Scott McLemee
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Newsday, 23 April 2006

THE K STREET GANG: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine, by Matthew Continetti. Doubleday, 288 pp. 


Matthew Continetti, a writer for The Weekly Standard, is a true-believing young conservative whose prose grows fervent and almost worshipful when /he is writing about Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America of 1994. It was good to be alive, in that revolutionary dawn. But now the grand cause has been betrayed from within -- corrupted, if not destroyed, by "the K Street Gang."

So Continetti dubs the backscratching network of consultants and lobbyists who broker arrangements between the congressional GOP and that dark force in American politics known as "the special interests." (Evidently legislation is not drawn up by constant reference to an abstract and disembodied conception of the public good. Who knew?) This rogues' gallery includes such famous names as Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed, and such now-infamous ones as Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay.

Together they formed a cohort that, in Continetti's telling anyway, simply used Republican ideology as cover for lining its pockets -- setting up junkets to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, for example, an American protectorate in the Pacific, so that congressional staff could contemplate the glories of free-market capitalism on its beaches, then vote for "guest worker programs" to bring cheap labor to the islands' sweatshops.

The K Street boys then collected hefty fees from Marianas. Likewise from serving as lobbyists for various American Indian tribes. The revenue stream was then shuttled around through sundry Beltway think-tanks, "philanthropic foundations," and other tax shelters.

So The K Street Gang is a work of investigative journalism -- or would have been, had it appeared two years ago. Or if, indeed, Continetti had done any reporting.

Instead, his book is a typical product of opinion-magazine journalism, for which the outer limits of the knowable universe are defined by Google and Lexis-Nexis. The story, patched together from other journalists' articles, adds only ideological spin to what they have found. At one point, Continetti mentions picking up a telephone to call a congressman's office. He says the staff gave him no useful information. To judge by the rest of this curiously interview-free book, he never repeated the experience.

The spin offered here is of the damage-control variety. The K Streeters, so the story goes, were all amoral careerist flunkies at heart. And DeLay (who resigned as House majority leader before the book went to press) was vis-a-vis Gingrich rather like one of those "close comrades in arms" of Chairman Mao who always turned out to be counterrevolutionary rascals in disguise, motivated by only the basest self-seeking.

Fortunately the ideology itself remains pure, fresh, and all-powerful. Vive la revolution!

The sentiment is lively, but the writing is not. Much of the book reads like a legal thriller without the thrills: It combines the excitement of bookkeeping with the glamour of e-mail. A detailed account of how funds were extracted from American Indian tribes and shuttled into various accounts is only slightly less dull than the primary documents available at the Web site of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In e-mail exchanges among Abramoff and posse as the big bucks come in, each assures the other that he is, indeed, "da man." The spectacle of nerds acting cool is seldom edifying and never wholesome; and it reveals nothing about the world of lobbying, as such.

The author, as an ardent young idealist of the right, seems ill-equipped to grasp his own movement's long history of combining ideological hardball with the rankest of opportunism. For example, he expresses indignation that, during the 1980s, some of the K Street Gang were cozy with Jonas Savimbi, the anti-Soviet guerrilla leader in Angola. Continetti takes this as a sign of their amoral cyncism. After all, Savimbi was a vile thug with no regard for democracy or human rights.

Well, OK, fair enough. As an ardent young idealist of the left in the 1980s, I denounced Savimbi in similar terms -- but with a clear understanding, at least, that he was precisely the sort of "freedom fighter" that Ronald Reagan admired. The viciousness of Savimbi was a known quantity. But his status as a conservative hero was not limited to some rogue wing of the Republican party.

Continetti's disgust -- for that alliance, and for the corruption in the Republican party now being exposed -- is admirable in its way, perhaps. But such naivete is a serious liability in anyone trying to write about politics. Angry conservatives are bound to publish some smart and deeply informed books analyzing what has happened to their movement in recent years. This is not one of them.