NONFICTION

THE POWER HOUSE: Robert Keith Gray and the Selling of Access and Influence in Washington by Susan B. Trento (St. Martin's: $24.95; 430 pp.). Like the speakers at this year's Democratic Convention, the journalist who has painted this portrait of Hill and Knowlton, Washington's most influential lobbying and public relations firm, wants to cash in on the anger of Americans. Read this book, she counsels, and you will understand why "nothing gets done in Washington," why government neither "understands (nor) cares about the problems of the citizenry," why politicians "have completely lost sight of what they were elected to do--legislate and govern in the best interests of the country."

Blaming our entire Capitol mess on a PR firm seems, of course, a bit excessive, but this book's biggest problem is its relentless "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" prose. That style went over well on the Madison Square Garden podium simply because it was satisfying to see politicians validating the political anger and alienation most of us have been feeling for years. But here the author's earnest and relentless attack on Hill and Knowlton chairman Robert Keith Gray often seems grating and overwrought, as when she scapegoats him for problems that are really those of a baneful system. "The Power Game" might have been more effective as a polemic, not to mention more fun to read, had Trento affected a sensibility more '90s than Howard Beale's: e.g., "I'm absurdist as hell and I'm not going to take it seriously anymore."

Trento is outraged, for example, by Gray's own description of how things went awry when, as a junior aide to Eisenhower, he was assigned to take musician Louis Armstrong to lunch in the straight-laced White House Dining Room. Citing Gray's story as an example of his "racist treatment of minorities," she misses its humor. Gray recounts how his boss, Sherman Adams (a.k.a. "The Abominable No-Man"), stood by disapprovingly as he and his colleagues attempted to attune Armstrong's free spirit to the stuffy surroundings with quiet questions such as "What's your favorite song?" "Sweet Georgia Brown!," Armstrong responded, rising to his feet and grabbing an imaginary horn. "When the man say, 'Old Satch will play 'Sweet Georgia Brown,' ' ah just, roo-ta-te-toot-ta-too!" Silverware, Gray reports, dropped by the handful all over the room.

Trento's earnest style, of course, does not at all detract from her important contribution: describing how companies such as Hill and Knowlton shamelessly practice political deceit. The most egregious example of this is the story of how the firm, after learning from Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin that Iraqi atrocities would be most likely to lead Americans to go to war, helped publicize a "teary-eyed Kuwaiti girl's" claim that she had seen Iraqis turning off baby incubators after invading Kuwait. In reality, the "teary-eyed girl" was the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to the U.N., and many Kuwaitis doubted that she was even in the country at the time the incident allegedly took place. As Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory put it, Hill and Knowlton's work on behalf of a group it called Citizens for a Free Kuwait was "Washington at its worst."

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