Published June 7, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

As American politics morphs into a mutant subspecies of show business, it's oddly appropriate to find two well-known radical journalists modeling their expose of capital corruptions on Kenneth Anger's famously nasty book "Hollywood Babylon," rather than the traditional classics of left-wing muckraking. For Cockburn and Silverstein, the Babylons East and West differ in one important way. While the scandals of Hollywood are voluntarily funded by a public eager for tawdry fantasy, the more lethal shenanigans of the Beltway are subsidized by dollars picked from the pockets of a populace rightly hostile to the proceedings.

The authors make the case that politics since the Watergate era "reforms" has become an ever more insular and sleazy affair. The main protagonists in their rogue's gallery are a media punditocracy cozily integrated into the power structure, a Democratic Party which has moved steadily to the right, and a Congress awash in "soft money" from Washington's labyrinthine complex of corporate lobbies.

Many of the issues explored here have been broached more soberly in books like Kevin Phillips' "Arrogant Capital" and James Fallows' "Breaking the News." But it's still fun to watch Cockburn and Silverstein let fly. The pair bring to "Washington Babylon" a fiery spirit of j'accuse, a call for a plague on both houses, aimed as much at the icons of "corporate neo-liberalism" as at the more obvious targets of the Right. Thus, the Washington Post, NPR, The New Republic and the Democratic Leadership Council get hammered as hard as the Wall Street Journal, Rush Limbaugh, Commentary and the Heritage Foundation. The authors' maliciously acerbic and often hilarious character sketches include Nina Totenberg, Sidney Blumenthal and Bill Bradley, as well as Phil Gramm, Charles Murray and Dinesh D'Souza. (The last is referred to as a "welfare ward of right wing foundations," who "gives the white man his greatest pleasure, paying a brown man to attack black ones.")

Although "Washington Babylon" is dense with exhaustive and often exhausting detail, the authors' denunciations are not as well documented as they might be. As prominent heirs of the tradition of I.F. Stone, Cockburn and Silverstein ought to have provided footnotes and a bibliography to back up their charges. Also, there's not much in the way of constructive proposals. Nonetheless "Washington Babylon" has an angry insouciance that's sorely missing in most contemporary political writing.

By Phil Leggiere

Phil Leggiere is a cultural critic living in Hoboken, NJ.

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