “It was an around-the-clock inquisition.”
Like this, nothing seems quite the right size in The Hill To Die On. That’s likely because nothing’s totally the right size to Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and the Freedom Caucus’s Mark Meadows.
The story isn’t Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Bernie Sanders or the rise of the democratic socialist left. The story is about Joe Crowley losing, Chuck Schumer inconvenienced. Hurricane Maria goes unmentioned. Charlottesville’s “Unite The Right” rally gets mentioned — but as an aside to government-funding negotiations. This book features multiple paragraphs on the LSU t-shirt Pelosi wore, and what each side said about this LSU t-shirt, the day after a shooter nearly killed Steve Scalise (and nearly two dozen Republicans). “Amid the sadness,” the authors write, “the pomp was overwhelming.”
Last summer, before the end of Paul Ryan’s speakership, moderate Republicans threatened a discharge petition — a technical maneuver that overrides leadership and forces open voting — to protect DREAMers from deportation, something you always read from sources close to leadership that Ryan wanted to do. The Hill To Die On takes you inside Ryan’s disappointed lectures about the farm bill, and efforts to cut off the discharge petition. “What he really didn’t want,” the authors write, “was to pass an immigration bill that essentially gave Democrats the floor. That wasn’t what the speaker did. Convention would dictate it was bad political practice.” Ryan (first introduced as “smart,” “strong,” and “vibrant”) ultimately put two bills up for a vote, one to placate each side of his party. Everyone knew they would fail, and they did. Well, it doesn’t matter anyway! Ryan, who portrays himself in this book as a passive actor upon whom power falls like weather, who failed to deliver on almost anything he espoused over his decades in Washington, has left Capitol Hill.
Naturally, though, the real concern when he quit was fundraising. Money, money, money. Somewhere right now, Rep. Steve Stivers is turning around in a swivel chair and telling a Republican to raise $3 million. Before Ryan went, he “even relaxed his longtime ban on fundraising in the Hamptons.”
In the end, it all comes back to fundraising. Pelosi is a self-described “dazzling” fundraiser. Several years ago, a blogger reported that Scalise once spoke to a room of white nationalists early in his career. For the Republican leadership, Sherman and Palmer report, “there were lingering concerns that Scalise, the number three Republican, would never recover. A man who palled around with Nazis couldn’t raise the millions of dollars Republicans needed from tony enclaves like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.”
Yes, that is the worry, isn’t it? Would Steve Scalise ever raise money again?
Reading about all these fundraisers and endless debt-ceiling negotiations, you can find yourself imagining the congressional leadership as Disney animatronics, repeating the same gestures over and over again — no matter what’s happening outside — as we all complete another smooth turn around the sun.
At one of these fundraisers, The Hill To Die On offers a revealing passage, one that gets at the Washington perhaps produced by the what-a-ballgame 2000s and 2010s, or maybe this is just Washington immortal. The book’s narration abruptly shifts from a breezy third-person into the second person, throwing you into Kevin McCarthy’s perspective, after Trump refers to him onstage as “my Kevin.”
It was the kind of affirmation that almost every starry-eyed political hopeful dreams about. When you’re young and on the campaign trail, hopping between stop one, stop two, and stop three — staying awake by guzzling Mountain Dew and eating Planters peanuts and dried fruit out of a blue plastic bag — you think of what it might be like if you got to Washington. Your first time walking onto the House floor. Oh my goodness, it’s so big. But you belong. You won. Your first State of the Union — getting a glimpse of the man, grabbing his shoulder, you’re on his team — he has no idea who you are, but you know who he is. You ran with him. Goddamnit, you ran for him. The president of the United States. You told people that when you got to Washington, you’d be fighting in the trenches for him. You’d help turn Washington upside down.
If you played your cards right, maybe you’d get a meeting with him. It wouldn’t be just you and him, but you, him, and the other 230 members of your party. He might answer your question — if the leadership liked you and called on you. You’d take it either way.
Maybe, some years down the road, you’d claw your way to being chairman of a subcommittee. Maybe one of your bills would get through the Senate, and you’d get invited to the signing ceremony. Maybe — just maybe — you’d get a handshake. A shout-out at the signing ceremony? Come on. Too much. You’re a guy from a small town. You were a congressional staffer. You were a statehouse rat. You lucked into this. You — no way.
If you’re a guy like Kevin McCarthy, you even didn’t dream of this.
This is… it?