Washington Babylon 
by Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein.
Verso, 316 pp., £31.95, May 1996, 1 85984 092 2
Show More
Show More

William Jefferson (‘Bill’) Clinton is not the man from Hope for nothing. And the major story in the American media this election year recounts his resurrection from the politically dead. Indeed, Clinton’s rise is matched in American history only by the equally spectacular fall of George (‘Desert Storm’) Bush, the collapse that put the Arkansas Governor in the White House in the first place. Newt Gingrich rode the Contract with America to victory in 1994, giving Republicans their first control of the House of Representatives under a Democratic president since 1946, and their first control of both houses of Congress since 1952. There are two ways to understand what happened next. From one perspective, the Gingrich revolution was a failure. Emboldened by Gingrich’s attack on medicare and the environment, his effort to finance a tax cut for the rich with the resources of middle America, and his forced closing of the federal government, Clinton finally stood up for principle. Having followed in the footsteps of Millard Fillmore (1850-3), arguably the most obscure and feckless president in American history, whose record of failing to veto an Act of Congress for hundreds of days Clinton was on the point of surpassing (and who had been denied renomination by his own party), Clinton transformed himself into Harry Truman, who turned the 1946 Republican triumph into a Democratic victory two years later.

Whereas Truman moved left after 1946, supporting national health insurance, civil rights and organised labour, Clinton occupied the vacated centre. He now defends the healthcare system he once campaigned against, the expensive failure of which to protect a large percentage of Americans originally helped elect him. Although opposing Republican budget-busting efforts to swell defence spending and revive the multi-billion dollar Star Wars fantasy (the scheme is science fiction but the profits are real), Clinton has abandoned all talk of a peace dividend. It requires only a slight turn of the kaleidoscope, therefore, to acquire a second perspective, one that turns the defeat of the Contract with America into a victory. From this point of view, as Gingrich’s popularity has fallen, his soul has entered the Presidential body. Clinton now accepts the seven-year balanced-budget goal, the final nail in the coffin of his social investment pledge. He vies with supporters of the Contract in his passion for the death penalty and his concern for innocent children; only, whereas Pat Buchanan and the Christian Right speak for the unborn, the First Family and its supporters insert the V (for violence) chip into television sets, invent epidemics of teen pregnancy, pre-teen murder and child abuse (the Attorney-General Janet Reno brought that obsession from Florida to ignite the conflagration at Waco) and sponsor regulation of the family relations of the poor. Like Gingrich and Bob Dole, Clinton proposes to help poor children by ending their entitlement to even minimal welfare support.

Although Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein twice call Clinton a Republican president, even the view that he has signed the Contract with America does not go far enough for them. Neither Reagan nor Gingrich, in their view, did much to disturb Washington politics; the media focus on the fate of Clinton and the Contract diverts attention from the real story. The presidential contest dominates political reporting, they believe, not so much because it is election year but because of what the two-party, four-network, and increasingly one-newspaper-per-city systems all share – political identification with the corrupt financial interests of the rich. Financial, sexual and family ties in their Washington Babylon interlock corporations and their lobbyists with paid elected servants and with the media celebrities who report the news. Negative campaigning and the emphasis on difference – between Clinton and Dole, Dole and Gingrich, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives – are inversely proportional, Washington Babylon suggests, to the absence of real product differentiation. The inhabitants of Washington Babylon compete over ‘values’ because they are equally buried in filth. Clinton has decided that ‘values matter most’ – the title of the book whose neoconservative author, Ben Wattenberg, received one of the famous confessional midnight phone-calls from the President – because of his unwillingness to challenge corporate power and confront the economic insecurities that trouble the rest of the country.

The pork barrel is the classic American synecdoche for political graft, and the chapter on the Pentagon in Washington Babylon is called ‘Pork Central’. Pork is not just a metaphor for the corrupt relationship between business and politics in this book, however, but a leading example of it. What divides Clinton from his Republican enemies comes down to the difference between hogshit and chickenshit. The junior senator from North Carolina, Lauch Faircloth (Jesse Helms is the senior senator), is best known for meeting with the judge who then appointed GOP activist Kenneth Starr as the Whitewater special prosecutor. With his $19 million in pork farming investment, however, Faircloth appears here as the Washington representative of the North Carolina pig barons. Imprisoned in metal crates on factory farms, and force-fed corn, soybeans and chemicals before they are mass-slaughtered (often by state prisoners on work-relief furloughs), the hogs deposit their waste in ‘25-foot-deep lagoons of ordure that sicken the people living round about, poison the water-table and import high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus into such rivers as the Neuse, the Tar-Pimlico and the Albermarle’. Senator Faircloth chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Water, Wetlands, Private Property and Nuclear Safety.

Arkansas is to poultry as North Carolina is to pigs. Indeed, the pig barons took their model from the chicken production assembly lines that drove millions of small chicken farmers out of business. The important trail from Clinton’s governorship to the White House was left not by Whitewater but by the poultry and cattle industry animal wastes that turned White River and other Arkansas streams into cesspools. Don Tyson, the Arkansas chicken king, poured money into the Governor’s campaigns and received not only river poisoning protection but $412 million worth of tax breaks. Mike Espy, the first black secretary of agriculture, was forced to resign for accepting favours from Don Tyson. During the ten months that Hillary Clinton parlayed $1000 into $100,000 by gambling in cattle and timber futures, her adviser was the counsel to Tyson Foods.

Mike Espy, caught accepting favours for his lady friend, exemplifies the intermixture of sex, money and faeces in Washington Babylon’s excremental vision. While those emphasising party difference contrast Democratic support for women’s liberation with Republican defence of traditional family values, Washington Babylon exposes interlocking sexual directorates. Giving a new meaning to the sociologist Vilfredo Pareto’s term, ‘the circulation of élites’, Cockburn and Silverstein follow the former Kentucky Junior Miss Diane Sawyer, as she moves from ‘Henry K’s lap’ to the former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke to her current husband, Hollywood director, Mike Nichols. Sawyer, also circulating from the Nixon White House to CBS’s 60 Minutes to ABC’s Prime Time, earns almost as much in a single day as is earned in a year by the mother she berated on national television for illegally supplementing her meagre welfare benefits with two jobs. National Public Radio’s Cokie Roberts, the sister of Washington’s most prominent lobbyist, Tommy Boggs, is the wife of US News and World Report’s reporter, Steve Roberts. The Fort Lauderdale Junior League paid Cokie Roberts $30,000 to give one speech; for a joint appearance at a Chicago bank, the Roberts couple pulled in $45,000.

Readers out of sympathy with Diane Sawyer, and who relish the depiction of Tina Brown’s New Yorker as a salon for the rich and famous, may still feel that Washington Babylon gives equal opportunity for women a bad name. Dismissing the difference made by the President’s Supreme Court appointments, Cockburn and Silverstein worry not at all about the criminalisation of abortion and homosexuality. (Thanks to the two Clinton judges, the Supreme Court recently forbade states to deprive gay men and lesbians of the equal protection of the law, in effect reversing its earlier ruling permitting them to outlaw consensual ‘sodomy’.) Clinton himself has come out bravely against homosexual marriage, but Cockburn and Silverstein downplay the right of free sexual choice from rather different motives than the President’s. Rejecting complaints that tabloid journalism’s scandals debase politics, Washington Babylon’s prurient sexual interest contributes to making the ‘Presidential member’ the ‘most discussed such appendage in White House history’. Readers amused by the sex may stop laughing when Cockburn and Silverstein dance on Ron Brown’s grave, even if the Secretary of Commerce did the bidding of Tyson Foods when he overruled a departmental recommendation limiting factory fishing. Whatever one’s opinion of Ron Brown, it is inaccurate to merge all those who died with him in a plane crash earlier this year into ‘a posse of big-time corporate pirates’.

But there is a method to all this bad taste. Whereas pundits bemoan the declining popular trust in government, Cockburn and Silverstein want to drive it even lower. The unflattering pictures that, in a satanic parody of the mainstream media, appear on almost every other page of Washington Babylon are meant to discredit the leading political personalities; my favourite, a two-shot that Henry Kissinger sued to suppress, shows ‘arguably the most amoral and criminal public official of the postwar era’ moving a little of his inner body contents from his nose to his mouth.

Just as with its models, Hollywood Babylon and Washington Confidential, there is a politics beneath the scandal-mongering of Washington Babylon, but whereas Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, the gossip columnists who wrote Washington Confidential, served the McCarthyite Right, Washington Babylon’s militants spread gossip for the populist Left. Cockburn and Silverstein personalise politics to underline the gap between an exploitative, self-satisfied élite and the economically and politically disenfranchised. They are promoting an anti-royalist uprising.

In spite of the one-sentence call to arms that ends Washington Babylon, however, it is the Right and not the Left that has capitalised politically on distrust in government (even if Bob Dole’s resignation from the Senate is the reductio ad absurdum of that strategy). No popular groundswell produced the Contract with America; with about one-third of the electorate going to the polls, voting turnout reached a low in 1994 not seen since 1946, the last victory for Republican Congressional reaction. Right-wing so-called ‘populists’, moreover, attack women, minority and trade-union ‘special interests’ to divert attention from the corporate special interests with which they cohabit; 1994 was not the victory of Main Street over Wall Street but the triumph of suburban shopping-mall land developers, logging companies and health insurance giants. Nonetheless, whereas the ‘Great Barbecue’ – as Vernon Parrington called the corrupt late 19th-century Washington feast from the industrial capitalist trough – generated a left-wing Populist Party, no grass-roots left-wing movement has risen to challenge the Washington Babylon of late 20th-century, post-industrial finance capital. The popularity ratings of recent presidents have been so unstable because neither they nor their political parties enjoy deep-rooted, committed popular support. It is the Christian Right, the National Rifle Association and the militia movement that command the organisational weapons and local enthusiasms that populism, labour insurgency and civil rights once deployed.

That vacuum on the popular Left has not simply driven Alexander Cockburn from his Babylonian captivity in Washington to rural northern California; it has also made him hate the militia movement and Pat Buchanan less and Clinton and the FBI more. Cockburn has attacked supporters of Clinton who see him as the ‘lesser evil’, by invoking Weimar Germany, where those who voted for Marshall Hindenburg against Hitler were rewarded by President Hindenburg’s appointment of Reichschancellor Hitler. Heir of the third-period Communism that preceded Hitler’s triumph, Cockburn prefers what used to be called a united front from below to a popular front with liberals from above. Although dirt is supposed to serve politics in Washington Babylon, moreover, it sometimes reads the other way around, for in the absence of a mobilised political alternative. élite droppings monopolise the space. Washington Babylon gives us much to be disgusted about, but the most obvious victims of the corrupt marriage of business and politics are fish, trees and other endangered species of animal and vegetable life. There is just about nothing human to love.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences