Rough notes on politics and Playbook

FOUCAULT: Your question is: why am I so interested in politics? But if I were to answer you very simply, I would say this: why shouldn’t I be interested? That is to say, what blindness, what deafness, what density of ideology would have to weigh me down to prevent me from being interested in what is probably the most crucial subject to our existence, that is to say the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the system of power which defines the regular forms and the regular permissions and prohibitions of our conduct. The essence of our life consists, after all, of the political functioning of the society in which we find ourselves.

This is the thought process of someone with perspective. An activist might say something similar: someone who has no other recourse than to fight for justice. This is Politics as Self Defense, really.

What we get from Washington, however, however, is Politics as Sport.

In a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Politico’s Mark Allen (The Man the White House Wakes Up To, Mark Leibovich) the author describes a character out of a Kubrick film. A caricature of a Web 2.0 Washington super-insider, the profile sees him walking into walls because his face is buried in his BlackBerry, having friends drop him off at cab stands because he doesn’t want anyone to know where he lives, acting like the host of other people’s parties, and speaking in soundbites:

His mannerisms resemble an almost childlike mimicry of a politician — the incessant thanking, deference, greetings, teeth-clenched smiles and ability to project belief in the purity of his own voice and motivations. He speaks in quick and certain cadences, on message, in sound bites, karate-chopping the table for emphasis. (His work is “joyful, exciting,” he says. It is a “privilege” to work at Politico with young reporters. “I love this company. I love what I’m doing.” And all that.) Over several discussions, Allen repeated full paragraphs almost to the word.

… and later…

In a recent phone call, I asked Allen what his hobbies were. He paused, went off the record and then came back with an unrevealing sound bite. “I’m a well-rounded person,” he said, “who is interested in the community, interested in family, interested in sports, interested in the arts, interested in restaurants.”

Indeed, it seems like the only time this frenetic man-child ever broke from his mania was when he looked back on his idyllic youth, his pee-wee football team, and his father, a prominent Bircher who died when he was just 50:

After some fidgety minutes, I asked Allen how he became an Eagle Scout. His eyes softened and stopped blinking as much as they had been, and his voice took on the cadence of solemn recital. He uttered the Boy Scout Law: “A scout is trustworthy,” Allen proclaimed, “loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”

But the details, however enjoyable from a standpoint of black humor, aren’t what make this story so compelling. Washington, DC is full of these figures for whom politics is a game, figures who are hustling for campaign contributions, for votes, for power. For people like this, politics is sport — while for the rest of us politics is life and death.

UPDATE: Indeed, it seems like a lot of people are talking about this profile, including Salon’s Gabriel Winant, who seems just as disgusted by the whole thing as I am. He points out:

Leibovich’s profile of Allen has a lot of amazing scenes, but the best has to be the Washington elite cocktail party, a birthday celebration thrown by a prominent lobbyist for “Meet the Press” producer Betsy Fischer. Who knew this kind of thing was real, and not just a rhetorical ploy for lazy populists?

McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, arrived after the former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie left. Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren had David Axelrod pinned into a corner near a tower of cupcakes. In the basement, a very white, bipartisan Soul Train was getting down to hip-hop. David Gregory, the “Meet the Press” host, and Newsweek’s Jon Meacham gave speeches about Fischer. Over by the jambalaya, Alan Greenspan picked up some Mardi Gras beads and placed them around the neck of his wife, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who bristled and quickly removed them. Allen was there too, of course, but he vanished after a while — sending an e-mail message later, thanking me for coming.