More than just an antipundit screed: freelance writer Alterman puts punditry in perspective, giving a history of its development and analyzing its current effect on politics. According to Walter Lippmann, punditry creates a ``pseudo- environment'' in the public mind--a place where, Alterman says, ``a perverse kind of Democratic politics takes place.'' But Alterman's main reservation is not that ``the American people'' will be led astray by pundits, but that these know-it-alls set the debate within the Beltway. He argues that pundits have become less the agents of an informed populace and more like intriguing courtiers- -favor-currying agenda-manipulators. For punditry to work, Alterman insists, two conditions have to be met: Pundits must act in a spirit of disinterested inquiry, and they must not identify with the Washington elite--the ``informal aristocracy of the powerful...and the well-connected''--with whom they rub elbows. Alterman sees the Gulf War as example of the misplaced role of pundits today, arguing that the debate over whether we should go to war took place almost entirely in the media rather than in Congress. The author knows his territory, and has interviewed many of those he criticizes. William Safire and Michael Kinsley come in for praise, soi-disant Tory George Will for opprobrium. An engaging and knowledgeable analysis that, at times (as in the title), verges on the irritatingly arch. Good reading for those enamored of the Washington scene.