Picks and Pans Review: The Power Game: How Washington Really Works

updated 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Hedrick Smith

For Hedrick Smith, Washington, D.C., is a giant olympiad of power contests played by the male of the species round-the-clock. To understand how government works, he argues, it is necessary to understand these inside games that the big boys play. Smith, a New York Times correspondent and author of the acclaimed 1976 book The Russians, approaches Washington's 67 square miles of turf like a foreign country, bringing to it the same keen insight he used to interpret the U.S.S.R. He dissects Washington's network of interlocking influence in such matters as the relationship between the Pentagon and Congress. At 759 pages, this book is much longer—and in tone far heavier—than The Russians. Smith seems to have felt he needed to interview all the players, and in Washington that includes everyone from Washington has-beens to lobbyists for big business's "political action committees" to the highest-ranking government officials. The resultant prose reads like inside-the-locker-room stuff. He chronicles, for instance, the fall of Gen. Alexander Haig. He says White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan lost his position because he failed to understand that the key to White House success "is to tame your personal hunger for power," and he explains why Treasury Secretary James Baker emerged as the "master of the first-term troika." Baker, Smith writes, had polished the techniques for winning the White House power game: have total access to the President, forge alliances, go for the best talent, develop political networks and know when to try to take control. Smith is likely to find an audience in passengers on presidential campaign planes this summer. For grass-roots Americans living beyond the Capital Beltway and far from the madding political crowd, however, Smith's guidebook to access games, image games, turf games and blame games is more likely to be discouraging than enlightening. Even if they can work their way through this tome, they learn that the faults in the system—we lack "an overriding philosophy of government," Smith says—are ultimately the responsibility of the voters, as well as the D.C. players. He writes, "We get the kind of Congress, the kind of President, the kind of campaign system that we want." (Random House, $22.50)

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