Kinsley's essays offer liberal servings of topical satire. A Washington wit

Curse of the Giant Muffins and Other Washington Maladies, by Michael Kinsley. New York: Summit Books. 286 pp. $17.95. MICHAEL KINSLEY doesn't really fit into the somber and self-important world of Washington journalism. He's fun.

A true Wunderkind, he became managing editor of The New Republic at age 25, after a Rhodes scholarship, and took over Harper's Magazine five years later, turning that publication from staid to sassy and winning a national magazine award in the process.

Now he's back at The New Republic as editor, as well as author of its TRB column. This new collection of his essays shows why he's one of the best reads in town, sought out by the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal and other publications. He has a playful yet deadly wit, an infectious 'elan, and a presence of mind that leaves no nuance unattended.

Kinsley's specialty is the pretense and hypocrisy beat, which he walks in a state of perpetual red alert.

Take Mary Cunningham, prot'eg'e, girlfriend, and later wife of William Agee, former president of the Bendix Corporation. In her book ``Powerplay,'' Ms. Cunningham portrays herself as a news media martyr and ``latter-day Joan of Arc'' regarding Agee's much-publicized fall.

That sort of thing is dangerous when Kinsley's watching. ``Her only ambition was to do good,'' he writes, mocking Cunningham's melodramatic tone. ``Her saintly impulse had inclined her toward a career in investment banking....''

To determine whether Washingtonians actually read those weighty tomes they discuss so knowledgeably on talk shows, Kinsley stuck little notes in back pages of bookstore copies, offering a reward for anyone who found the notes and responded. No one did.

Unlike the ideological ax-grinders with whom Washington abounds, Kinsley takes special delight in routing the totems and posturing of his own liberal camp.

It is hard to think of a more revered liberal tract of the '80s, for example, than Jonathan Schell's ``Fate of the Earth'' on the threat of nuclear war. Kinsley is no fan of nuclear war. But he calls the book ``apocalyptic bigthink.''

```Gosh, is this profound,' is about all that many sonorous passages convey,'' Kinsley writes.

Kinsley avoids any pretense of profundity, but his flip style can be deceptive. He writes so engagingly about law and economics - his two fortes - because he understands them so well.

It took Kinsley, for example, to blow the whistle on the Nobel prize that went to James Buchanan, the conservative economist. Buchanan won the prize for his supposedly earth-shattering theory - which he calls ``Public Choice'' - that legislators tend to act in their own self-interest.

By making the work of lawmakers seem inherently suspect, Buchanan's views have given great comfort to business interests and right-wing partisans. Kinsley skewered this debunking view of government by turning its cynicism back upon the debunker. He conjured up an ``academic choice'' theory of scholarship to explain the possible self-interest behind Buchanan's own views, such as a six-figure salary partly subsidized by large corporations.

What makes Kinsley so good - aside from being uncommonly bright - is that he is in Washington but resolutely not of it.

The preoccupation of most of Kinsley's peers is to be seen as being on the inside. The price of schmoozing with the insiders, of course, is the need for caution in what one says about them. Kinsley, by contrast, writes entirely from the public record. His primary ``sources'' are the clip file and his wit. Not caring what potential sources may think, he can say what he thinks.

He takes on pretense in the media, too. Through Nexus, a computerized clipping service, he found that 1,223 things ``remain(ed) to be seen'' in 1985 alone. Over the last 10 years, unnamed ``thoughtful observers'' spoke 67 times (just plain ``observers'' spoke much more often) through the pages of high-toned newspapers - including, alas, this one.

Kinsley's liberalism is that of a skeptic. Skepticism keeps one's feet on the ground and provides great leverage for wit. But it does have limits.

He regards as ``fatuous,'' for example, the idea that volunteerism can cut significantly the need for federal social programs.

In ``St. Ralph,'' Kinsley's backhanded defense of Ralph Nader, the full-time citizen advocate comes across as a public pill with an almost neurotic aversion to material possessions, who is nevertheless to be praised because of the seat-belt laws and other lifesaving enactments we owe to him. This utilitarian view gets Nader exactly wrong, I think. More important than the seat-belt laws is the life example of the man who devotes every energy to saving lives.

Most important, Kinsley sometimes lets his wit run ahead of him. There is very little here, for example, that Kinsley really likes. The put-down is only the first test of wit, and the easiest. The second, and more demanding, is the raise-up, the enlisting of wit in the service of advocacy and praise.

To be sure, one man can't do it all. What Kinsley does, he does extraordinarily well. But there's a larger role for his very large talents, should he feel inclined to undertake it.

Jonathan Rowe is on the Monitor staff.

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