More Than a Game

The Power Game: How Washington Really Works

by Hedrick Smith
Random House, 793 pp., $22.50

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan; drawing by David Levine

Hedrick Smith’s book is a laundry bag trying to be a statue. The laundry bag is chock-full of good things, but attempts to impose shape on it keep collapsing. The entire book is based on a metaphor, and Hedrick Smith, the brilliant reporter for The New York Times, is not very good at metaphor. He is, to start with, always mixing them. “The second major incident that stepped on the Reagan parade in 1981, and nearly derailed it, was another self-inflicted wound.” Bitburg becomes an unguent-producing tree in Gilead when Reagan goes there to “heal the wound of Normandy and to nourish the balm of Verdun.” “Fragmentation often leaves our politicians wallowing in deadlock.” It is hard to describe the Washington game when one is constantly changing games in midsentence: “Access, especially the exclusive access that blindsides other players in the policy game, is a trump card.”

Senator Howard Baker, who emerges in this book as the principal font of wisdom about how Washington works, called Reaganomics a “riverboat gamble.” Taken with that notion, Smith sets out to show us how all the best gamblers work their cons at the various levels of Washington life—in the bureaucracy, the Congress, the lobbies, the consultancies, the White House. Unlike other students of power—Machiavelli with his emphasis on fortuna, Clausewitz with his Friktion—Smith thinks skill has much more to do with the way things work than does chance; and he lays out numbered rules for succeeding in each sphere of the city’s politics, citing examples of successful conformity with his rules or disastrous departure from them. His two great examples of success and failure—though the structure of his book partly disguises this fact—are the two terms of Ronald Reagan. The first succeeded, we are told, because it was concentrated on a few major achievements, the Reagan managers made peace among themselves (after extruding Haig and disciplining Stockman), and the image of Reagan was manipulated with great skill. In the second term, there was no clear agenda; the original Reagan managers turned the White House over to a blundering Donald Regan, and the Reagan image was blurred at Bitburg, at Reykjavík, and in the Iran-contra affair.

This main story is told disjointedly, to fit the various rules for players of different power games. We hear about Haig’s forced resignation several times, as it relates to the “game” in the Cabinet, among managers, and among image makers. The generalizations pointing toward rules are in constant conflict with the particular details Smith reports so well. Reagan is a unique phenomenon, his presidency like no other on record. To raise or reduce it to a continuity with other presidencies, submitting to uniform rules, is continually to distort it. If Smith had told his story straightforwardly, in chronological order, as Henry Adams recounted the administration of Thomas Jefferson, it would have been clear how often accident, not rules of…

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