I begin this review with a confession: I was not expecting to like “This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital” by Mark Leibovich. I was put off by the enormous hype surrounding the release of the book — mostly emanating from Beltway insiders deriding Leibovich’s biting take on their clubby world (written by a self-professed insider), while secretly hoping they merit a mention in it. And I questioned the value of, let alone the need for, another book dissecting the political culture of Washington, especially one that focuses so conspicuously on its top-tier powerbrokers. Hasn’t this story been told before? Isn’t this yet another example of the self-absorption that infects the city (and disgusts people outside of it)?
Leibovich himself cleverly capitalizes on Washington’s inflated egos to sell “This Town,” purposely omitting an index so that people are forced to read the entire book to find out if they’re in it.
But I have to admit that I really liked “This Town” and strongly recommend it. The book is a perceptive, hard-hitting and amusing account of official Washington. However, it offers a partial, and even distorted, view of Washington politics. While the nation’s capital certainly gets high on the toxic mix of prestige and pretension that Leibovich so acerbically captures, he underestimates the very unglamorous work that also keeps this city — and the country — running.
Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine and is known for his incisive political profiles. He was a political correspondent in the Washington bureau of the New York Times and also worked for the Washington Post and the San Jose Mercury News. According to Leibovich, “This Town” is based on more than 300 interviews, some of which were done for articles in the New York Times and the New York Times Magazine.
In “This Town,” Leibovich argues that Washington is dominated by an arrogant and mercenary political-media elite who are colluding and prospering even as the rest of the nation struggles in the aftermath of the Great Recession. This cabal of interests, he says, has been variously described as Permanent Washington, the Political Class, the Chattering Class, the Beltway Establishment, the Echo Chamber, the Gang of 500, the Club or, as he prefers, This Town. Leibovich argues that in official Washington, despite all of the apparent partisan conflict, there is a cushy bipartisan commitment to working the system for financial gain.
“Getting rich has become the great bipartisan ideal,” he writes. “The biggest shift in Washington over the last forty or so years has been the arrival of Big Money and politics as an industry.”
Leibovich says that the industries propelling Washington’s economy — lobbying, consulting and cable news — are obsessed with perpetuating conflicts rather than finding solutions. He contends that while Washington may not serve the country well, it works nicely for the well connected.
“While so much of the nation has despised Washington, a gold rush has enthralled the place. It has, in recent years, become a crucible of easy wealth, fame, forgiveness and next acts. Punditry has replaced reporting as journalism’s highest calling, accompanied by a mad dash of ‘self-branding,’ to borrow a term that had now fully infested the city: everyone now hell bent on branding themselves in the marketplace, like Cheetos,” he writes.
This town, he further asserts, is a “massive, self-sustaining entity that sucks people in, nurtures addiction to its spoils, and imposes a peculiar psychology on big fish and minnows alike. It can turn complex, gifted, and often damaged individuals into hollowed-out Kabuki players acting in the maintenance of their fragile brands.”
Leibovich compares Washington to a high school with the predictable cast of archetypes: popular athletes, nerds, mavericks, model students and rebels. But there is one critical difference: People enter high school and eventually leave. “But almost no one leaves here anymore. Better to stay and monetize a Washington identity in the humming self-perpetuation machine,” he writes.
Having issued a sweeping indictment of Washington’s political-media class, Leibovich focuses his ire on specific targets — personalities (and professions) that will ring true to anyone who’s been around the Washington party block.
Leibovich names plenty of names — and these juicy digs lay the groundwork for the book’s appeal, at least among Washingtonians (“This Town” shot to the top of the New York Times and Washington Post bestseller lists over the summer).
White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett supposedly had “earpiece envoy” after David Axelrod got a Secret Service detail. NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who’s married to former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, is a perpetual party schmoozer who embodies the city’s questionable conflicts of interest. Leibovich reserves some of his sharpest knives for über-hostess Tammy Haddad, whose only apparent purpose, he writes, is to be a “full-service gatherer of friends of different persuasions unified by the fact that they in some way ‘matter.'”
Leibovich is unsparing in his takedown of vanity and vapidity. He even starts “This Town” with, of all things, a funeral — that of “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert. He writes that the supposedly solemn event was a golden opportunity for social climbing and political posturing, recalling that Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had his “head bowed, conspicuously biting his lips, squinting extra hard for the full telegenic grief effect.”
But Leibovich saves his most scathing commentary for politicians who’ve profited from public service. In particular, he skewers what he calls “formers.” These are people who came to Washington in either elective or appointed office and decided to stay and use their contacts to get rich. He argues that in previous times, people moved to the national capital, served with pleasure, and then returned to normal lives in their communities. This happens less frequently, he says, citing various studies that show a growing number of lawmakers and executive branch officials who remain in Washington and become part of a permanent class of pundits, lobbyists, consultants, senior advisors and strategists.
For example, he takes aim at Ken Duberstein, a Republican political operative and lobbyist who served as Ronald Reagan’s last chief of staff. He says it’s unclear what Duberstein now does professionally apart from recalling his work for Reagan in the late 1980s and emphasizing his current friendship with Gen. Colin Powell. “The standard line on Duberstein is that he spent six and a half months as Reagan’s chief of staff and twenty-four years (and counting) dining out on it,” he writes.
Leibovich also savages former Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut. He recalls speaking with Dodd shortly after the senator announced that he was not going to run for a new term in 2010. Dodd told Leibovich that he was eager to begin a new life and that he was open to all possibilities — from the presidency of the University of Connecticut, to rejoining the Peace Corps, to starting a new company. He dismissed the idea of being a lobbyist. “That I can take off the table right now,” he declared. But months later, Dodd became president of the Motion Picture Association of America, earning more than $1 million a year as the group’s chief lobbyist.
Then there is Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, who also announced his retirement from the Senate in 2010, citing his distaste for Washington’s poisonous partisan environment. Bayh said he wanted to “give back” to his community and discussed teaching, running a foundation, or starting a business. But he changed his mind. Instead of returning to Indiana, he joined Fox News, Apollo Global Management, a large private equity firm, and McGuireWoods, a law firm. He also worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, partnering with former White House chief of staff Andy Card, a Republican from the George W. Bush administration, on a campaign to ease some regulations on business. Leibovich quotes an essay in Washington Monthly magazine that called Bayh “practically a caricature of what a sell-out looks like.”
Leibovich says a particularly egregious opportunist is former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, who was a passionate populist until he left Congress in 2005, headed to K Street, and reversed his positions on many issues. He joined DLA Piper, a law and consulting firm, before starting his own lobby shop in 2007. Within several years, he had annual billings of more than $6 million. Gephardt oversaw a tough anti-union campaign and worked for the Turkish government for $70,000 a month to, among other things, derail a congressional resolution condemning the Armenian genocide in 1915.
“Genocide goes down a little easier at those rates,” Leibovich retorts.
Leibovich also slams former Republican lawmakers who have prospered in Washington’s revolving door, such as former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and former Rep. Billy Tauzin, who was once chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Lott resigned from the Senate but stayed in Washington to open a lobby firm with former Democratic Sen. John Breaux. Lott offered a pithy reason for remaining in D.C. “Washington is where the money is. That’s generally what keeps people here.”
As for Tauzin, he made $11.6 million in 2010 running the lobbying arm of the pharmaceutical industry — an industry he once oversaw as committee chairman. Leibovich appears less critical of Lott and Tauzin than Dodd, Bayh and Gephardt, possibly because they never claimed to be high minded or idealistic. But he rips into former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey who helped found FreedomWorks and launch the Tea Party movement. Internal conflicts arose at FreedomWorks and Armey left the group, taking an $8 million settlement. “You can buy a lot of pitchforks with $8 million. And tea,” he writes.
Leibovich also blasts the Obama team, which professed during the 2008 presidential campaign to be guided by lofty ideals. As Leibovich tells it, the Obama campaign was “extravagant in detailing their contempt for the city” and depicted itself as above Washington’s insider game.
But in Leibovich’s view, even before Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, he began backpedaling on his promises, declining to enter the public financing system he once pledged to participate in. Obama later relaxed his rule that lobbyists could not work in the administration and in 2012 dropped his once strong opposition to so-called Super Political Action Committees (PACs). Some officials left the government to join firms that the administration had clashed with, such as British Petroleum, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. Leibovich quotes former White House press secretary and campaign advisor Robert Gibbs who mused to his colleagues, “Somehow we have all changed. Or maybe Washington just changed us.”
The press corps that covers Washington isn’t immune to this change, according to Leibovich. He is especially critical of Politico, the widely read publication launched in 2007 by several reporters from the Washington Post. He says its mission to “drive” the Washington conversation has raised the volume but lowered the quality of the political discourse. He quotes a withering assessment of Politico by Mark Salter, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz): “They have taken every worst trend in reporting, every single one of them, and put them on rocket fuel. It’s the shortening of the news cycle. It’s the trivialization of news. It’s the gossipy nature of news. It’s the self-promotion.”
Leibovich himself admits to being a member of the “club” he lambastes, regularly making the rounds of the city’s A-list reception circuit (though he may be relegated to B-list status after this book).
On that note, the author has gotten flak for exploiting the access to which he was given as a guest at receptions often considered off the record, and off limits. But Leibovich has countered that he is always on the clock as a journalist, whether at a funeral or a party. He also said he’s not concerned about his invites drying up anytime soon, telling Politico that his association with a large news organization will probably ensure that his social calendar remains full.
Leibovich’s tidbits into a world where he enjoys privileged access are insightful, but the name-dropping is really only relevant to Washington watchers who care about those names.
Still, there are many reasons to read this book. Leibovich is witty and self-deprecating. His criticisms of the incestuous Washington political-media culture are mostly fair. I share his scorn for the staged political battles that can be seen every night on cable TV. Minor dust-ups on the floor of the House and Senate are packaged as historic showdowns. Pundits, with no actual policy expertise, offer sweeping views of tax reform one day, the war in Afghanistan the next day, and stem cell research the following day. They are faking it.
I think Leibovich is also correct to challenge those officials and lawmakers who came to Washington as self-declared outsiders and agents of change, but remain in the city long after their government service ends to cash in as highly paid consultants. Leibovich tears into some former members of the Obama administration in this respect. He could have also mentioned the many alumni of the Reagan administration who came to Washington in 1981 decrying the size of the federal government and blasting the capital city, but have remained and still enjoy the comforts — and financial rewards — of Washington life. The political cash cow is a bipartisan tradition.
I wish Leibovich would have done more to explore the policy ramifications of this insider culture. Has the city’s pervasive influence peddling altered American public policy or is it just a cynical but harmless act of people to make money off a flawed system? This critical question is largely ignored in the book.
My biggest reservation about “This Town” is that while purporting to tell how Washington works, it neglects an important part of the story. The book focuses almost exclusively on those who exploit Washington for short-term gain but says almost nothing about those in the government and media who work hard, treat people fairly and sincerely, and are not driven by the desire to get rich (and there are far more hard-working bureaucrats and reporters than self-serving ones).
While the examples of Dodd, Gephardt and Bayh are disappointing, they aren’t the entire story. There are also many people in “this town” like former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) who, after being involuntarily retired from the Senate, decided to stay in Washington and do good things such as setting up a center to tackle problems such as global hunger and proliferation. Lugar is also creating several Washington intern programs for college students. Then there is another former Indiana lawmaker, Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who retired from the House of Representatives in 1999 and stayed in Washington for a decade to direct the Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars. He also co-chaired the 9/11 Commission, the Iraq Study Group, and participated in other public service projects. Leibovich’s cynicism ignores people such as Lugar and Hamilton who for the most part have good intentions and do meaningful work.
As for the media, there are clearly examples of journalists who are publicity hounds — more interested in getting on TV and garnering large speaking fees than covering the actual news. But there are also hundreds of journalists who work ridiculously long hours for dismal pay, report carefully, write fairly, and have no interest in becoming glorified talking heads.
Finally, Leibovich makes only a passing reference to what a marvelous and vibrant city Washington is, packed with a fascinatingly diverse range of people, world-class museums, superb restaurants and wonderful theaters. His account of the glitzy, star-studded White House Correspondents’ Dinner should have been balanced by descriptions of how real people live in “This Town” — shopping at the Dupont Circle farmer’s market on Sundays, mentoring students in public schools, watching baseball games at Nationals Park, and supporting the rebuilding of Frager’s Hardware store on Capitol Hill.
So I would urge you to read “This Town” and laugh, roll your eyes, and even get angry at Leibovich’s tale. But also put the book down knowing that he’s telling you only part of the story — and it’s the worst part.
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.