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Absolute Power 

It's been said that the essence of politics is people. That used to be true. Nowadays, the essence of politics is power. A new book by author John M. Barry explores when, how and why the epicenter of American politics changed from people to power.

But as its subtitle suggests, Barry's book, Power Plays: Politics, Football and Other Blood Sports, goes beyond politics to explore the exercise of power on several levels. Above all, power extracts from those who wield it enormous personal costs. As often as not, it ultimately brings defeat. No athlete competes forever; all grow old.

The same is true of politicians; in their arrogance they fail to perceive changes that eventually overwhelm them.

The ultimate power play then, be it by a national politician or an Olympic athlete, is the struggle with one's own self: first to master oneself through discipline; then to push oneself farther, higher; and eventually to test oneself against stronger and stronger opponents.

Barry, author of the much-acclaimed Rising Tide, which chronicled the 1927 flood and how it changed America, has a gift for weaving together seemingly disparate elements into a seamless whole. He also has a long fascination with the subject of power. Rising Tide began with the struggle to control the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 19th century (and the Corps' oft-flawed attempts to control the immutable power of the Mississippi River) and included socio-political histories of the Mississippi Delta and the New Orleans establishment. It was a masterpiece of storytelling.

Power Plays looks at the human side of power in several arenas. It is primarily about the sea change in Congress that occurred when former House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas was felled by an ethics scandal launched by future Speaker Newt Gingrich. Wright came from the old school and played "the inside game" built on personal loyalties and longstanding House traditions. Gingrich played "the outside game" in which one gained power by manipulating the media and, by extension, public opinion.

Between chapters about Wright's and Gingrich's civil war for control of Congress, Barry weaves chapters about football -- based on his own experiences as a young player and, later, as a high school and college coach (including a stint at Tulane) -- track and field, weightlifting and other sports. All exercises of power are personal.

As in Rising Tide, Barry is brutally honest in his assessments, including several about himself. He admits his own biggest failure as a coach was not helping a young athlete from a rival school get the college scholarship he deserved.

Some of the most telling observations are about the media, which Barry generally scorns for good reason: "[F]or all its adversarial nature, the media's agenda is imposed upon it. Rarely do reporters actually generate stories. They react, they receive. ... Stories come from events: a floor vote, a press conference, a terrorist bombing, a leak." (Note: the book was written before the Sept. 11 bombings.)

He also pulls no punches on his friend Wright, who manipulated House procedure -- stretched the rules to new limits, in fact -- to maintain his hold on power. Ultimately, Wright's exercise of power fed the dreaded partisanship that fed his foe Gingrich: "Wright had stripped power bare and exposed truths, uncomfortable truths. Members shied away from that nakedness."

In the end, the reader is left with the realization that people come and go; if they're lucky, they leave a mark. But power, like a virus, finds a new host and lives on. And on.


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