11/8/12 – The Price of Politics by Bob Woodward—An Incredibly Timely Book Review

Posted by Brad McMillan, CFA, CAIA, MAI

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This entry was posted on Nov 9, 2012 9:28:07 AM

and tagged Fiscal Cliff, Politics and the Economy, On My Bookshelf

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Bob Woodward is known for writing books that let readers imagine that they are first-hand witnesses at critical political events. With a depth of reporting and access matched by few, he specializes in telling the stories that affect our lives as played out in Washington, DC.

With the growing role of government in the economy and pretty much everything else, this genre is only going to get more relevant. His latest book, The Price of Politics, in addition to being incredibly relevant to right now, for reasons I will explain, is a very good example of what is both good and bad about the type.

The good is easy. Woodward has a strong sense of what is important and worth writing about. He provides a clear look at how people acted, how their actions were intended and perceived—both by themselves and others—and how things played out over time. The sense of “you are there” is powerful.

The bad is related to the good. Because Woodward is so thorough, he plays through the events in more or less real time, with all of the players. Unlike fiction or “faction,” which can be restructured to make it more interesting, you are stuck with reality. Although some edits were inevitable, Woodward gives the impression that they really were minimal.

And, let’s face it, reality can be really boring. When you are faced with yet another chapter about meetings where people argue at length about numbers, or about who is presenting “paper,” or about who wants to go home for vacation, I at least have an urge to flip ahead.

This is a mistake, as the process is just as important as the people. Because of the process, Woodward does not have a narrative arc, and I actually believe that this is a service to readers. The press tends to compress stories into good guys/bad guys or into a beginning/middle/end format to serve our expectations. Woodward, to his credit as a reporter, doesn’t really do this. It is all middle, and everyone is a good guy—at least in his own mind and those of his constituents. Much closer to reality, though maddening to read.

Why is this book relevant? It details the last set of high-stakes tax and revenue negotiations— featuring between pretty much the same players as now—over the pending debt ceiling last year. For the light it sheds on the process alone, it is worth a read. For the light it sheds on the people in play, and how they see themselves and their counterparts, it is doubly worth a read. These same people will be having many of the same discussions over the next couple of weeks—and their success or failure will matter to everyone.

You will not come away from this book cheered up or particularly entertained, but you will get a much better understanding of the process and of the obstacles to a successful resolution of the tax and revenue negotiations regarding the fiscal cliff. Recommended—but not at bedtime.

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