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Weed-Whacking

by A. J. Delgado

The Weed Agency: A Comic Tale of Federal Bureaucracy without Limits, by Jim Geraghty (Crown Forum, 272 pp., $13)

Conservative book sales are dropping, according to some recent reports. But Jim Geraghty’s latest work may just usher in a resurgence — by providing a new model of fresh, fun, original writing on the right.

Conservatives often speak of the need to penetrate pop culture yet routinely produce textbook-style works with worn-out titles about “liberty” or “liberals,” broken down by topic in the standard dozen chapters. Geraghty breaks that mold, giving readers a breezy take in an easy-to-digest format.

The Weed Agency is a novel, in which the fiction is cleverly interwoven with real-life historical and political issues and figures. The book makes its case against what Geraghty calls “the gargantuan, ever-growing, ever-less-accountable, impossible-to-uproot federal bureaucracy” by engrossing the reader in the trials and tribulations of a motley cast of government employees. This is the political-writing equivalent of feeding one’s dog a pill wrapped in bacon: It may be a dry subject, but it’s couched in an anything-but-dry manner. The book is a page-turning, often hysterically funny read, and one sails through it, realizing only afterward that it has offered a highly informed perspective on the trouble with out-of-control D.C. and explained why the problem is never solved, either by those who are personally invested in the growth of government or by those who idealistically try but ultimately surrender.

The Weed Agency (no, nothing to do with that kind of weed) centers on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (fictional) Agency of Invasive Species, dedicated to monitoring noxious plant growths. Starting in 1981, we follow the cast of characters and the ever-ballooning agency through the present day; there are also Forrest Gump–style cameos by Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, and other political celebrities.

The main character is agency director Adam Humphrey, a master at squirming his way out of budget reductions and instead growing his domain exponentially. He’s Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger, if Littlefinger were a D.C. federal employee and somewhat likeable. Each time Humphrey is met with a potential downsizing of his budget, he finds a way to outmaneuver the attempt by appealing to the potential axe-wielder’s weakness (prepare to laugh when Humphrey employs a fabricated Soviet threat as a need for greater funding, and when he woos Al Gore). Assisting him are Jack Wilkins, his right-hand man and protégé, and three young female agency employees of varying backgrounds and interests. The Captain Ahab to Humphrey’s Moby Dick is Nicholas Bader, a Reagan appointee whose idealistic quest to trim government fat has earned him the moniker “Nick the Knife.” Disillusioned by his inability to move the pendulum toward spending restraint, Bader departs government for the private sector — only to return later as a Republican congressman with a vendetta against Humphrey and his bloated agency.

Geraghty, who often showcases his wit in his National Review Online nonfiction writings about campaigns and elections, does not disappoint here. His deadpan delivery is worthy of Christopher Guest, in lines such as: “Wilkins had sensed the need to . . . get out of politics and get into something quieter, safer, more stable and predictable. He decided he needed a job in the civil service.” In one conversation, Grover Norquist is offhandedly described as “the short Viking who’s always going on about taxes.” In another, newly elected Congressman Bader calls his nemesis and menacingly hisses, before hanging up, “I’m coming for you, Humphrey” — reminiscent of Rambo’s radio message to Murdock in First Blood (a witty shout-out that made this reviewer chuckle in anticipation as the plot took off).

But what makes the book required reading is its uncanny relevance to current D.C. shenanigans. While bloated federal bureaucracy has been a worthy topic for at least 80 years, The Weed Agency’s publication this summer seems downright prescient on Geraghty’s part. At a time when Americans are marveling at the IRS’s claims that it “lost” Lois Lerner’s e-mails, shaking their collective heads over the smug posture of the IRS commissioner (who seems to shrug at the notion of accountability), and recoiling in disgust at the well-compensated VA employees’ inability to meet veterans’ needs, Geraghty’s work could not be more relevant.

Consider this line, explaining Humphrey’s approach to his job: “Ideally, our director, the secretary, and the deputy secretaries will be kept hermetically sealed from all potentially troublesome ‘flows’ of information. We screen the calls, sort out the letters, divert the unnecessary memos.” Is this not the VA employees’ seeming modus operandi, which led to the tragic scandal concerning sick veterans?

Or this one: “Humphrey also taught Wilkins to never fire anyone; only to transfer them.” Does the homicidally drunk-driving VA employee, who was merely shuffled to another role and kept his six-figure salary, ring a bell?

Or this one: “Humphrey believed in never leaving a dollar unspent,” lest anyone get the idea the agency does not need as much in next year’s budget. In the month of The Weed Agency’s publication, headlines highlighted government’s record-setting revenues this year, even as the Left continued to insist that the revenues were still not enough.

Geraghty also deserves praise for developing characters that are not one-dimensional. Humphrey, for example, is no cartoon villain: There are almost-understandable reasons for his ways, and he is a caring boss who looks out for those in the agency’s employ. Nor does the book avoid shining the light on spending-cut warriors who cave (be it in the Reagan, Gingrich, or Bush waves).

And Geraghty offers a solid assessment of the underlying dynamic of today’s politics: “In some ways, the fight of the Left vs. the Right is the undercard fight. The real showdown — certain to intensify in the budget fights to come — is the Permanent Bureaucracy vs. Everyone Else.” The author’s avoidance of a strictly partisan angle in tackling the trouble with entrenched bureaucracy makes The Weed Agency especially accurate — and powerful.

Hollywood agents would be wise to take note of this book, which reads like a screenplay or even a TV-series script. Geraghty recently described it as a mix between The Office and The West Wing; it is that, but remarkably informative to boot. He has put forward a story in a manner so cleverly persuasive that Adam Humphrey himself would applaud it — and a conservative lesson in a manner that Bader would, too.

– A. J. Delgado, a lawyer, writes about politics and culture.

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