Book review: ‘This Town’ an entertaining skunk crashing D.C.’s garden party

This Town coverA few years ago, during a trip to Washington D.C. for a conference, I visited an old college friend who lives in town. At the time, he was busy running a popular gay bar (he and his partner have since sold it for what I gather was a nice premium, which is hardly surprising).

It had been 20 years or so since I had last been to D.C., and I was struck by the city’s vitality, cleanliness and obvious upward shift in fortunes. I was also struck by something my friend said while describing the city’s booming real estate market and the dramatic turnaround of his own neighborhood: “D.C. never experienced the recession,” he said.

This made quite the impression on me, a guy from Michigan — home of the single-state recession, the “lost decade” of the 2000s, the pothole, and Detroit’s recent trip through bankruptcy. During the depths of the Great Recession, I was working as a business reporter. It often seemed as though our entire state teetered on the verge of economic collapse — and in fact, we probably have the federal auto bailouts to thank that it didn’t.

All of which is a pretty good subtext for approaching Mark Leibovich’s excellent book, “This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—plus plenty of valet parking!—in America’s Gilded Capitol,” (Blue Rider Press, Penguin Group, 2013), which I recently picked up while on vacation.

Famously, Leibovich is a New York Times Magazine national correspondent based in Washington who used the book to write candidly about the very people he’d been covering for years. Anyone with an interest in national politics recalls the pearl-clutching angst — Beltway insiders would probably call it “buzz” — this book caused upon its release, with Leibovich playing the ultimate skunk at the garden party.

In essence, “This Town” is an insider’s unvarnished look at the unholy nexus of power in Washington—an incestuous, mutually dependent confluence of politics, lobbying and the news media, greased by gobs and gobs of corporate and Super-PAC money.

It follows a more or less linear progression from the funeral for former Meet the Press host Tim Russert in 2008, an ostentatious media spectacle, to the culmination of the 2012 presidential campaign, when President Barack Obama crushed Mitt Romney. That election capped what Leibovich describes as a dismal, procedural campaign during which the news media broke precious little actual news. In fact, Leibovich writes, the campaign was notable mostly for the “upwards of $2 billion … expected to pour into the empty-calorie economy of two men destroying each other.” (The final tally was more than $2.6 billion.) Inspiring stuff, indeed.

As you’d expect from a veteran Washington correspondent, Leibovich prefers straight reportage to overt criticism. And he’s smart enough to know when details and keen observation are enough to indict, as when he trains his lens on the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla. and Democratic confab in Charlotte, N.C.:

“The partygoers were swimming in corporate cash and feeling so very good about themselves — pretty much the opposite of where the recession-drained citizenry was and how many were feeling generally about the two major political parties. Festivity was breaking out everywhere. Anyone with rudimentary door-talking skills could finagle his way up to the troughs. There were lines of idling limos, ice sculptures, free media-sponsored food centers … and so many politicians to honor for their service.”

Needless to say, many well- and lesser-known D.C. personalities don’t come away looking good. Among them are the mega-lobbyists and overpaid, underworked “strategic consultants,” of course. The well-known journalists whose very marriages present thorny ethical issues (Exhibit A: NBC’s veteran reporter Andrea Mitchell, who is married to former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, considered a key accomplice in the financial crisis). The former members of Congress who land cush jobs on K Street lobbying on behalf of moneyed interests that are the polar opposite of their former legislative platforms. The endless dinner parties and socialite culture.

The reader can also be forgiven for developing disdain for Politico, the shining symbol of “new media” that has captivated D.C. with its daily, dishy “Playbook” e-newsletter and talent for finding pithy, inconsequential stories that “drive the day” for Washington insiders. (Fascinating tidbit: No one knows where “Playbook” author/serial workaholic Mike Allen actually lives or when he sleeps, Leibovich writes.) The 2014 paperback version of the book is worthwhile for the afterword, which contains an amusing and illuminating backstory on the hand-wringing Behind the Curtain column about the book that ran before its release in 2013.

The book sometimes gets a little confusing in identifying its characters. It’s easy to get confused keeping track of people, when Leibovich talks about a certain member of senator so-and-so’s staff who is marrying a rising star in the Beltway media, who is best known as the daughter of a mega-lobbyist who’s practically a household name in certain quarters. But that’s less a complaint against Leibovich than a reflection of the six-degrees-of-separation chumminess and incestuousness that has come to define Washington.

It was interesting to me to consider this book in the light of Jessica Cutler’s breezy 2006 tell-all pseudo-novel “The Washingtonienne.” After all, Cutler, a former Hill staffer who landed her book contract after being outed as the author of a blog of salacious D.C. sex tales, described a class of young political staffers constantly obsessing about landing a more lucrative paycheck “in the private sector.” Apparently money eclipsed public service some time ago as a prime motivator in D.C.

If there is a complaint, it’s that Leibovich is quite obviously a D.C. insider like everybody else, a regular on the cocktail party circuit, and yet he never acknowledges it or what it might mean for his work. As a former journalist myself, I was constantly struck through the book by the fungible ethical lines for journalists in the nation’s capital. Of course, I was no saint as a reporter, either. If anything, it suggests members of the news media are held to ethical standards no human mortal can possibly uphold.

This is a page-turner of a book. It will leave you steamed and amused, and probably not terribly optimistic for the future of our national politics.

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