by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

Forget the stereotype of cigar-smoking fat cats slipping bills to lawmakers in back rooms. Today's lobbyists are a different—and in many ways more dangerous—breed, argues the author, a Washington, D.C.-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Eighty-thousand strong and climbing, the capital's influence industry—lawyers, accountants, even direct-mail marketers—forms a kind of shadow bureaucracy that, he writes, uses "facts and analyses [as much as] wit and charm" to manipulate the political process for the benefit of corporate interests.

In this readable account, Birnbaum follows several of Washington's most influential lobbyists during the scandal-ridden 101st Congress in 1989-90 as they scramble to preserve tax breaks and subsidies for their employers at a time when legislators are pressed to do the opposite to cut the deficit. We watch as "black hat" corporations camouflage their interests behind such "white hat" organizations as universities. We go behind the scenes with 142 representatives on a $250,000 weekend—make that "issues conference"—bankrolled by lobbyists at the posh Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., and gape in disbelief as Kenneth Kies lobbies his former boss, Michigan's Rep. Vander Jagt, to give a single company a tax break at the expense of the country's nearly 10 million cellular-telephone users.

It's only one flagrant example of the wheeling and dealing Birnbaum describes in this sometimes incestuous world where, for instance, corporate lobbyist and registered foreign agent Cliff Gibbons represents clients in front of his father, Florida's Rep. Sam Gibbons, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's trade subcommittee.

For all the name naming, this is no diatribe against lobbyists. Rather than banging the drum for reform, or championing specific strategies, Birnbaum lets readers draw their own conclusions. Nonetheless, his evidence of the myriad ways in which well-connected special interests profit at the expense of the public makes a compelling case for change. (Times Books, $25)

by Camille Paglia

Anyone who opens this book expecting a sedate examination of contemporary culture is in for something like the shock of flicking on Masterpiece Theatre to find Don Rickles sitting in for Alistair Cooke. Over the past year Camille Paglia has become the reigning motormouth of American letters. Her pugnacious essays and public pronouncements have made her name familiar to millions who never read her imposing 1990 study, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Even people who never finished the title know something about how Paglia feels about Madonna (loves her), Keith Richards (l-o-o-ves him) and conventional feminists (hates 'em—too sexless). They know that she approves of Robert Mapplethorpe's S&M photographs for dramatizing the links between sex and danger and regards date rape as an avoidable peril stumbled into most often by women who fail to make the same connections. They may also know that while she's good at demolishing cant she's also apt to produce some of her own.

In this best-selling paperback collection of her recent short pieces, Paglia argues again that the values and rituals of the ancient pagan world were never fully extinguished by Christianity. They live on in art, rock music and movies.

Paglia's affirmation of our primal natures and her scorn for society's attempts to come to grips with it can make her thrilling to read—and in places, exasperating. When she dismisses the idea of date rape with the observation that "aggression and eroticism are deeply intertwined," you want to say, OK, but sometimes we ask the law to confront our tangled natures with straight lines. And when you come to a ripe chestnut like this, "A woman simply is, but a man must become," you wonder if Paglia is being ghostwritten by Hemingway in his hammiest phase.

Even so, Paglia's take on contemporary culture is so eye-opening at times that we're willing to overlook much. It's true that this book feels in places like something rushed into print to keep the Paglia pot boiling while she completes work on the second volume of Sexual Personae. But so what if it's a holding action? What a hold! What action! (Vintage, $13)

by Janet Hobhouse

The irony of Janet Hobhouse's death in 1991 is that in this, her final novel, the author has written a bildungsroman of a woman who grows up to become a writer and then is stricken with cancer. Helen Lowell is born in New York City to a Jewish German mother and a British father, whom she does not meet until age 16, when she visits England. By then she has been shunted from one New York apartment to another by her vain, love-junkie mother, who has barely made enough money as a gal Friday to support them. It's no wonder then that after Helen arrives in England, she decides to prepare for the A level examinations and eventually gains admittance to Oxford.

While at the university, Helen forms her first relationships with men and discovers that being raised by an unreliable mother and being torn between two continents and two parents makes it difficult for her to form trusting alliances. So troubled is she by her problem with intimacy that Helen is forced In seek professional help.

The atmospheres of New York in the '50s and Oxford in the '60s are indelibly rendered in The Furies, which ends on a somewhat tentative note in the 1980s. We learn in a foreword to the novel that Hobhouse was in her final stages of revising her manuscript when she died and that her publisher has chosen to excise less than polished material, using three-dot ellipses to mark what has been omitted. Yet even though the novel loses the luster of revision as it progresses, it gains by taking on even greater immediacy and, ultimately, becomes a raw elegy to an unconventional childhood. (Double-day, $22.50)

>Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

THE FINE ART OF NIBBLING THE FRINGES

AFTER TWO YEARS OF TRAILING SOME of Washington's top lobbyists, says Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, "I was most surprised that lawmakers don't realize the huge amount of effort and manipulation that goes into even the most casual contacts lobbyists have with them. They don't realize that this amounts to a multi-billion dollar industry just to influence them." But the Silver Spring, Md., resident says he can empathize with lawmakers: Sometimes he finds lobbyist friends trying to twist his arm—and his perspective on issues. "Lobbyists are the people who live here," he observes. "They are a permanent and a pervasive force in Washington."

Lobbyists are "immensely influential, but not in the way people suspect," Birnbaum says. "They get their way on the lucrative fringes: small changes in big bills that mean big dollars to their clients" (extending a tax break by a few months, for instance, or changing a rate of depreciation slightly). And whenever special interests "win a piece of the pie for themselves," he adds, "they take it away from the rest of us."

But according to Birnbaum, who covered the Clinton-Gore campaign for The Wall Street Journal, the new Administration is proposing reforms, including caps on campaign spending and the amounts that special interests can funnel to candidates, as well as stricter disclosure laws. This could result in "a lot less cash and a little more sunshine," he says. Even so, Birnbaum believes Clinton's arrival "is a boon to lobbying. Whenever there's change, lobbyists do well."

  • Contributors:
  • Pam Lambert,
  • Richard Lacayo,
  • Joseph Olshan.