James Andrew Miller
David Fickling Books | 217 pages | $26.95
In the age of The Bachelor, there’s no shortage of reality television heroines showing up at the altar every week, waiting for her knight in shining armor to walk down the aisle. James Andrew Miller, however, isn’t all that interested in love. He’s interested in fighting corruption.
The title of Miller’s new book stems from a fierce loyalty within the Republican Party. Its forte: making reputations at the expense of others. It happens in campaign finance, in health care, and on college campuses. In Miller’s hands, fidelity in service of a larger end is nothing but a cover-up. This Washington outsider illuminates the dark underbelly of both the party and the city it serves — not once, but often enough.
Miller cuts a dashing figure, the kind of person who probably knows every recent congressional or presidential scandal. And he proves to be quite the storyteller — sometimes confusing, frequently fascinating. And while his thesis is essential reading for anyone concerned with politics, “Tinderbox” isn’t a novel but a broadly instructive, alarmingly timely narrative.
Miller argues that the Republican Party — the party of “Make America Great Again” — is hobbled by institutions that allow Congress and the administration to ignore disturbing trends. (Never mind Watergate.) These include a system where campaign contributions (the fuel that drives much of the party’s success) are rewarded with public office, single-source contracts, and political debts that are racked up over years. It’s a set of rules that creates a sort of blind spot that allows for the very corruption Miller warns about.
In the first 100 pages, Miller paints a magnificent portrait of what’s wrong with Washington and how it operates. (A colleague once said if Miller’s book was a series of art works, it would be called “Hide and Seek.”) We’re told that “the Republican Party is entering a new phase of corruption,” because the organization’s leaders “always believe they have the system by the tail.”
That notion isn’t widely shared among the electorate, as much of the country has grown disenchanted with an administration that seems more and more run by “golden boys.” “The Republican Party is descending into a paranoid fantasy,” one top aide to President Trump said to Miller, who notes that perhaps the most undiplomatic piece of language in the president’s famous declaration of “fire and fury” toward North Korea was actually reserved for Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, rather than the nation’s southern border.
“The Republican establishment thinks it can fool the public by working with the press to confuse them and mislead them. But they can’t,” Miller writes. “The man who once believed that the press was his enemy has emerged as America’s best friend.”
Miller claims to be an investigative reporter, but “Tinderbox” is far more concerned with the role of journalists in reporting this scandalousness. Three of Miller’s four sources are journalists — and the fourth appears occasionally only to sketch a point that, had Miller conducted his reporting differently, might well have turned out differently. It’s essentially a tell-all — a book that revels in its incisive focus on Washington’s superrich.
The story isn’t all pretty, however. Much of Miller’s focus is on how members of the president’s inner circle perceive the news media, not as critics, but as private enemies. And other Republicans, who fear the sudden growth of voter dissatisfaction, contend that Miller’s book is the result of an overly big-media bias. Maybe Miller’s objective was to provoke discussion; given the recent attention to Trump’s Fox News mentions, he might have thought he’d have more success before publishing.
Whether the working class will show up to the polls remains to be seen. In the meantime, voters should stick with their ideals, especially those that protect the little guy from powerful interests.