Congo, Corruption, Republicans, and Bono

A landmark election in Africa, a tour of Republican Washington, McCain's and Giuliani's presidential prospects in '08, and Time's "People of the Year."

This week the Economist takes us to a war-torn part of the world filled with feuding militias and an abysmal infrastructure, a country that recently emerged from decades of dictatorship and now faces its first real test of democracy. No, not the one you’re thinking of. We’re talking about the Congo. That nation, the size of all of Western Europe, has been holding a referendum on a new constitution. It’s the country’s first democratic election in 40 years and according to the magazine it seems that, “many of the roughly 24 [million] registered voters, from the bustling streets of Kinshasa, the capital, to remote jungle villages that are reached only by canoe, turned out to approve (or not) a new set of institutions for the former Belgian colony.”

We haven’t read much about this vote in the papers. But thanks to the Economist, we get a sense of its significance: It could mean the end to a civil war that has been raging since 1998 that has taken the lives of nearly 4 million Congolese and involved a number of other neighboring African countries. The new constitution would bring more stability to the nation, which has been slowly stepping back from the abyss since 2003, and lead the way to general elections next June.

But the Economist is willing to go even further and follow the UN aid chief Jan Egeland’s prediction that 2006 will be the “year of the Democratic Republic of Congo.” There are indications that the economy is improving as investors return and inflation drops. University professors are finally getting a real paycheck. Cellular phones are proliferating. And traffic on the massive Congo River, reduced to nothing during the war, is coming back to life.

The New Republic stays closer to home, but also takes us on a tour of a land filled with corruption, dirty politics and greed: Washington, D.C. In a send-up of the “Rough Guide” series, TNR devotes a big part of this week’s issue to a humorous exploration of what Republicans have done to the city.

When they first arrived in the 1980s and 1990s, TNR writes, “the Republicans encountered an indigenous Democratic civilization in serious decline. Much like the Aztecs and the Incas, the Democrats had constructed impressive monuments like the Welfare State and Regulatory Policy. Under the reign of President Bill Clinton, however, they succumbed to the temptations of imperial power, abusing a primitive congressional banking system and seducing young interns.” In its place, the new arrivals wanted to build a different world. Take one visionary immigrant, Tom DeLay from Sugar Land, Texas, who the guide tells us “had a plan for a new city of elegantly circuitous money trails and a grid that would link lobbyists to the Republican Party. The DeLay plan for modernizing the city is also known as the K Street Project, and it benefits from the simplicity of its intentions: Want to work with the Republicans? Then you’d better hire Republicans at your law firms and lobbying shops — and then donate your money to Grover Norquist, conservative 527s, and other GOP D.C. charities. Nobody had ever dared to think so transparently.”

The feature is filled with lots of fun segments, like “Where to Eat?” Try the St. Regis Hotel at 923 16th Street NW, which “is the perfect setting for an early-morning rendezvous that you’d rather keep to yourself. Ideal for the times you want to make like Scooter Libby, assume the role of ‘former Hill staffer,’ and badmouth your enemies’ wives to New York Times reporters.”

If you’d like a little mouthwash after this harsh look at the decadence of the GOP, you might turn to John Heilemann’s piece in New York magazine, which looks at the prospects of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani for the 2008 presidential race. His prognosis: Both are polling excellently (if you take Condi out of the mix) but Giuliani needs to get his act together if he wants to run and maybe come out against abortion, and McCain needs to stop being so friendly with Democrats. But Heilemann thinks these two could change the direction of the party: “Charismatic, candid, and all too human, they create the impression, however illusory, that the Republican Party actually was a big tent and might, just might, be a big tent again.”

Finally, no magazine report would be complete this week without pontificating on what is perhaps the biggest annual magazine event there is, the Oscars of the Conde Nast set, Time’s “Person of the Year” award.

This time the honors were shared between Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono. It went to the “Good Samaritans” as Time defines it, “three people on a global mission to end poverty, disease — and indifference.”

Not a bad choice, be we would have voted for the Pinch and Judy Show.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.