The dysfunction that plagues Washington, D.C., is usually attributed to ideological division and the attendant unwillingness to compromise. A contrary explanation is discernible in Mark Leibovich’s chatty book This Town. According to Leibovich, “the city, far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected.” There’s an unofficial cabal—“The Club”—whose members are motivated by self-enrichment and self-perpetuation. Opportunism, not partisanship, drives these pols, journalists, lobbyists, staffers, fixers, pundits and socialites. They’re a cozy lot. Regardless of party or professional affiliation, they attend the same galas, read the same e-mail blasts and covet the same whopping book advances and monthly retainers. Political beliefs are merely tools for attaining and maintaining power and lucre. The underlying problem is not the refusal to cross party lines, it is the striving to forage in the right buffet lines.
Against the idea it was ever thus, Leibovich argues that this clique has changed dramatically in recent years. Its numbers have ballooned thanks to the explosion of lobbying firms, special interests, cable TV, social media and upstart news outlets like Politico. Instead of fostering greater transparency and diluting power inside the Beltway, this growth has altered the habits and preoccupations of the elite. In short, they are grotesquely status-conscious and hilariously prone to focusing on the trivial.
Leibovich, chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and a former Washington Post reporter, admits to being ensconced in the old-media wing of The Club. He is acutely aware that This Town exemplifies several of the phenomena it describes. The book is a piece of meta-journalism, by which he hopes to raise his own profile and profit financially. He meticulously reveals his connections to the individuals and institutions under scrutiny. Along with demonstrating how incestuous Washington is, these disclaimers are disarming—but only up to a point. They don’t guarantee he’s telling the whole story.
In conversational prose, Leibovich strings together profiles, anecdotes and accounts of various capital rituals, beginning with the funeral in June 2008 of Tim Russert, moderator of “Meet the Press,” and ending with a reception at the Georgetown home of the power couple Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee in December 2012. He has an air of gently mocking bemusement and never tries to hide his affection and/or scorn for his subjects.
His descriptive talents and dry sense of humor impress. He’s a master of the witheringly sarcastic summary quip—frequently deployed in tandem with his nose for hypocrisy. Three prominent ex-congressmen are chided for how they have “monetized their government service.” And one married couple, top Democratic lobbyists, are skewered for fetishizing the gourmet comestibles served at their functions, including one hosted in support of food stamps. Leibovich repeatedly goes after the Obama campaign’s rigid anti-lobbyist plank, which creaked when it came time to staff the executive branch, then buckled completely when numerous first-term aides left for lucrative jobs on K Street.
A chapter entitled “How It Works” chronicles the scandal that erupted on Capitol Hill after Kurt Bardella, a brash young press aide to Rep. Darrell Issa, was caught sharing work e-mails with Leibovich while he was researching This Town. The dizzying episode reveals just how parasitical things are at the nexus of media and politics. Elsewhere Leibovich suggests that the snarky, polarized discourse dominating media coverage of Washington is often fake—faux conflict staged to boost ratings and sell books. Meanwhile, inside the well-appointed green rooms, mansions, ballrooms and eateries where the rhetorical combatants routinely cross paths, sucking-up is the default mode of communication.
The biggest dig against Leibovich’s entertaining portrait is that he doesn’t actually reveal how Washington functions because he doesn’t show the causal connections between the behavior he recounts and specific laws, regulations, policies and programs. Without detailed examples of the impact on the workings of the federal government, This Town runs the risk of being dismissed as so much gossip, innuendo and ad hominem besmirching. Leibovich might contend the links are obvious but difficult to prove. Members of The Club tend not to leave smoking canapés behind. Nevertheless, he ought to provide more hard evidence. To which he could reply, “I never claimed to be Bob Woodward, Dean of Investigative Journalists.”
It’s more likely Leibovich would embrace the criticism. Washington’s substance deficit is the point. It’s a shallow, frivolous place where perception and appearance rule. Fixating on trappings at the expense of nuts-and-bolts is appropriate, since that’s what the movers-and-shakers do. In later chapters, Leibovich is more explicit about depicting D.C. as a virtual reality inside which issues are irrelevant. For example, “Much of Washington ceased to be about true narratives long ago.” In other words, the best spin wins.
But this familiar tack undercuts itself. If so many Washington narratives are suspect, why should we trust Leibovich’s? If the effects on real-world outcomes are so oblique, why should anyone outside the Beltway take notice? If there is no concrete proof that the country is worse off because of the dissembling insularity of D.C. elites, then maybe it isn’t. Indeed, some argue that our system, with its built-in tensions and checks and balances, was designed to encourage stalemate. It’s supposed to be hard to get things done.
Even so, the degree to which Leibovich brackets principles and integrity renders This Town oddly apolitical. Not surprisingly, money is the root villain in this cynical smorgasbord. It doesn’t pay to have genuine political convictions in Washington; you and your ideals won’t last long. As for the apparent dysfunction and paralysis, gridlock feathers more nests than change. And no matter what, platters of cash await those adept at packaging marketable messages. One way or another, therefore, Leibovich will profit from telling us the waters of the Potomac run green. At least he does so with pithy flair and ample self-awareness. Still, I wish he’d taken Deep Throat’s advice to Woodward and Bernstein and followed the money farther downstream—past the Kennedy Center and nearer to the lives of ordinary Americans.