Tom Wolfe’s 1987 masterpiece Bonfire of the Vanities captured the greed, class, ambition, and politics of Reagan era New York City. So, too, does Mark Leibovich’s This Town capture early 21st century Washington, D.C. Bonfire, however, is fiction and This Town is for real. Leibovich, who is the New York Times magazine national political reporter, has an uncanny eye and ear for painting portraits of D.C.’s movers and shakers. They reveal themselves in their own behavior, and he captures them and the incestuous, power-hungry, media crazed overlapping circles in which they move. It is not a pretty picture, and it confirms what many outside the Beltway already know or have suspected about the nation’s capital.
Before I go further, full disclosure. I have known Leibovich since he was born. His mother and I have been dear friends since college. My take on This Town transcends friendship. The uniformly positive reviews confirm my reaction.
The book opens with Tim Russert’s “celebrity funeral,” where media types, politicians, and lobbyists elbowed each other for access and status. (The scene was similar at the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s funeral.) Leibovich’s premise is that, while we criticize Washington for being divisive and highly partisan, the problem really is that everyone is actually too close. (None closer than power couples like Bill and Hill, Andrea Mitchell and husband Alan Greenspan, James Carville and Mary Matalin.)
The revolving door has unprecedented numbers of elected and appointed officials using “public service” as a stepping stone to lucrative lobbying, high-paid speeches and media punditry. (Journalism, he notes, has devolved into punditry and pursuit of celebrity.) Party differences are subsumed by “membership in The Club,” the D.C. self-promoting insiders.
The rise of the celebrity operative, he says, started with Clinton’s first term. Dick Gephardt’s willingness to reverse long-held positions “in the service of paying clients” is egregious even by Washington’s standards of hired gun opportunism. Leibovich also talks about Evan Bayh, Trent Lott, and others from both parties who, upon leaving government, voice their disgust with “This Town,” but immediately become members of the “retainer class,” “monetizing government employment.”
Steve Schmidt, a McCain operative who pushed for Sarah Palin and spilled all to the producers of “Game Change,” was so successful in distancing himself from his own disastrous role that he was able to become a celebrity, go on the 24/7 media circuit, win lucrative engagements and even become a vice president of the Edelman behemoth PR firm.
Apparently no one ever leaves. And that includes members of the Obama administration, who ran against the system but have become part of it. He quotes Obama’s former press secretary Robert Gibbs as saying “Somehow we have all changed. Or maybe Washington just changed us.” After all Obama’s pledges in 2008 to close the revolving door to lobbyists and other access seekers, the White House, Leibovich says, continues to make exceptions on people and policy, “an impressive collection of Never Minds.” On that list of Never Minds was Obama’s opting out of public financing and his use of super PAC’s.
Leibovich is most effective in capturing the moments that typify this city “steeped in self-intoxication,” moments that show the “game that is played by the nation’s most ambitious and insecure class.” The D.C. scramble is intense, despite how ephemeral the power and celebrity are. Yet, the paramount drive is for self-preservation (“sacred ground in This Town.”) As Chris Buckley wrote in the New York Times, “These chapters are mini-masterpieces of politico-anthropological sociology.”
The book ends with a portrait of Ben Bradlee (who with wife Sally Quinn were once the ultimate Washington power couple) at a party at their house. Bradlee’s memory is slipping, he’s frail and in a wheel chair. The mighty do inevitably fall, or at least fade. I’m not sure that Leibovich read this as a mortality tale. He didn’t interpret it. He simply painted it.
I wish that Leibovich had been prescriptive as well as descriptive. What, if anything, does he think could remedy this incestuous, self-serving, greedy situation? Perhaps there are no answers, even for a reporter who, while being on the nearly A list for red carpet events, insider parties, and power plays, manages to convey a degree of humility and self-awareness.
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