Washington wasn’t built on a swamp – but try telling that to American voters or the politicians they keep electing to metaphorically drain it. This facile fixation long ago turned into a catchphrase (“Drain the Swamp”), but for the most part, it’s all promise and no follow-through.
President Donald Trump is only the latest in a long line of bellicose, would-be reformers – of all ideological stripes – who campaign on the idea of a sickened, murky, ethically inhospitable U.S. capital in need of a deep cleanse. The only thing this long-held bias achieves is to keep Washington’s taxpaying residents in an ironic limbo of second-class citizenship, unrepresented in Congress.
Oh well – you’ve seen our license plates, you know D.C.’s drill. Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme’s intriguing documentary, “The Swamp” (premiering Tuesday on HBO), makes a good-natured and often compelling attempt to explain some of the endemic, deep-seeded dysfunctions of Congress (aka “Washington”), while also doing its best to not seem so naive as to present old outrages as fresh news.
Aiming to untangle the story of Congress’s immobilizing dependence on PAC fundraising and lobbyist influence, “The Swamp” is watchable mainly for its willingness to hang around with the likes of 38-year-old Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and give him a fair and up-close chance to explain himself as a self-styled iconoclast.
He sleeps in his office. He does his own makeup each morning for TV appearances. He prefers Uber Eats to the potential blowback he might receive while trying to dine out around town. Descended from politicians, he likes to swagger around the Capitol in crisp suits and Ray-Ban sunglasses, in actual contradiction to his professed dislike of the place. Pedestrians pepper him with epithets; a scooter bro shouts “shame” as he whizzes past the congressman; back at home in the Florida panhandle, disgruntled constituents yell over Gaetz at a town hall.
Fox News Channel and CNN, on the other hand, provide Gaetz daily and nightly opportunities to burnish his status as a provocateur, and Trump immediately answers his late-night “you up?” calls so they can compare notes on how wonderful they are.
This candid glimpse into Gaetz’s world might come as something of an unctuous surprise to HBO’s typical documentary viewer who is used to being served agreeable agenda items from the left side of the menu. Without quite lapsing into make believe, “The Swamp” follows Gaetz during 2019 and early 2020 as he fights mightily (and often obnoxiously) to stave off efforts to impeach his buddy president while souring on the constant demands to raise money from GOP leadership, which keeps him routinely apprised of how much money he “owes” to the apparatus.
“The Swamp” is not the first documentary to examine the open secret of those nefarious nearby call centers, in office buildings that are legally outside the ethical no-no zone, where representatives spend inordinate amounts of time in cubicles working the phone lines, begging big donors for more money. It’s the easiest and most galling proof of a broken system.
The film gets more interesting, however, when it turns its attention to some of Gaetz’s similarly agitated colleagues – such as Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., who wrote a book in 2017 titled “Drain the Swamp: How Washington Corruption Is Worse Than You Think,” and Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a techie Libertarian farmer who drives an electric car and prides himself on being last on the list of the GOP’s fundraising tally. Massie also offers a much more entertaining metaphor for the U.S. Capitol than the overused swamp: Remember the half-built Death Star from “Return of the Jedi”?
“If you come up here to visit, there’s scaffolding on (the Capitol building) all the time, and it looks like it’s being worked on, but it’s fully functional, and it can destroy happiness and life anywhere. What I’m doing up here is looking for the one weakness in the Death Star – but sometimes I wind up in the trash compactor.”
Massie, who earned the nickname “Mr. No” for his propensity to vote nay even against his party’s line (he says he does this only a quarter of the time, on average), revels in being a contrarian, which is entertaining. Yet “The Swamp” never makes a case that his rebelliousness has achieved much for his constituents.
DiMauro and Pehme – whose previous work includes a Netflix documentary about Trump adviser Roger Stone – stick closely to just a few of the core principles held by Gaetz, Massie and Buck while disregarding their less savory opinions, foibles and any other aspect that could interfere with the reform narrative. Such principles sometimes put these congressmen in the same corner as like-minded Democrats, sharing an aversion to starting new wars as well as ideas about campaign finance reform and term limits.
The “where to begin” aspect of fixing Washington is as much a hurdle for the film as it is for the representatives, while the history of partisan gridlock and big-money influence is more easily traced to the rise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans won a long-sought majority. Seeding dissent between voters and widening the rift between conservatives and liberals turned out to be a powerful moneymaker and a point of no return for both parties – “the perpetual campaign,” says Harvard professor and government reform advocate Lawrence Lessig.
Impeachment proceedings against Trump become a shiny object for everyone involved, including the filmmakers, who can’t resist the drama – perhaps proving another point about why our leaders and representatives are able to concentrate on only one big thing at a time.
Gaetz goes to dinner at Capitol Hill’s Trattoria Alberto with an unlikely friend – former congresswoman Katie Hill, a California Democrat who resigned last November after admitting she had an affair with a campaign staffer and the surfacing of private photos she deemed an act of “revenge porn.”
Gaetz is curious about a campaign-finance reform proposal before the House that would help get money out of politics, in which the government would match small, grass-roots donations by a factor of five, eliminating the need for large donors. He confesses to Hill that he can’t get his head around what he perceives as government handouts (“Welfare for politicians,” he says), which she counters, because the idea still puts the responsibility for fundraising on the candidates – while limiting corporate influence.
It’s a fascinating moment that “The Swamp” captures, the barest hint of a light bulb of awareness breaking through Gaetz’s stubborn head. Soon Gaetz is seen publicly vowing to stop taking PAC contributions – the first Republican in Congress to do so. “The Swamp’s” parting message seems clear enough: If you want to fix Washington, fix yourself first.
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