Centers of power on the Potomac
The Power Game: How Washington Really Works, by Hedrick Smith. New York: Random House. 759 pp. $22.50. WASHINGTON has always been more than the picture-post card city of sleek federal office buildings and historic sites known to tourists. There is another Washington: a city of clashing ambitions and raw power; of often-high idealism and genuine courage mixed with blackguarded roguery and unintended comedy.Skip to next paragraph
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Hedrick Smith is a veteran newsman with the New York Times and a panelist on PBS's ``Washington Week in Review.'' He is himself a part of the media elite that shapes public perceptions about what goes on inside the 64-mile highway loop called the Beltway. Smith has captured this hidden Washington in a towering and imaginative book that deserves to be widely read, both in the United States and abroad.
Smith is a master of the insightful anecdote, a technique he used with considerable skill in ``The Russians.'' In many respects, Smith has now done for the United States what he did for the Soviet Union in that earlier book. There can be no faulting Smith's prodigious analytical and investigative skills: He describes a labyrinth of complicated power structures that would surely have been incomprehensible to the framers of the American Constitution two centuries back, with their fairly tidy balancing of powers in a three-part division of government.
Government - and power - as Smith sees them, have become enormously complex since the mid-1970s. Because of the breakdown of the old presidential-congressional axis and the diffusion of information centers, communications sources, and economic affluence, countless groups and individuals now have a purchase on power.
``In this final period of the twentieth century,'' writes Smith, ``we Americans have a more fluid system of power than ever before in our history. Quite literally, power floats. It does not reside in the White House, nor does it merely alternate from pole to pole, from president to opposition, from Republicans to Democrats. It floats. It shifts. It wriggles elusively, like mercury in the palm of one's hand, passing from one competing power center to another. ...'' This book, with its kaleidoscopic presentation, is symbolic of a number of elite journalists - like Smith - who are themselves part of the quicksilver of the Washington power structure of the 1980s.
The competition of diverse agendas in Washington - and the way events don't always work out as expected - is underscored by one of hundreds of crisp stories served up by Smith. He describes the struggle between the Reagan administration and the liberal leadership of Congress, particularly the House, over funding for the Nicaraguan contras. In March 1986, Smith explains, ``White House strategists built a drumbeat of media pressure to win congressional support for $100 million in aid. Every day they fabricated a new media event: Reagan made speeches, met with contra leaders, huddled with congressional allies.'' To dramatize the Sandinista threat, the White House decided to display an M-16 rifle that had wound up in the hands of the Nicaraguans, who sent it to rebels in El Salvador.
``To generate press interest, this M-16 was put on display at the State Department,'' says Smith, ``and Reagan went there to speak. Moving Reagan even a few blocks helps attract TV coverage, because TV likes movement to convey the impression that something is happening.''
So there was Reagan, standing against the backdrop of the illicit M-16 and other Sandinista weapons, warning of the dangers of the ``communist threat.'' But out in the audience, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, pursuing his own private agenda, nodded off to sleep in a moment of presumably unplanned reverie.