“Do Not Ask What Good We Do” by Robert Draper is the first book written about our current Congress.
Draper writes for the New York Times, so he is not a particular fan of a Republican-controlled House. A number of easily researched factual errors, some important to creating his storyline, cast doubt on a number of his more judgmental statements. If you make a number of factual errors such as I caught in a casual read, how many more exist that the reader does not have enough information to catch?
A general thing to watch for in any political, biographical or historical book about times when the principals are still alive is this: You can usually easily figure out who cooperated with the author by seeing who receives better-than-expected coverage (or more of it) and who did not because they receive most negative references.
Draper’s overall writing style is entertaining and informative about the daily activities and personalities of members of Congress if not much use on the “bigger picture.” He clearly received permission to attend meetings that normally are very private (or received detailed briefings), was privy to the thoughts of selected members and staff and did his best to convey the point of view of those chosen.
For example, his insights and stories about the longest-serving member of the House, Michigan Democrat John Dingell, were mostly terrific. While not close friends, Dingell and I traveled on one long trip CODEL (congressional delegation) together and talked other times. Draper clearly captured his language and expressions and much of his current approach to being a congressman.
He captured infamous New York Democrat Anthony Weiner before, during and after his texting misadventures. His portrayals of the Democrats were generally sympathetic to both the person and their goals.
As for the Republicans, Speaker John Boehner is reasonably accurately portrayed, though his weaknesses are overemphasized. Majority Whip Eric Cantor clearly refused to mostly cooperate and was viewed as the right-wing evil person, so comes off as more ambitious and less intelligent than he actually is.
Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy gave author Draper lots of inside access and comes across as creative, likable and as effective as possible. While he was only Chief Deputy Whip (under Cantor) when I served, the author’s descriptions filled in a lot of detail for me but basically reaffirmed what I personally observed at the beginning of his career.
The disappointment of the book, besides lacking a theme (the Fisher Ames quote used in the title was a dismal attempt to be creative), was the abject failure to capture the huge freshman class. Typically, the beginning and end of Draper’s book focused on South Carolina freshman Jeff Duncan, who came across as a na´ve conservative bumbler but a nice guy with deep principles.
Freshmen such as talented Hoosiers Todd Young or Todd Rokita, both of whom are likely to be governor or senator, were ignored.
Hopefully better portrayals of this Congress will emerge.
While the book identifies the unrealistic idealism of the freshmen elected to radically change things in a government two-thirds run by the Democrats and captures Boehner’s frustration with their unwillingness to compromise, because the author mischaracterizes the Gingrich period (as does Boehner’s false conclusions about the “government shutdown” that actually worked, the Clinton compromises all came afterward) Draper is unable to provide insight as to why certain actions have not worked and what possibly could have been achieved.
Hopefully future authors will not be so lazy as to depend upon this first book.