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Ken Silverstein
Turkmeniscam : How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2008

Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-1-4000-6743-5
Publication Date: 09-23-20908
198 Pages ; $24
Date Reviewed: 11-10-08

Index:  Non-Fiction  Mystery Interview (10-04-2008)

Our perceptions change faster than we expect and without our permission. It wasn't so long ago that undercover journalism was both expected and respected. But a lawsuit put an end to an era and a technique by which the fourth estate could exercise its power. Or so it seemed until the fall of 2006, when the Jack Abramoff scandals were making news. That's when Ken Silverstein approached his editors at Harper's Magazine with the idea of using the undercover journalism sting to find out just how low America's lobbyists will stoop. Here's a clue; forget about the bottom of the barrel. Get ready to upend the barrel, and look at what's living underneath.

'Turkmeniscam' is an outstanding work of journalism that offers a concise combination of the history of lobbying and a true-crime rendering of Silverstein's scam. It's a look inside the sausage factory that is both hilarious and scarifying. Some of this has been written up in Harper's and the whole affair was the talk of Washington D.C. when news of Silverstein's shtick broke. Unsurprisingly, the ethics of the man who exposed the unethical behavior that runs Washington were excoriated by those who had the most to lose; and thee included not just his targets, but competing news organizations as well. 'Turkmeniscam' can read like a toe-tapping tale of screwball comedic crime, but it's also a sobering lesson in how easily the government can be bought and sold.

Don't think that Silverstein is a card-carrying liberal; his first targets were in the Democratic party. That said, once he fixes his eyes on the prize, it's a delight to read about his rather underwhelming scam. This was not a Mission Impossible gig. Silverstein managed to fool some of the highest flyers in the lobbying business with a cell phone number, a few fake cards and apparently, a gift for acting. True crime aficionados will enjoy his meticulous though fairly basic preparations. A lot of thought went into his plan, and his dilemmas were not merely practical, but legal and ethical. 'Turkmeniscam' is an excellent examination of the decisions made by a working journalist trying to get a story.

And what a story it is! Meals beyond compare and high-tech presentations with the idea of proving that Turkmenistan is an "emerging democracy" instead of a fading Stalinist dictatorship fill the book. You'll find characters whom you'd hope would be relegated to the realm of fiction were they not making buckets of money spray-painting the truth. 'Turkmeniscam' is a journey into a world of the absurd, a let-them-eat-cake land that will leave readers laughing – nervously. After all, this is how we sell a war. This is how we sell de-regulation. This is how we sell America, and damn if there aren't a lot of folks lining up to buy while the buying is cheap.

Silverstein puts all this in perspective with a nicely interleaved history of lobbying. Much of the material here is a perfect complement to Thomas Frank's 'The Wrecking Crew'; those who enjoyed that book will find this equally and infuriatingly enjoyable. Silverstein writes with verve and style, and he knows how to edit his work into a fast-paced tale of journalistic derring-do. Silverstein may write with humor and the absurdity of the tale he tells is certainly quite funny. But the issues are quite compelling. Our government is for sale, and there are those who are quite willing to shill for anyone who has a decent story. Or even an indecent story, so long as it includes box seats and free meals. Let them have their cake – and let them eat cake. We're picking up the tab.

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