You can't work it too hard at a memorial service, obviously. It's the kind of thing people notice. But the big-ticket Washington departure rite can be such a great networking opportunity. You can almost feel the ardor behind the solemn faces: lucky stampedes of power mourners, about two thousand of them, wearing out the red-carpeted aisles of the Kennedy Center.
From the opening paragraphs of This Town, a frothy Beltway insider tell-all by New York Times Magazine writer Mark Leibovich, you know you're in for one of those reads that is equal parts riveting and horrifying, in which you compulsively keep reading even as you tell yourself it's nearly 400 pages of focus on ego, power, cash and trivia.
But is that all it is? Trivia? Well, it's certainly gossipy and (frankly, embarrassingly) rollicking fun and sharply written. And it certainly documents the trivial preoccupations of the preening class of politicians, media personalities who cover them, and lobbyists who attempt to sway them—the collective class Leibovich calls "the poli-media pigpen." But the bottom line is, these egomaniacs control our information flow and run our government. The fact that they are turbocharged with one-upmanship, starved for attention, single-mindedly devoted to advancing their personal "brand"—these facts are not trivial. And it's pretty damning that one of their own—a guy who freely admits he partakes of the same parties, funerals, bar mitzvahs and weddings as his co-horts—is turning over the rock and shining a light there for the rest of us.
Join me below the fold for more peeks under the capital rock.
Comparisons have been made numerous times between high school and D.C., and Leibovich has a few words about that analogy that are important to the rest of us looking in on that particular fishbowl:
But the high school comparison breaks down in the modern version of This Town. For one thing, Washington—like high school—used to be a transient culture. People would expect to graduate eventually or drop out. But almost on one leaves here anymore. Better to stay and monetize a Washington identity in the humming self-perpetuation machine, where people not nearly as good as Tim Russert or the Obama dynamos can make Washington "work for them."
This permanent ruling class plays musical chairs with appointments in government, lobbying firms out of it, serving as "informal advisers" to campaigns, "experts" on shoutfest shows, endorsers, enablers, fundraisers and party officers. No matter that they are often of opponent parties—power hoarding and advancement is thicker than blood (although intermarriages like the Mary Matalin-James Carville union, or that of Andrea Mitchell and Alan Greenspan feed the cassoulet of compromised interests in too many ways to count). And money, of course, ends up trumping all.
It wasn't always this way, Leibovich points out. Up until the 1990s, while no one was exactly broke in D.C., the kind of money we've become accustomed to seeing in the past decade swishing around in the Beltway toilet bowl was nonexistent. People wanted influence, power, prestige and respect. It wasn't until 20 or so years ago that they started learning that you can buy it instead of earning it.
The heady mix of D.C. celebrity and money hasn't just affected the capital either; the other, West Coast lodestone of trivia, gossip, schmoozing and deal-making has begun an unsettling merge with the poli-media pigpen as well:
Hollywood also loves "current events." And they love meeting the people they see on Sunday morning television "not quite denying" things and "not ruling out" things and "not closing the door" on things. It proves our friends from Hollywood are also smart and serious and cause-oriented. It is partly why they have descended to the level of This Town for the weekend—to walk among the Gods of Current Events.
It's hard to find anyone who comes out looking good once Leibovich is through with them. The Clintons are hard-nosed, ambitious and unforgiving; David Gregory is a foppish pit of neediness; Politico has changed news for the worse with its breathless, trivial blow-by-blow. Only three figures actually come across not quite as bad as the rest: Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Mike Allen (the subject of a previous profile Leibovich penned in 2010).
Obama, while not a paragon by any means, simply refuses to play many of the social games:
Obama appears immune to the neediness that afflicts so many politicians. Any attempt to win his favor through praise was futile, or counterproductive. This air of above-it-all confidence was also evident among Obama's top advisers. They were a cohesive and devoted group who often evinced the temperament of loners. Like Obama, they possessed a quiet sense that the prevailing social lubricants of politics—the sycophancy, the gossip, and the cloying salesmanship—were not just distasteful but pathetic.
In a deeper sense, there was an implicit belief among the Obama people that Washingtonians constituted one of the most insincere collectives in the world. To them, members of The Club were like playactors performing weird pantomimes of the sort no one in, say, Chicago would engage in. The Obama people declared themselves consistently above the "insider Washington" game.
Of course, by the time of re-election, most of Obama's team has managed to get mired in the trivia too, only not quite so deeply, perhaps, as the rest of the pigs in the pigpen. Leibovich seems to have a bit of admiration for these loner types, as Harry Reid comes into praise for more authenticity than most (slightly more … after all, it's all merely a matter of degree in This Town because inauthenticity is unavoidable).
Reid loves being alone, either with his thoughts or with his wife, Landra, to whom he has been married fifty-three years. He also has a great eye for political loners and bringing them into his fold. He recognized immediately that Barack Obama was an outlier when he came to the Senate in 2005. Obama was a charming and persuasive "natural" of a performer but unreachable in basic ways and not well suited to the chamber. It was Reid who in 2006 encouraged Obama to run for president. This came as a shock to Obama at the time and to the HIllary Clinton camp when this conversation was revealed. Reid, who had repeatedly stated his neutrality in the 2008 presidential race, believed that Obama would never have the patience to hang around the Senate long enough to achieve the impact he craved. It also appealed to Reid, on a level somewhere between mischievous and Darwinian, to watch the two celebrity members of his caucus, Obama and Clinton, kill each other....
Reid's sense of Washington psychology is grounded heavily in seeing—and in certain cases, exploiting—the past humiliations of others. As with many politicians who grew up in poverty and endured family turmoil and other adversities, Washington has also been a powerful reinvention canvas for Reid. The city is filled with proving grounds that double as sanctuaries, like the Senate floor.
Mike Allen, too, is portrayed as intensely private even as he's astoundingly visible at nearly every event in the Beltway:
Allen has achieved a seamless merging of life and work, family and Playbook. He is deeply committed to his mother, younger brother, two younger sisters, and eight nieces and nephews scattered on both coasts. They make Playbook cameos. A former editor at the Post told me that Allen today has taken refuge in his status as a public entity. He deploys Playbook as a protective alter ego. It reminded me of something former Senator Tom Daschle told me once: that a lot of politicians are shy, private people and that they enter the business because it allows them to remain shy and private behind a public cut-and-paste persona—to hide in plain sight.
It's Leibovich's insight into some of these personalities that raise This Town a degree or two above sheer tabloidism. It's easy and fun to point fingers at the self-important; it's slightly more nuanced and meaningful to trace back the desperation to origins, to follow interactions between the ego-driven, to document how quickly "scandals" dissipate and become nothing but forgotten froth.
This Town ultimately is a big, sprawling fun beach read of a book—snappy and well-crafted. It offers no solutions to the endless ego carnival of D.C., but it clearly sets out to be painstakingly descriptive rather than prescriptive. It succeeds marvelously, even if as a reader you feel a little guilty for enjoying the description so much. Mea culpa.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.