The Washington Book

by Kitty Kelley

It takes journalistic bravado to republish old columns and present them as timely or even worth rereading. The feat works for humorists like Dave Barry and Calvin Trillin, but for most columnists, it’s like driving on flat tires: “New money for old rope.” Yet Carlos Lozada meets the challenge with style and substance in The Washington Book: How to Read Politics and Politicians, a compilation of his book reviews, opinions, and essays for the Washington Post from 2004 to 2023.

The Pulitzer Prize winner, now at the New York Times, leads with his longest but not his strongest. Instead, he deals from the bottom of his deck, expending the first 124 pages on a section called “Leading” (rhymes with “bleating”). He recycles columns on the campaign books of presidents, vice presidents, has-beens, and wannabes. Lozada begins by presenting three chapters on Barack Obama in which he thumps the former commander-in-chief for presenting America with its “most self-referential presidency.” Next come three chapters on Hillary Clinton that challenge her “to reveal the humanity behind the capability, the person inside the politician.”

Then, in single chapters, Lozada dusts off “dedicated enabler” Mike Pence, “calcified” Dick Cheney, “lucky” Joe Biden, “feel-your-pain Democrat and policy wonk” Kamala Harris, and Ron DeSantis, who “wants the elite validation of his Ivy League credentials [Yale and Harvard Law] and the populist cred for trash-talking.” Finally, Lozada lowers the boom on Donald Trump in five devastating chapters.

Those who’ve read the critic’s first book, 2020’s What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era, will not be jolted by his searing take-down of the former president, which he delivered after reading eight ghost-written books by Trump, plus 150 books about Trump, for a staggering 2,212 pages on Trump. After this pulverizing research, Lozada concludes:

“I encountered a world where bragging is breathing and insulting is talking, where repetition and contradiction come standard, where vengefulness and insecurity erupt at random.”

After his opening section, Lozada offers five more: “Fighting,” “Belonging,” “Enduring,” “Posing,” and “Imagining.” The motherlode of the book is the 26 pages he devotes to the chapter entitled “9/11 Was a Test, and We Failed.” Here, the author soars above political musings to address the ultimate subject of civilization’s existence. To write it, he read at least 20 books and several government reports, all cited, in order to present a brilliant summary of what prompted the attack on the U.S. in 2001, how we responded, and the price America paid and continues to pay.

This chapter displays scholarship at its finest, bolstered by inspired writing and thorough research worthy of a dissertation. It should be required reading for White House staff, members of Congress, and all government agencies handling national security, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and the Departments of State, Defense, and Treasury. For this chapter alone, Lozada deserves a second Pulitzer — for public service.

Transitioning from consequential to comedic, he advises readers of political books not to ignore the acknowledgements. “This is where politicians disclose their debts, scratch backs, suck up and snub,” he explains. The best snub goes to Mike Pence, who does not mention Donald Trump by name in his autobiography, So Help Me God.

Lozada alerts readers to the former Texas governor Rick Perry, “often accused of being intellectually unencumbered,” who wrote in Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington that thanking his wife was a “no-brainer,” a term that Lozada suggests Perry “avoid in any sentence describing his decision-making.” And exercised by Josh Hawley’s Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs, the critic asks:

“Which is it, senator? Do American men need to man up like their forefathers or hunker down in ideological silos like their political leaders? If you are promoting manhood, why wallow in victimhood? This is a book that raises its fists, then runs for cover.”

Lozada also slams Sen. Ted Cruz for possible plagiarism in writing this about his immigrant father in A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Promise of America: “Only in a land like America is his story — is our story — even possible.” It sounds a lot like Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech — “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible” — notes Lozada, adding, “Criticize a guy’s rhetoric long enough and you’re bound to start sounding like him.”

The master critic seems rocked by Marco Rubio’s acknowledgements in American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone, in which Florida’s senior senator writes, “I thank my Lord, Jesus Christ, whose willingness to suffer and die for my sins will allow me to enjoy eternal life.” In the very next sentence, Rubio thanks “My very wise lawyer, Bob Barnett.” Lozada notes the one-two punch of God and Mammon is “kind of a big deal.”

Most delightful are the parenthetical asides, frequently witty and often withering. In writing about Obama’s political ambition, Lozada observes, “The sense of destiny is not unusual among those who become president. (See Clinton, Bill.)” He compliments Obama as a writer but cuffs the former president’s lengthy 751-page memoir — “(It’s the audacity of trope).”

On Trump’s attempt to quash the book by his niece, Mary, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, Lozada notes that “the suit was over money — what else.” When Hillary Clinton announced for president, she called for “an inclusive society…what I once called ‘a village’ that has a place for everyone.” Lozada’s aside: “(As if we didn’t remember).”

In the end, not every seat at Lozada’s table is prized, but he serves a bountiful feast of literary dish. You’ll walk away nourished and well-fed. (Maybe even overstuffed.)

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

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