Sunday, August 25, 2013

Book Review - This Town

Along the banks of the Potomac River has arisen a self-contained ecosystem immune to the vagaries of life outside its borders. Its leading lights rotate effortlessly between important jobs and high-paying ones, using the impressiveness of the former to remunerate themselves through the latter. The people who inhabit this place are rarely exiled and then, only for the most egregious of reasons; otherwise, minor infractions, slips ups and mistakes are simply the prologue to the ever popular arc of redemption that is a signature of its people. Even the fights are manufactured, with a scripted feel that owes far more to professional wrestling than Ivy League debating clubs. The fix is in and the joke is on us, as a carnival barker named Mark Leibovich pulls back the cover and exposes the ugly, cynical and morally bankrupt capital of our nation that fondly calls itself This Town

This Town is not a polemic. Leibovich is a member in good standing of, as he calls it, "The Club," and nowhere in the book's 368 pages will you hear him call for a higher minded level of journalism, a lifetime ban on politicians or their aides lobbying Capitol Hill or the break up of multi-national media conglomerates that control most of what we watch on TV, read in newspapers and consume on the Internet. Rather, This Town is the football team telling you what play they are going to run, the pitcher letting you know he's throwing heat over the plate, the basketball player squaring up behind the three point line, all knowing there is nothing you can do to stop them. 

If there was any question "Washington, D.C." is a scam, consider what happened in the wake of This Town's publication. Leibovich was not shunned by his peers or run out of town on a rail. Rather, he appeared on the very talk shows that he excoriated, had excerpts of his book recycled through media outlets he panned and made more than one appearance in Mike Allen's Playbook, the ubiquitous "tip sheet" Allen produces for Politico. Indeed, if there is a star of This Town it is Politico, the hyper-focused-on-the-news-cycle media outlet that burst onto the scene and within a few short years, was "driving the narrative" (as they put it) about what happens in Washington, D.C. every day. 

The grease that moves the wheels in This Town are the endless litany of cocktail parties, bar mitzvahs, weddings and other social engagements where purported adversaries happily mingle over appetizers and finger food that cost what some people make in a month. These vignettes share much with the focus on minutiae used by Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho, but instead of paragraphs on business card weight (or font), Leibovich focuses on the things that matter in Washington - your title, whether someone with an earpiece follows you or if your star is on the rise or falling. Social planners are minor celebrities of their own (complete with personal websites that live cam events over the Internet) and as the cast of characters changes along with Administrations and new Congresses, parties are thrown to fete these new media darlings. 

The tableau Leibovich paints oozes with snark and cynicism, which would be well and good were the people he writes about not making policy making decisions about how more than $3 trillion in tax dollars are spent and what we as consumers of news read about. A solemn event, the funeral of Tim Russert, which Leibovich devotes most of the book's first 30 pages to, is illustrated as a case study in the "tribal" aspects of This Town, complete with such pettiness as jockeying over seating position, subtle snubs and all-about-me testimonials shared by Russert's "friends." Then again, Leibovich isn't particularly respectful of the dead either. Russert is held up as cultivating an every man persona larded with encomiums to his father, Big Russ, a blue collar guy from Buffalo, while enjoying all the power and prestige that D.C. had to offer, from a favored table at the iconic steakhouse The Palm to his "large home" (Leibovich's words) in Nantucket paid for, no doubt, with the money Russert and his wife earned as members in good standing of This Town

At the other end of the spectrum, the nuptials of two quintessential This Town characters, the journalist Jonathan Martin and Meet the Press producer Betsy Fischer, are treated in hushed tones that suggest the coupling of royalty. A toast given by Tom Brokaw nicely captures the unintentional irony of This Town self-importance, as Brokaw, donning a very special tie made in Nantucket by one of Russert's favorite stores (the tie itself being a symbol of being part of the "in" crowd), effuses that the wedding is "as if a member of the Gotti family married a member of the Gambino family …" Comparing a wedding of two media darlings to the union of two parts of a criminal syndicate would not strike "ordinary" Americans as inapt. Not to worry though, these two people, who Brokaw assures us, "care passionately about their country," celebrate their union at a tony estate in Virginia horse country attended by media and political elites with "deets" in the following day's edition of Allen's Playbook

While Leibovich makes passing reference to the members of This Town being in Washington to "engage in important work," the book's overriding theme suggests they are motivated by far less high minded ideals - the accumulation of wealth, status and power. Elected officials and their aides go through revolving doors and come out the other side with their pockets lined with money provided by industries they once regulated and oversaw, TV bookers scramble to suck up to twenty somethings who staff "principals" on the Hill and the White House, and corporations lubricate all of this with a seeming endless supply of cash all but the most disciplined avoid. Indeed, the trough overflows so much that some companies retain lobbyists solely to avoid having them do work for competitors. Yes, people get paid to not do work. 

"Ordinary" Americans are largely absent in the self-absorbed bubble that Washington elites live in, except of course when it is time for re-election, when politicians engage in the time honored tradition of everyman activity - beer drinking, hunting and other touchstones that they think will make them more relatable to the people they spend the rest of their time ignoring. And as a lemon- tart piece of reporting, I was fine with most of This Town's tone, but a passage deep in the book that revolved around an article written by Alex Burns of yup, you guessed it, Politico, exposed This Town at its venal core - utterly contemptuous of the people they are sent to D.C. to serve. 

In Burns's article, he lamented the attempts by candidates for the GOP nomination to "connect" with a "historically fickle and frustrated electorate …" or as Leibovich refers to them, "the stupid voters." Voters in the Deep South, according to Leibovich, are referred to by journalists as "Deliverance Country" and the Burns article led with a quote by a Democratic pollster telling him that the first lesson you learn in politics is that "people are stupid." And while Burns's article opened him up to one of the other great totems of life in This Town - the aggrieved counter-punch by competitors - Leibovich proclaims his love for the article because of its honest portrayal of what the media elite actually think of the American people. In other words, the people who are well compensated to report the news to the populace are mad at the same people for not being better informed! 

The only two people who come off as remotely authentic are Haley Barbour, the former Reagan aide, RNC Chairman, Governor of Mississippi and co-founder of one of the most successful lobbying firms in D.C. and an otherwise obscure Congressional aide named Kurt Bardella. Like a wrestling heel, Barbour embraces his role in This Town, playing his role as the backslapping, steak consuming (he even went so far as to open his own steak house, predictably called "The Caucus Room") political operator to the hilt. Leibovich quotes another member of "The Club," Michael Kinsley, who fawned that Barbour's appeal stems from his acknowledgment that "this is all a big game …" And it is just that wink at the sham that lands Barbour at a ribbon cutting ceremony in his native Mississippi with none other than Bill Clinton and Barbour's "met cute in a green room" bestie Terry McAuliffe, who, when he is not collecting $50,000 checks with Barbour for pretend fighting in front of conferences, secured favorable tax breaks for his electric car company from then-Governor Barbour. 

As for Bardella, he is a quintessential D.C. staffer - hard working, hard charging, utterly consumed by his job and tethered, in an almost symbiotic way, to his "principal" (in this case, Darrell Issa). Bardella's rise to prominence occurs when the GOP takes over the House and Issa takes over the House Oversight Committee, but like Icarus, he flies too close to the sun, blind copying Leibovich on emails he writes (or responds to) in an effort to aggrandize and elevate his importance. AN inevitable D.C. scandal erupts and results in Bardella's termination, but fret not, within six months, after the hubbub died down, he was right back at Issa's side.  

You see that's the other dirty little secret Leibovich exposes. Even as supposed enemies (and friends) shred one another publicly, they are sending back channel messages of support. When Hilary Rosen stepped in it by claiming Ann Romney had "never worked a day in her life," the resulting pearl clutch by politicians and the media alike occurred even as the same people were giving Rosen private "heads up" that they would be attacking her publicly, but still supported her. Things didn't turn out poorly for Rosen regardless, she upgraded from low-rated cable gabfests on CNN to a panelist slot on Meet the Press

And so it goes in This Town. Friendships are collected, not cultivated and more effort is put into social climbing, name dropping and gaining access than to holding politicians accountable for their deeds or for the media to sweat the fact that they do a horrible job informing the public (i.e., THEIR JOB). In Washington, the gravy train keeps rolling, the revolving door keeps spinning, and we the people are the rubes letting it all happen.


  1. I so enjoy your writing, and am thankful that you read that book so I don't have to!

  2. Thanks, but the point is that YOU read the books too!

    1. My book-reading is depressing me, lately > recent books on "the great recession" caused me to stop reading them, so then I pivot to re-read "I bury my heart at Wounded Knee"...WTF???