Rebel Pol

Democrazy: A True Story of Weird Politics, Money, Madness, and Finger Food BY Trey Radel. Blue Rider Press. Hardcover, 320 pages. $27.

The cover of Democrazy: A True Story of Weird Politics, Money, Madness, and Finger Food

Starting with its unsolemn title, onetime Florida congressman Trey Radel's Democrazy: A True Story of Weird Politics, Money, Madness, and Finger Food (Blue Rider Press, $27) is the most puckish political memoir in recent—or, for that matter, remote—memory. Then again, winning readers over by projecting wry self-amusement does come in handy when you're hoping to convince people you aren't a blithering idiot. Known as the "hip-hop conservative" for his ideologically incongruous—but disarming—love of classic fight-the-power rappers Public Enemy and NWA, Radel is the freshman Republican who got busted in 2013 for cocaine possession just ten months into his term. There may be Road Runner cartoons that go on longer than his stint on Capitol Hill.

As you read Democrazy, it's hard not to picture its author as a less tormented, real-life version of Representative Peter Russo, the hard-partying legislator Corey Stoll played so wonderfully in the first season of House of Cards. (Coincidentally, though Radel doesn't mention it, HoC debuted the same year.) Less ruthless than Kevin Spacey, House Speaker John Boehner merely pressured Radel into resigning, as opposed to quietly murdering him. But there may have been moments when Boehner was tempted.

For one thing, the idiosyncratic Radel, a former Sunshine State TV anchor turned conservative talk-radio host and minor-league media entrepreneur, had been looking like a comer in the GOP caucus—indeed, was one of the "Young Guns" anointed by Paul Ryan and the now departed Eric Cantor—until he became a goner instead. On top of that, if you remember 2013, Boehner also had plenty of other Moby-Dicks to fry, including the government shutdown in which Tea Partiers tried to hold Obamacare hostage. No milquetoast on fiscal issues, even though he's also no huge sophisticate about them, Radel is unrepentant about being one of the "crazies."

If Democrazy's breezy tone of what-the-hell candor is any gauge, he doesn't plan on trying to resurrect his political career anytime soon. Except in the most jocular way, he doesn't presume to turn his comeuppance into a cautionary tale or a self-help manual. But he does want to tell us about his nuts-and-bolts tutorial in money, politics, and lobbying during his whirligig twenty-four months as candidate, congressman-elect, and then Representative Trey Radel (R-FL). Neither excessively cynical nor unconvincingly appalled, his dishy inside view is droll and sharp enough to make you think his bad habits cost his district a fairly promising pol.

Or maybe not, because one thing you notice about Radel's backstory is how quickly he gets bored with every gig he's ever landed and every hobby he's ever tried. (His favorite description of his own temperament is "cavalier.") Once he's had his flimsy but instructive experience, he barrels ahead to his next stunt identity, and that's all she wrote. From genuinely funny cracks like the one about the Republican caucus being "deep into our 2,128th meeting about how we'd finally get rid of Obamacare once and for all," it's plain that the day-to-day minutiae of being a congressman left him restless. No wonder he was soon sampling the seamy side of DC nightlife with a couple of unsavory characters pseudonymized here as "Mike" and "John."

All the same, he did take his job seriously, at least to whatever extent he takes anything seriously. Obama's botched attempt at a Syria intervention, for instance, bothered him a lot and still does. Meanwhile, one of a few legislative successes before the Feds closed in was an amendment stripping a $50-million appropriation for sheep-shearing from a thousand-page farm bill: a trifle, perhaps, but cannily chosen to establish this Capitol Hill tyro's credentials as a budget hawk opposed to wasting taxpayer money. Radel's energetic description of the evolution and eventual passage of the "Radel Amendment" is one of the book's most entertaining showpieces, partly because he's perfectly aware that the stakes involved were minuscule to everybody except him.

Democrazy also includes refreshingly humanizing snapshots of his own party's House leaders—a useful corrective for liberal readers accustomed to seeing Paul Ryan, say, exclusively as the "zombie-eyed granny-starver" that Esquire writer Charles P. Pierce is fond of calling him. In one of Radel's best lines, he tells us that judging politicians' character by how they behave on cable-news shows is like evaluating "someone's entire personality . . . the moment after they get in a car accident." The one who rates the most affectionate treatment is the chain-smoking, gravel-voiced, wine-guzzling Boehner, whose mannerisms get him compared to Hunter S. Thompson for doubtless the only time in his career. (Since our Trey idolizes HST, this is no small praise.) When they first meet in Florida, Radel's fantasy of Boehner suddenly barking out "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold"—the opening line of Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—grows more pointed and less random once you remember the next stop is Washington, DC.

Though it can't have been any fun at the time, even Radel's own drug bust gets compulsively turned into slapstick here. But there are worse survival mechanisms, after all. If a lot of Democrazy's zanier bits look aimed straight at a movie sale, that's hardly out of character for a born self-promoter—and anyhow, it could make an awfully good one. One reason for that is that Radel comes off as a clown with a good heart and a stubbornly independent streak a mile wide, which is enough all by itself to make you wish he were still in the House's GOP caucus under the Trump administration. I have a hunch we'll miss his vote when impeachment time rolls around.

Tom Carson is a freelance critic and the author of the novel Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter (Paycock, 2011).