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.

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.

Guess which picture made the evening news?

``Making the evening news'' is now one of the primary pursuits of Washington insiders. Television has become a power center. Politicians - long before George Bush, in his celebrated encounter with Dan Rather - realized how important it is not only to help shape the agenda of television news, but also to indirectly help select the very pictures that are put on the small screen. ``In the image game,'' Smith argues, ``the essence is not words, but pictures.''

He recounts a story about a hard-hitting report CBS reporter Lesley Stahl did on President Reagan. The intention was to challenge Reagan's self-proclaimed sensitivity and compassion. ``I thought it was the single toughest piece I had ever done on Reagan,'' Stahl said. So she hadn't counted on the voice on the telephone from the White House after her story aired.

``Great piece,'' said the voice.

Said a shocked Stahl: ``What?''

``And he said, `Great piece!...'

``I [Stahl] said, `Did you listen to what I said?'

``He said, `Lesley, when you're showing 4 minutes of great pictures of Ronald Reagan, no one listens to what you say. Don't you know that the pictures are overriding your message because they conflict with your message? The public sees those pictures and they block your message. They didn't even hear what you said. So, in our minds, it was a 4-minute free ad for the Ronald Reagan campaign for re-election.''

Smith, whose years as a newsman have spanned six presidents, sees television as only one - but one very important - ``stunning transformation in the way the American system of government operates.'' Other changes include the new congressional assertiveness against the presidency, the congressional revolt against the long-entrenched seniority system, political fund-raising and the explosion in ``special interest politics,'' and the growth in staff power in Washington, as well as ``changes in voters'' themselves. Such changes in voters include the rise of the political ``independent'' and the breakdown of the old two-party system.

Ultimately, argues Smith, Americans will have to reassert their authority over their increasingly fragmented and deadlocked political system. He discusses various options: establishing four-year terms for House members and eight-year terms for senators to coincide with presidential terms; upgrading the party structure; giving more say to political professionals, as was the case before the current primary system; providing greater television access to challengers; eliminating partisanship; shortening the election process.

Some options he agrees with in part; others, such as adopting a parliamentary form of government, he rejects.

But ultimately, he argues, the issue of reform comes down to the electorate. Americans, he maintains, ``get the kind of Congress, the kind of president, the kind of campaign system'' they ``want.''

Reform, therefore, must start with each and every American, in the way he or she supports or ignores the existing American political process.

A final observation about this excellent book seems warranted. Smith's focus, understandably, is on Washington. But one wonders if all the loving attention given to what goes on inside the Beltway may not be missing even larger confluences of forces taking place outside Washington. Not a few of the Washington insiders missed the mark on Ronald Reagan back in the late 1970s, and the confluence of factors that virtually ensured the Reagan presidency.

The US is just too big, too diverse, too rich in ideas and creativity for Americans to easily accept the premise that power is as focused on Washington as the inner-Beltway folks might believe.

Guy Halverson is on the Monitor staff.

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