What a Washington-hater can learn from "This Town"

A well-written guide to the worst people in America, even if it never quite calls them that

Published July 11, 2013 12:00PM (EDT)

Mark Leibovich will not find himself ostracized in Washington, D.C., now that his book on that city's toxic culture has finally been published. (And while we're on the subject of popular misconceptions about the book, it is also possible to find pretty good pizza in D.C., though it might be impossible to find good Mexican. It's been a couple years since I've tried.) In fact, right now, he is in the midst of one of the most impressive publicity blitzes for a serious nonfiction book in some time. People got advance copies and reported the good "nuggets" and everything, just like they do for Woodward and the "Game Change" kids. This outpouring of uncompensated promotional assistance should've been predictable: When a prominent political media figure writes a book about a bunch of prominent political media figures, they will all talk about it.

I'm completely undecided on whether this book will grow in stature in the ensuing years, praised as an indispensable time capsule of this gaudy and unequal era, or whether it will be remembered, if at all, as the no-longer-interesting doings of once-bold-faced names now long since forgotten. But the book is good. Leibovich is a witty, entertaining writer. One notable fact about most of the sorts of major Beltway media creatures Leibovich writes about is that most of them are not. From the late David Broder on down, the most powerful and influential of the great Washington columnists and journalists tend to cultivate the driest, least lively voices possible. Maybe everyone's emulating Bob Woodward, who can take the most interesting subjects and, through the magic of his wooden, turgid writing, make them deadly dull. The apotheosis of this trend is obviously Politico's Mike Allen, current king of the D.C. media, whose barely edited work reads like essay assignments from a bright but not terribly gifted 9th grader.

The book is enlightening on how journalism is practiced in Washington, by both the sorts of TV celebrities who now never even bother with the pretense of personal or social separation from their "sources" and by the non-celebrities who still report things, usually by sucking up to various flacks and hoping for stories to be handed to them. We learn that in elite D.C. there is for some reason what amounts to a death-cult surrounding Tim Russert -- his name is invoked constantly as the pinnacle of American journalistic achievement and Tom Brokaw for some reason gives out his and hers Buffalo Bills jerseys to the couple at a high-status media wedding -- that starts out creepy and ends up just weird and sad. I guess it's because Russert, in their eyes, was the nationally beloved "regular guy" superstar among them, the one best at performing humble American normality. These people know they're hated, though they only sort of know why. They tend to blame "hyper-partisanship" instead of "the fact that most Americans recognize us as a permanent, unshakable elite overclass, many of whom are involved in the process by which corporations and the rentier rich tighten their control over the levers of power and use that control to extract as much wealth from the nation's laborers and taxpayers and natural resources as possible." (That's my description, not Leibovich's.)

There is some classic asshole bluster from Jim VandeHei, the more repellent of Politico's two founders. He refers to all critics of his publication as "haters," a term used by teenagers and similiarly emotionally stunted people in order to dismiss the complaints of anyone who calls them on their antisocial behavior. He says, "Playbook is D.C.'s Facebook" and "Mike Allen is the most popular friend." (That is not how Facebook works?) He again defends Politico's pointedly anti-"public service" ethos by calling it preferable to the days when political news was "limited" to what "a small group of middle-aged, left-of-center, overweight men" thought was worth caring about. And now Politico brings us what these different middle-aged men of varying weights and rigorously center-of-center politics think is worth caring about.

VandeHei, and probably Allen, were worried that this book would savage them mercilessly. This is why they attempted some weird preemptive damage control by writing a lengthy piece warning everyone that the book was coming, calling "Leibo" "strangely self-conscious" and claiming that he was writing the book to "assuage[] his guilt" over his own membership in the incestuous Washington scene. (It is very VandeHei and Allen to find "self-consciousness" to be a "strange" trait.) They needn't have worried, obviously: Leibovich gets off a few zingers but his preferred method is to let his subjects hang themselves with their words and actions.

For example: At a party (at a lobbying/"consulting" firm's headquarters) for former Clinton Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, who was leaving Washington to work for Facebook, Leibovich runs into a former reporter he knows named Geoff Morrell. Morrell moved from ABC to the Bush Defense Department, staying on under Obama. Morrell, we're told, is "one of Mike Allen's closest friends." Morrell, accompanied by his agent, D.C. superlawyer Bob Barnett, says he is now leaving the Defense Department, and weighing a number of lucrative private secter offers.

The next day, Mike Allen reports, in Playbook, that Morrell is going to work for BP America, where he will help with its "aggressive new effort to recover from past communications debacles and improve its image in an essential market." This news took up 645 words of that day's Playbook email.

Leibovich notes that the news "illustrated the big tangle of interests that make up D.C.'s self-perpetuation machine." But Allen's shilling for a friend is presented basically without comment. Maybe you'd prefer a book where the author goes on to castigate Allen for his promotion of BP on behalf of his friend who just became its primary flack. But that author wouldn't have known that Allen and Morrell are friends.

That's why this book is useful. "This Town" is really sort of like a whole bunch of evidence marshaled to support the argument of a different book, written by someone more willing and able to actually diagnose what's wrong with the entire Washington overclass and how it has effectively turned the democratic process into a cash cow. It's possible that that second book is Chris Hayes' "Twilight of the Elites," a very smart book that is also just recently out in paperback. At the least, the two make a fine double feature. But "This Town" could also be source material for your book about what's wrong with these horrible people and -- more important but also much more difficult -- how to fix the culture that led to their ascendance.

If you hate Washington, you really ought to read this book to hate it with more clarity and specificity. If you are going to hate the place, do you want to be as uninformed and off-base in your hatred as a common Tea Partyer -- or Mike Allen's formerly secret John Bircher dad -- or do you want to know specifically which actors and venues and organizations are most crucial for the operation of the self-perpetuating power machine? You ought to know who Jack Quinn and Bob Barnett are, to aid in your naming them Everything That Is Wrong With Washington.

Leibovich does call out his friends, colleagues and peers for their corruption, even if he usually does so gently. (Though not always gently. Some people, like "Game Change" star Steve Schmidt, get pretty rough treatment.) Part of that gentleness is because these people practice a form of corruption in which the corrupt individual literally cannot understand why anyone wouldn't consider him or her a stalwart and productive member of society. This is basically an entire society of leeches who have mostly convinced themselves that they earned the blood they're sucking with their ingenuity or devotion to the public good and that the process of sucking it is somehow beneficial to the country. With some exceptions, of course. There are some Trent Lotts and Haley Barbours (the exceptions are usually Republicans) who are open and unashamed about cashing in. (And for their "refreshing" honesty about their venality they are absolutely beloved by reporters.)

(Strangely, one person who comes out fairly well in the book is Barack Obama, who is both barely present and also inescapable. Obama genuinely hates This Town. It is a sincere and unflagging hatred. Many of his staff happily sold out, obviously, taking lobbying jobs and media gigs and massive speaking fees, but the president clearly has nothing but contempt for the entire city and its self-important longtime fixtures. He hates Politico, hates old Clinton hangers-on, hates the parties, hates it all. And he should!)

I think Matt Yglesias is wrong to declare that the world of "This Town" is dying, unless he thinks publicly financed elections, strict lobbying bans and Scandinavian-style wealth-distribution are imminent. Yglesias thinks "This Town" (it looks like he hasn't read any more than an excerpt) is about what its older, more established characters always claim to wish Washington was about: Getting Things Done. The book isn't about people leveraging personal relations for political ends. It's about them leveraging political relationships for personal ends. Policy doesn't exist in this book, except as something corporations pay former officials to help them influence. Increased partisanship and ideological sorting have changed Congress forever, but one of the book's points is that once a more ideologically rigid politician beats you in a primary and you have to leave office, you can just stay in Washington and collect checks for the rest of your life for either doing nothing or, worse, doing something evil. "This Town" is a funny book, but it should probably make you as angry and depressed as "Two American Families."

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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