Published October 1, 2013
Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital
By Mark Leibovich
Blue Rider Press, 400 pages
Many years ago, shortly after I moved to Washington D.C., I began to notice a pattern: People would talk about the nation’s capital with disgust and barely concealed contempt, as if living and working there were a terrible sacrifice. They spoke of a great gulf between the “real America” and the impure horror that is Washington D.C., as though the capital’s occupants were evil aliens who had invaded human bodies. Then, as I watched and learned, it became clear that many of these very same people would just as soon give up their first child as leave the nation’s capital. The truth is that they loved D.C.—and they hated themselves for loving it.
Which brings me to Mark Leibovich’s This Town, the withering portrait of Washington that topped the bestseller lists this summer. In the eyes of Leibovich, D.C. is a city of preening egos and fake friendships, of men and women who are superficial, petty, self-celebratory, greedy, insincere, insecure, and lusting for power. It soon becomes apparent that there is no book party Leibovich won’t attend, no palatial home he will not visit, no soiree he won’t appear at in his search to expose the shallowness of This Town. “The shaming of Washington,” Leibovich has said, “is a noble pursuit.” And in Leibovich we have found our journalistic Sir Galahad.
To be sure, Washington is a target-rich environment for a reporter like Leibovich. He lashes current and former officeholders, congressional and White House aides, lobbyists and journalists, super-agents, and social networkers. He makes clear his disapproval of—among countless other things and people—the online publication Politico (and in particular “Mikey” Allen and his daily Playbook, its online tip sheet delivered via email every morning), the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, and the networking that occurs at big-ticket Washington funerals (including Tim Russert’s and Richard Holbrooke’s).
Leibovich devotes a chapter to Kurt Bardella, a particularly self-promoting and obnoxious, but largely inconsequential, aide to the Republican House member Darrell Issa. And if you’ve ever found yourself longing to enter the world of former television-producer-turned-hostess-to-the-political-stars, Tammy Haddad, and her “Tam Cam” (a video camera she uses to record celebrity interviews and other events), this is the book for you.
Look, I enjoy seeing pretentious figures taken down a notch as much as the next guy. And Leibovich is able to deliver some cutting (and richly deserved) criticisms. “The standard line on [Ken] Duberstein,” Leibovich writes, “is that he spent six and a half months as Reagan’s chief of staff and twenty-fours years (and counting) dining out on it.” Or this one about former DNC chair and Clinton Best Friend Forever Terry McAuliffe: “To deprive McAuliffe of the words ‘Bill Clinton’ would be like depriving a mathematician of numbers.” But that is about as good as it gets. Leibovich’s efforts at humor are often forced. We’re told Harry Reid is “endowed with all the magnetism of a dried snail.” That encountering Bill Clinton these days “is like meeting a skinny older guy wearing an oversize rubber Bill Clinton head.” And that “sucking up is as basic to Washington as humidity.” In other words, the dust jacket’s claim that This Town is “hysterically funny” is hysterically exaggerated.
Even so, Leibovich can moralize with the best of them. He’s a Good-Government Liberal who is very upset when lawmakers become lobbyists or go on to work for Goldman Sachs. The “uber-theme” of his book, Leibovich told one interviewer, is that “self-service has replaced public service as the defining ethic of This Town.” He is morally offended at members of The Club who, especially during hard economic times, cash in on their Inside-the-Beltway experience.
But here’s what you need to know: The man who so despises This Town is chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine—based in Washington. Previously he was a political correspondent in the Times Washington bureau. And before that he worked for the Washington Post. All told, he’s lived in D.C. for 16 years. And not just Washington D.C., but political Washington. This is the world Leibovich lives in; it’s the air he breathes. And while Leibovich takes great delight in skewering people of both parties and different ideologies, those in office and those who have held office, people on the way up and those who have passed away, somewhere along the way it begins to strike you that maybe, just maybe, Leibovich is perfectly at home in this town.
He is drawn to the stupid gamesmanship and narcissistic personalities and $420 bottles of Louis Roederer champagne like a moth to a flame. He thrives on and eagerly immerses himself in the trivial political culture he laments. And, in the end, D.C.’s sins are really his. Every page is laced with cynicism and jaded negativity. Every person in his book, with very few exceptions, is portrayed as being animated by base motives and morally compromised. No act—no eulogy at a funeral, no note of condolence, no gift to a newborn child, no support for charity, no kind gesture—is taken at face value. Everything is heavily tainted by selfishness. In Leibovich’s view, generosity of spirit is a fiction and a fool’s game.
The real disservice of This Town, however, is that it is a carnival mirror. The side of Washington that Leibovich writes about exists; his subjects are not mythological. The problem is that his book distorts Washington so grotesquely, with such a massively incomplete picture of the city, that it borders on being a lie.
Nowhere does Leibovich capture, or even make an effort to capture, the other side of Washington—the side that is far more rooted and decent than anything described by Leibovich. The town I have in mind includes men and women who actually do care about justice and wrestle with complicated policy matters. They try to make sense of the world and unfolding events. Those who served in high positions in government even try to understand why things went wrong on their watch.
Over meals they discuss, easily and without pretension, books they are reading and the thinkers who have influenced their political philosophy. Once in a while they open up about the struggles and doubts and brokenness in their lives. Those people exist, and Leibovich either doesn’t know any of them or chooses to ignore them.
Near the end of This Town, Leibovich quotes NBC’s Tom Brokaw, who is discussing the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. “I don’t go anymore,” Brokaw said. “If you go, it will steal your soul.” Leibovich clearly agrees, but surely it takes more to have your soul stolen than attending a fancy dinner. Reading This Town might be a start down that path.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.