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Behind the Cringeworthy Curtain

Politico's piece about Mark Leibovich's book is exactly what's wrong with 'this town'

Getty Images/Andrew H. Walker

It's not fun, having to apply a therapeutic reading to some of the Washington press corps's most inscrutable minds. We really don't want to know—and don't have the requisite time to learn—about the fears haunting Politico senior writer Mike Allen, a man in his 40s who refuses to show or tell any of his friends where he lives. But it is the only reading that lends any sort of sense to this three-page dumping of tribal insecurities and resentment that Allen and Politico editor Jim VandeHei blasted out to the world in this latest, most cringeworthy episode of "Behind the Curtain." 

The column is an early and ham-fisted attempt to preemptively smear an upcoming book from well-regarded New York Times Magazine features writer Mark Leibovich. This Town: The Way it Works in Suck Up City, set for release in mid-July, has been in the works for a couple of years, and promises to tell all about the "incestuous ecology" of D.C.'s social scene of media and political elites—coming from an author who's put in his time as a member of said scene, and may finally be experiencing the sort of spiritual awakening that now allows him to share freely.

Politico attempts to pass off its column as a neutral, "fun" look at an anticipated Beltway book that's still under the lockdown of a particularly stringent publisher's embargo. But Allen and VandeHei don't do the discretion thing very well, and it's clear before long that this is their clunky attempt to kneecap a writer whose upcoming revelations may well depict them as the people that they are: obsessive insiders who are obsessed with insiderism. It's bad flack work—something that exists to irritate and cut off reporters, not to have them adopt it into their own lead-story editorial product.

This Town has been in the works since shortly after the 2010 midterm elections and, as someone who's been booked to review it whenever it comes out, I've been keeping an eye on the developments surrounding its (delayed, and delayed) release. Its backstory is one of those unnecessarily complicated "Beltway insider" strings of media gossip that's sort of funny in the end, assuming you don't commit suicide midway through the telling.

Politico has been fretting about its release for years now. Here, for example, is a media story from March 2011 titled "Politico Not Fretting Over NYT Leibovich's Book," a headline that confirmed, without a doubt, that Politico was sleepless in terror over the prospect of its release.

Around that time, Politico had broken a "hot scoop" about the book: Hill staffer Kurt Bardella, an aide to Rep. Darrell Issa whose tireless self-promotion had made him into a bit of a name in flack circles, had been Bcc'ing embarrassing emails from reporters to Leibovich to use as research for his book. At least some of those emails had come from—you'll never guess—Politico reporters, and after a few days the outlet had made enough of a stink about Bardella to get him fired. (He has since rejoined Issa's staff.) We still haven't seen any of those emails, but hopefully they'll all be in This Town and all be really humiliating for Politico and ruin a career or nine.

Now we know that the damage-control strategy Politico has been putting together over the last couple of years begins today, three months before the book's release. Here are some of the rumored inclusions Allen's heard about, such as the ones about himself and the media outlet that defines him:

The targets are the worst-kept secrets in this town, an overused expression of D.C. insiders: Robert Barnett; Tammy Haddad; the people transacting or showboating at Tim Russert’s funeral; the warring factions in Obama’s campaign and White House; former Obama aides who try to cash in; and Kurt Bardella, the House aide who was fired when POLITICO reported that he had been forwarding reporters’ emails to Leibovich. Oh, and POLITICO broadly and Mike Allen specifically.

Do you, reader, know who Tammy Haddad is? The answer is most likely no. She's a "former TV producer" or something, whatever. Google says she is now a media consultant. Good for her. But she's not a household name for most people. But to Allen, VandeHei and a few dozen other D.C. social-sceners whose main goal each calendar year is to get invited to her White House Correspondents' Dinner weekend "garden party," she is apparently so well known that nowhere in this article, a good quarter of which is about her, do they bother explaining who Tammy Haddad is. In their minds, "Tammy Haddad," along with, perhaps, Jesus Christ or George Washington or Lindsey Lohan, is in that elite class of universal name recognition that allow a reporter to skip the basic journalistic step of explaining who the person you're writing about is. 

The closest thing we get to an explanation of Haddad's importance is this modest afterthought: "For what it’s worth, Haddad is a friend who has thrown parties for us. Come to think of it, she has thrown parties for virtually every other person and cause we know." Likewise, Allen and VandeHei mention that "Washington's super-lawyer" Robert Barnett will be another big target of the book, then add, "Barnett once represented us for a brief period. Come to think of it, he represents almost everybody we know." In this way, throughout the piece, the authors try to inoculate themselves and their company from Leibovich's thesis. We don't deserve to be singled out, because everyone we know has these same relationships. So in attempting to soften whatever embarrassments Politico may suffer upon release, they end up explicitly confirming Leibovich's points about the incestuous, too-cozy relationships among Washington's elite. 

Allen and Vandehei then note that "Leibo"—"yes, we call him 'Leibo,'" they write, to prove they're both easy-going and in the know—is "at once a supremely confident and strangely self-conscious writer" who has been "holding a series of unusual conversations with people around town about what he’s writing. Some felt like therapy sessions—for himself and his targets. It assuages his guilt, while reassuring some subjects and rattling others."

A "supremely confident and strangely self-conscious writer," though, is what normal people simply call "a writer." And this oddity, Leibovich, with his wacky voodoo traits of "thoughtfulness" and "introspection" and "basic manners," has been in such a creepy fog state that he thinks it's fair to have honest discussions with the people he's writing about in his book? What is with this joker? The best explanation Allen and VandeHei have for why Leibovich would ply his trade with fairness and basic decency is that "assuages his guilt." As in, he's doing it for selfish reasons. Only this makes sense to Allen and VandeHei. Another day, another person trying to use someone—D.C. operating exactly as it should.

Here's another episode Allen and VandeHei have heard will be included. It's framed as controversial—not because awful people would be accurately depicted doing really awful things. No, the real controversy here is that Leibovich is being such a narc! 

Two people familiar with the book said it opens with a long, biting take on [Tim] Russert’s 2008 funeral, where Washington’s self-obsession—and lack of self-awareness—was on full display. The book argues that all of Washington’s worst virtues were exposed, with over-the-top coverage of his death, jockeying for good seats at a funeral and Washington insiders transacting business at the event.

“He’s at every single party, and NOW he takes the knife out?” protested one of Leibovich’s subjects. “And Russert’s funeral? People are appalled.”

These subjects feel no shame about playing their megalomaniac Beltway seating games or making secret transactions at the funeral of their "friend," see. They just feel anger and confusion that someone, in this case the unhinged rogue Leibovich, could get so sick of living in this twisted, powerful clique that he feels he should present it to the public as newsworthy. What a softie. Doesn't he want to keep getting invitations to parties? Shouldn't that be his biggest concern? 

Good gossip columns work by sharing the disgusting, selfish preoccupations of the elite, of course. But it doesn't work when, as Allen and VandeHei do here, these petty quotes from their colleagues are used to defend Politico's side. There's an incredible amount of amoral behavior shared just in the single article, and Allen and VandeHei present it with glee. These are people who ostensibly make their living trying to develop "sources" who'll share dirt on their agency or industry's behavior; but when a media person tries to shine some light on the awful behaviors of his industry, Allen, VandeHei, and others are stunned that he could be so disloyal to the tribe. 

"What’s not clear is if a book that focuses so heavily on figures little known outside of here can actually sell," Allen and VandeHei write. "The inhabitants of this town might obsess about themselves—but does anyone in the real world give a hoot?" I don't have the answer, but Politico's catastrophic preview is itself proof that this town deserves what This Town promises to be.