Once the book Homo Politicus hits the stores December 26, it might be wise for author Dana Milbank to check his food for poison should he dine with fellow journalists—or politicians or lobbyists.
His anthropological take on the “strange and scary tribes that run our government” makes light of many usual suspects such as Nancy Pelosi and Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff and “Duke” Cunningham, but the Washington Post essayist also directs some deadly barbs at journalists.
“Here,” he writes, “the local chorus members, or choreutai in the Greek, call themselves journalists or reporters.”
Weekly Standard editor William Kristol is “choragus of a pro-Bush chorus,” whose cheerleading for the Iraq war “was reaching that of a Dionysian orgy.”
The choreutai are storytellers, but Milbank writes: “In Potomac Land, however, the vital tradition of storytelling is severely hobbled by Potomac Man’s inherent self-absorption.”
Milbank’s best specimen? Political analyst Mark Halperin, now with Time, whose online political Note for ABC News gave “the impression that the most important person in all Potomac Land was Halperin himself.”
Milbank’s dissection of Post icon Bob Woodward might delight most but infuriate a few—including Woodward.
“The man who brought down Richard Nixon is Potomac Land’s authoritative choragus,” Milbank writes. Then he strikes: “When he broke the Watergate story in the 1970s, he was seen as an ‘adversarial’ writer, working without access to the most powerful figures. Over time, however, he became the choragus most often favored by the powerful as an outlet for their own tales.”
Milbank says Woodward’s book trilogy on George Bush begins with a “bold and confident president,” but by his third tome the same president was “ignorant and crude.”
Why? Milbank quotes Woodward: “I found out new things.”
Milbank himself survives quite well in Potomac Land. Let’s call him Homo Spouticus, as his written and spoken words are becoming ubiquitous.
He covered Congress for the Wall Street Journal, wrote for the New Republic, then came to the Post in 2000. His coverage of Bush’s first term caused presidential aides to call for his head. He now roams Potomac Land in his Washington Sketch four times a week. Post chief political editor Susan Glasser prodded him to turn his columns into videos, which appear, in all their quirkiness, on Washingtonpost.com.
One video on the subject of Potomac Men who snooze through public events caught Post Style writer Sridhar Pappu sleeping at a hearing.
How did Milbank develop his sense of humor? “I’m still looking for it,” he says.
He grew up on Long Island, the oldest of three. His father made cabinets; his mother taught school. He graduated from Yale. Anthropologists will unearth the rumor that he was a member of Skull and Bones, the secret society that includes President Bush.
What will be Woodward’s legacy?
“I hope his body will be preserved in some cryogenic technique so future archaeologists can study the archetypal Washington Man.”
Or they could freeze Milbank. His book party will be at the home of Juleanna Glover, a social doyenne described in the pages of Homo Politicus.
This article first appeared in the January 2008 issue of Washingtonian magazine.