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Stop Picking on the D.C. Elite!

This town is no worse than your town

Kevin Wada

I've been having an argument with a friend of mine, a veteran Washington journalist, about whether it can really be true that where I live (an apartment building on the Upper West Side of New York, all of whose residents are Columbia faculty members), people aren’t talking about This Town. My friend thinks I’m playing the country bumpkin, but I swear it! This Town has a powerful infinity-of-mirrors quality: it’s proudly, defiantly obsessed with a particular Washington subculture, which it persuasively portrays as being self-obsessed, and the subculture obsesses over This Town right back, because the book plays into the subculture’s self-obsession. Since members of this subculture spend so much of their time around the edges of consequential events, it’s hard for them to imagine that the rest of the world could proceed unconcerned with their doings.

Even if I’m not to be trusted, maybe there are some New Republic readers who live so far outside the Beltway that they really do need a basic remedial session on This Town, rather than the third-derivative commentary (“ ‘THIS TOWN’ RATTLES D.C. SOCIAL SCENE” was one headline in Politico) that prevails inside Mark Leibovich’s world. Here goes. In Washington, there is a limited coterie of people—The Club, Leibovich calls them—who dominate and set the tone. Some of them are journalists, some of them are aides and operatives, and some of them are government officials, but most of them are lobbyists. They encounter each other incessantly at supposedly cause-supporting parties and supposedly somber funerals, in television talk-show green rooms and campaign-debate spin rooms, and at periodic ritual events like the quadrennial political conventions and the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. They speak to the public in sonorous, pious clichés; speaking to each other, they are gossipy, rivalrous, and cynical. Whatever each member’s officially assigned role in the Washington tableau is, her true purpose is to retain membership in The Club and to maximize her status (best accomplished by going on television a lot) and income (best accomplished by becoming a lobbyist).

Leibovich is what my neighbors would call a participant-observer. He owns up to being a member of The Club himself, and he has done his research partly by interviewing people for this book, and partly by showing up at Club events as a guest and recording how fellow Club-members looked and what they said to him. If you are a member of The Club, then it’s likely that almost nothing Leibovich reveals will come as news to you, but you may be surprised and titillated by his willingness to be indiscreet. If you are not a member, some of what you will encounter here will surely come across as the Washington version of the petty striving and vanity that exists wherever you live, unless it is a Trappist monastery, but some of it may shock you. That depends on what degree of innocent faith in the goodness of Obama-era Washington preceded your encounter with the book.

Some of the book’s main characters are people you will know, if you follow politics: Harry Reid, the Senate Majority leader, or his predecessor, Trent Lott. Many are not: Tammy Haddad, a kind of all-purpose hostess-booker-networker; Bob Barnett, a lawyer who represents famous politicians in book and employment deals; Kurt Bardella, an aide to Representative Darrell Issa; Mike Allen, the most prolific reporter for Politico. This Town cheerfully ignores everybody in Washington who is a civil servant, or a member of the military, or a diplomat, or a policymaker in the executive branch outside the White House, or a policymaker inside the White House who isn’t David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Jim Messina, or Valerie Jarrett, or anybody who works in a think tank. It gives us a Washington made up of the partygoing beau monde only.

In Leibovich’s telling, for members of The Club, the partisanship that has supposedly come to dominate Washington is just “winking performance art” that none of The Club’s members actually believes in, because “everyone, ultimately, is playing for the same team.” Once you become a Club member, nothing you could ever do would be disqualifying—“you will always have lunch in this town again”—and you can feel safe in betraying any principle you have ever had for the sake of money and renown. “Self-pimping” is the true mission of Club members. Indeed, when someone betrays a stated principle in favor of a Club principle—as in the case of Obama’s dropping out of the federal campaign finance system in 2008 so that he could get much more money from lobbyists—the Club privately approves, and mutters its sauve qui peut mantra: “It is what it is.”

Leibovich gives us a devastating litany of prominent people’s claims that they would not go native in Washington, and in particular that they would not become lobbyists, quickly followed by moves in the opposite direction. The “contemptuously righteous” Senator Byron Dorgan joins a law firm’s government-relations department. Senator Evan Bayh, a consistent critic of partisanship, becomes a commentator for Fox News, and arranges a suite of lobbying gigs. Tim Pawlenty, the Midwestern regular-guy candidate in the most recent Republican primaries, moves to Washington and becomes a lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable. Peter Orszag goes from helping to design the administration’s response to the financial crisis to working for Citigroup. Trent Lott becomes a lobbyist. Dick Gephardt becomes a lobbyist. David Obey becomes a lobbyist. Chris Dodd becomes a lobbyist—the chairman and chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America. Another potential holder of Dodd’s job, Bob Kerrey, tells Leibovich that he is torn between being bored by the substance and fascinated by the salary: “I don’t give a fuck about piracy. But for that money, I have to admit, I started getting a little interested in piracy.”

Then there is The Club’s general-purpose fatuousness, preening, and icky behavior. Bill Burton of the idealistic Obama White House calls Leibovich to offer up dirt on Darrell Issa. Valerie Jarrett puts herself under Secret Service protection out of “earpiece envy,” and has a staff member produce a long memo of talking points about how fabulous she is. Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s chief strategist in 2008, relaunches his career by trashing his former teammates, especially Sarah Palin, to the authors of Game Change. The Club’s members regularly gather at their “monument,” the Newseum, with its Ten Commandments–like stone tablet engraving of the First Amendment (except that, at seventy-four feet high to cover just one commandment, it’s far too big to be carried down from Mount Sinai), to celebrate themselves, and, more generally, This Town’s escape from the economic problems of the rest of the country, which they privately see as being inhabited by dimwits.

At times Leibovich seems genuinely outraged about the condition of Washington. At other times he displays an attraction-repulsion that calls to mind the pantheon of films, from Sweet Smell of Success to The Devil Wears Prada, about ambitious people who fight their way into some glamorous but morally repellent realm that they cannot bear to leave. He repeatedly admits that he enjoys the party invitations and general validation that being a member of the Club brings him. Especially when discussing other journalists who are in the Club, he often makes a point of tossing little bouquets that are at striking variance with his customary sneering tone. Andrea Mitchell is “a fierce, smart, and tenacious journalist and pioneer among women broadcasters.” Politico’s White House correspondents “were consistently turning out solid, authoritative, and often groundbreaking stories.” And the last hundred pages or so of This Town simply feels rushed: it’s mainly a recitation of various Club doings, some semi-public (The Huffington Post’s massage- and yoga-purveying “Oasis” at the 2012 conventions) and some semi-private (David Brooks’s son’s bar mitzvah), with a veneer of Leibovichian sardonic and naughtily candid commentary, often presented as a rendering of the collective view of the Club’s id. (“Bin Laden was killed on Sunday, which was good because it made the world safer and, more important, did not interfere with the Correspondents’ Association dinner.”)

The best part of This Town is a long, weird, fascinating set piece about Kurt Bardella, the aide to Darrell Issa. Bardella is a green and hyperactive kid from California who gets a job as press secretary to Issa, a rich, vain businessman-turned-politician who doesn’t have enough seniority in Congress to get, on the basis of his intrinsic importance, the publicity he craves. Bardella goes to work, and soon reporters such as Leibovich realize they have a precious resource on their hands. Leibovich, looking for characters to populate his book, draws Bardella into an ever-closer embrace; Bardella, who lacks an innate sense of where the boundaries are and who has trouble distinguishing between publicity for himself and publicity for his boss, cannot resist. When Leibovich asks Bardella to blind-copy him on e-mail traffic with reporters, so he can get an intimate feeling for the Congress-press relationship, Bardella unhesitatingly agrees.

The e-mails flow in a great torrent—Bardella showing off, the reporters faking bonhomie to egg him on. Then Bardella is quoted saying one impolitic thing after another to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, as part of a negative story about Issa. That puts Bardella in the danger zone. Pretty soon word of his arrangement with Leibovich gets around—Politico exposes it—and an avalanche of outraged (or, Leibovich would say, pretending-to-be-outraged) Internet commentary follows. Issa fires Bardella, Leibovich helps him to get another job, and, after a suitable interval, Issa rehires him.

What makes the story more affecting than most of the rest of This Town is that all the plot twists resulting from the Leibovich-Bardella e-mail arrangement propel it out of the realm of stock drama. Bardella aspires to membership in The Club, and his behavior crudely attempts to enact its values, but he is too much of a schmendrik to make it. Leibovich gets this, and also doesn’t want us to think of him as having simply exploited Bardella, so he avoids his usual contemptuous treatment of his subjects and gives us a measure of poignant humanity instead. Like many people who are drawn to Washington, Bardella is the almost desperately lonely product of an unhappy family, and somehow the idea that he can work himself into, as he tells Leibovich, “that place to get in Washington that everybody is striving for,” where “other people are seeing you as someone on the inside,” feels like it would be a salve. And the story’s ability to ignite a brief but intense media conflagration does get something across about the always-on, endlessly self-referential nature of Internet political journalism. (Politico has mentioned This Town more than a hundred times; This Town, which proudly advertises its lack of an index, seems to mention Politico almost as often.)

Leibovich's book is undeniably entertaining. It has the feeling, though, of being more than just an entertainment—instead, it’s meant to be taken, and is being taken, as a powerful, fresh critique of a Washington gone profoundly awry. In a series of thundering condemnations early in the book, Leibovich calls The Club “the People Who Run Your Country,” and accuses them of having devised a system under which “Washington may not serve the country well” but that “worked splendidly for Washington itself.” America is right to see the capital culture as “a mortifying perversion of national ideals.” These are important claims, so they deserve to be examined carefully, not just accepted because Leibovich has made them feel true.

If I sound skeptical, it’s partly because Leibovich’s charges against Washington are so familiar. I moved to Washington during Jimmy Carter’s first presidential campaign—the successful one. That was a long, long time ago, but most of the major themes of This Town were present back then. Carter, a relative unknown, had beaten a field of Washington insiders for the Democratic nomination, because he had tapped into the public’s disgust with the capital. He and the people around him promised to change Washington, not to be changed by it, and then sank into a strange passivity. The New Republic published a half-satiric, half-shocked cover story about how Washington had become all about money. Sally Quinn, a premier Club member then and now, warned that, if the new administration did not begin attending Georgetown parties, it would be unable to govern. The press had ascended to a new height of grandiosity—the evidence being not just The Washington Post in its post-Watergate prime, but also television policy-chat shows, such as “Agronsky & Company” and “Washington Week,” where the pretense of journalists interviewing officials had been dropped in favor of pure gas-baggery. Suddenly there were gossip columnists in Washington, and fancy restaurants with fawning maître-d’s (like the long-forgotten Sans Souci) where people went to be seen. Old-fashioned genteel hostesses were being replaced as the doyens of high society by vulgar, glammy characters like Ardeshir Zahedi, the Shah of Iran’s last ambassador. Ralph Nader’s substantial and hyperactive atelier was turning out book after book exposing the ways in which lobbyists and their money had corrupted Washington. And so on.

This is more than just an anecdotal similarity. Every president since then except George H. W. Bush, who couldn’t get reelected, has run as an outsider who has never held an executive-branch position in the federal government and who disapproves of Washington for pretty much the same reasons Mark Leibovich does. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington came out back in 1939—the same year that a prominent book saying that Washington had been corrupted by lobbyists (The Pressure Boys, by Kenneth Crawford) was published. Such charges were a staple of the work of Progressive Era journalists such as Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Upton Sinclair and, during the same period, the long-forgotten best-selling American novelist named Winston Churchill. Henry Adams sank into gorgeous despair over the descent of the Washington of his youth into domination by money and grasping behavior. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has our national saint importing a troupe of comically corrupt lobbyists to Washington, because he cannot get slavery abolished without their help. And of course the tableau of venality, social climbing, and hypocrisy in a capital city is about as established a motif as there is in world literature, going back to Aristophanes.

The questions This Town raises, if you’re in the mood to get more than laughs out of it, are: when was the baseline period before Washington became This Town? When, and how, and why did Washington change? Does the way in which it changed have a demonstrable effect on governance in America? If it does, and if the effect is bad, what would fix it? Leibovich skillfully hints that he has answers to all of these questions except the last one. Throughout This Town, there is always a simpler, purer, better Washington shimmering somewhere over the horizon that separates us from the past. But this is a book whose primary goal is to be funny, not to make an airtight analytical case. What is inarguable is that most of the specific institutions Leibovich discusses—the Newseum, Politico, “Morning Joe,” and so on—are relatively new; the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, within memory, was just another snoozy banquet in a hotel ballroom. Whether their advent stands for systemic change or merely for the replacement of one set of Club venues (“The McLaughlin Group,” Duke Zeibert’s, the Jockey Club) by another, Leibovich doesn’t tell us.

Some of Leibovich's assertions about what Washington “has become” are outright unpersuasive. Like most journalists, he overstates the influence of the press (for example, he asserts that press coverage is “where most politicians truly live”), and he insists, at a time of what looks like rapid decline in the mainstream media, that “never before has the so-called permanent establishment of Washington included so many people in the media.” I don’t know how Leibovich knows this. It doesn’t inspire confidence that, at another point in the book, by way of nailing the same point, he quotes Arthur Krock telling Joseph Alsop, “You know, Alsop, the first thing you have to realize is that in Washington newspapermen have no place at the table.” It would be hard to think of any newspapermen who were less shy about exercising political influence, as an available concomitant of covering the news, than those two. And on the other hand, in one of the few areas where there are excellent and rigorous data about how Washington has changed over time, on partisanship as measured in election results and votes in Congress, the clear finding runs exactly counter to Leibovich’s view of Washington: partisanship has increased dramatically in recent decades, especially in the Republican Party. (On the whole, statistics aren’t very helpful in exploring the misdeeds of The Club, because they don’t say what you expect them to say. Federal civilian employment is lower today than it was thirty years ago, and so is federal spending as a percentage of GDP. And the number of registered lobbyists has hardly increased in the past fifteen years—though it’s true that lobbying spending has more than doubled over that time.)

So why is the corrupted, chummy, nest-feathering Washington story so powerfully persuasive? All cynicism rests on a foundation of disappointment. This Town is an Obama-era book that taps into the unhappiness of people who truly believed that the Obama administration would be different from all the rest. For some of these people, such as my Upper West Side neighbors, the wellspring of the unhappiness is drone strikes and National Security Agency data-gathering. For Leibovich, it’s seeing Obama aides begin to cash in, or merely running into them at Club parties.

To the extent that something demonstrable and systemic really has changed in Washington recently, one realm where it is most apparent is the one that’s sitting right in front of Leibovich: the media ecosystem. The advent of cable television and then the Internet, which has gone hand in hand with journalism’s version of the decline of the Cold War–era social system based on a stable oligarchy of authority-emanating institutions, has made life in the press feel unmoored: sped-up, star-driven, self-referential, jarringly fluid. It must be hard not to infer that the whole political system has changed in exactly the same way. And these changes have their purely social manifestations: there must have been a time when the Club’s press corps’ bonding rituals took place in soft leather armchairs at the Metropolitan Club, not at Tammy Haddad’s parties.

As Leibovich points out, among America’s suite of possible destinations for super-ambitious people, Washington attracts a certain type: student-council presidents, not “lone wolves.” The practice of politics is fundamentally social. It’s a skill, but not an individual, non-contextual skill like writing computer code or performing surgery. No matter how good and how lucky you are at politics, the constitutional system is designed to throw you out of the game eventually (especially if you are in the executive branch), and you do not have a lot of options for what to do next that would keep you at the same level of prestige, except trading on your political skills and contacts. That usually means lobbying, or lobbying cloaked in euphemism (“issue management,” “strategic consulting”). And the national elite culture as a whole emphasizes personal-income maximization more than it used to. Maybe the time Leibovich evokes when people came to Washington only temporarily and declined to monetize their networking capabilities actually existed, but I don’t remember it. At this moment, to expect Washington big-shots not to behave that way is naïve—though for the rhetorical purposes of This Town, usefully naïve.

At some points in American history, such as the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the major wars, the federal government has significantly expanded. Since Ronald Reagan’s resonant inaugural declaration that “government is the problem,” we haven’t wanted to do that—but we also haven’t been able to resist mounting an ongoing series of enormous government initiatives in reaction to problems that have presented themselves. (That won’t change until the Rand Paul administration.) The George W. Bush years brought us the Department of Homeland Security, Sarbanes-Oxley, the federal prescription-drug benefit, and No Child Left Behind; the Obama years, the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank. What all of these (and initiatives that didn’t succeed, such as cap-and-trade) have in common is that they create large, complex systems that are supposed to be refereed by the federal government but operated by other entities, which have a large institutional stake in how they work—everybody from Blackwater to state governments to the Goldman Sachs compliance department. Whether or not this amounts to a coherent political system, it’s what we have, and it invites a great swarm of players to come to Washington to try to influence the outcomes. How could they not?

All of this, which is the larger and more consequential part of Washington, is offstage and invisible in This Town. If it were otherwise, the book would be a lot less fun to read. Everything Leibovich records, though, is embedded within the larger system. Every capital city has strivers, but the particular form their striving takes depends on the nature of the larger political, economic, and social order. The Club, circa 2013, is a manifestation of American life at this moment. It’s an effect, not a cause.

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a staff writer for The New Yorker.