- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2006

THE K STREET GANG: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE REPUBLICAN MACHINE

By Matthew Continetti, Doubleday, $24.95, 288 pages

If some shadowy figure (a cross between Ralph Nader and the Guy Fawkes wannabe from “V for Vendetta,” perhaps) were to distribute a “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”-type forgery insinuating K Street lobbyists were using the blood of destitute children to flavor their lattes, a good deal of the American public would probably believe it and turn their rapt attention to the congressional hearings sure to follow.

In other words, wagging one’s finger at the lobbying industry these days isn’t exactly stand alone heroism. Thus, Matthew Continetti’s “The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine,” the much-heralded conservative takedown of (cue ominous music) K Street conservatives, has the feel of a last whack on the head of an already clubbed seal.

The book begins promisingly enough, offering a sharp, concise history of the lobbying movement. We see flashes of the flair that sparkles throughout Mr. Continetti’s impressive magazine oeuvre.

Nonetheless, media saturation being what it is with Jack Abramoff, the most useful thing a young, bright conservative writer could provide is not recitation but explication; either investigative reporting that breaks news or, alternatively, a big picture, philosophical excavation that brings a larger meaning to the surface. What we get with the book is none of the former and only a tantalizing bit of the latter.

To establish his bona fides, Mr. Continetti takes great pains early on to count himself as one of the thousands of idealistic young conservatives who came to Washington ready to fight the good fight, believing “conservatism is about starving government, not fattening it up and then living off its excretions.”

A Weekly Standard reporter, he proudly touts his admiration for Newt Gingrich, “a progressive conservative,” and is full of righteous indignation at the K Street Conservatives “who mouth conservative principles while getting rich off conservative power.”

It’s a theory that works well enough when patching together emails between Abramoff and his protege in thievery, Michael Scanlon, that fairly ooze Frat Boy Republicanism at its most intellectually and morally stunted.

That Abramoff and Scanlon christened their multi-million client bilking/tax evasion plan “gimmie five” and repeatedly used the phrase “you da man” says more about their professional and criminal development than 100 pages of court filings and Senate testimony ever could. Mr. Continetti’s eagerness to extrapolate these crimes as somehow endemic of the ideological bankruptcy of rightward leaning lobbyists, however, simply falls flat.

While it is worthwhile to point out that Grover Norquist had a long-running personal and fiscal relationship with Abramoff, Mr. Continetti’s treatment of the anti-tax superstar is overly conspiratorial and excessively harsh. When he writes that Mr. Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform mimics “in its own way, those government programs that conservatives attack for outliving their usefulness,” all sorts of red flags go up.

Indeed, ATR’s existence is validated by the very arguments Mr. Continetti puts forward in his book: Government keeps relentlessly expanding. The principles of the 1994 Republican Revolution are in tatters. Big government conservatives are no longer anomalies, but the beating heart of a too-big-for-its-britches majority party.

According to Mr. Continetti, while Mr. Norquist “committed his life to ending communism and promoting freedom, over time he began to imitate the same icons whose legacy he labored ceaselessly to destroy.” Really?

If Mr. Norquist were looking for the most profitable path of least resistance in Republican Party fund-raising circles, would voicing strong opposition to the Patriot Act and secret evidence in terrorism trials post-September 11 really be the best (or most authoritarian) way to go about it? These are philosophical, not politically expedient, stands.

Ironic, is it not? Some of the most ideologically pure remnants of the Republican Revolution may not be walking the halls of Congress — where apparently politicians can be bought off for a meal, two rounds of golf and a junket to a tropical island — but beating the K Street pavement.

In the final pages of the book, Mr. Continetti slams wrongheaded post-Abramoff reformers who have conveniently forgotten that “the United States Byzantine system of campaign finance, in combination with our rapidly expanding government and ever-busy regulatory apparatus, had brought us the scandal to begin with.”

It’s an astute observation that suggests with a little more time Mr. Continetti could have produced something with significantly more depth and resonance than “The K Street Gang.”

Shawn Macomber is a freelance writer in Boston. He runs the website www.shawnmacomber.com.

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