Books of The Times
Hypocrisy, Thy Name Is (Duh!) Washington
‘This Town,’ by Mark LeibovichBy DAVID M. SHRIBMAN
Published: July 7, 2013
Of all the irritating things about Washington — the phoniness, the showy cars, the utter inability of a metropolitan area of 6.9 million people to produce a single decent slice of pizza or a passable submarine sandwich with oil and not mayonnaise — none is more infuriating than the local insider habit of referring to the place as “this town,” as in “He’s the most important power broker in this town” or, more likely (and worse), “The way to get ahead in this town is to seem not to be trying to get ahead.”
Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital
By Mark Leibovich
386 pages. Blue Rider Press. $27.95.
Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times
So when Mark Leibovich sketches a portrait of the nation’s capital — a phrase used only by people who don’t live there — and calls it “This Town,” you know he’s got a sharp ear, and a sharp eye to accompany it. You also know that he’s got the sharp knives out.
Here it is, Washington in all its splendid, sordid glory: the pols, the pundits, the Porsches. Plus the hangers-on, the strivers, the image makers and the sellouts, all comprising what Mr. Leibovich calls “a political herd that never dies or gets older, only jowlier, richer and more heavily made-up.”
He’s an insider, Mr. Leibovich is, first a reporter at The Washington Post, now the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, yet he seems to wear those special glasses that allow you to X-ray the outside and see what’s really going on. An unusual parlor trick that, particularly in light of the A-list insiders jammed into his acknowledgments, not a single one of whom could have pulled off this book, even though half of them will e-mail me and say they could. (Memo to all of you: Don’t.)
He opens with an account of the 2008 funeral of the NBC Washington bureau chief and “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert, and as a quarter-century resident now in happy exile, I suppose I should stick to form and mention, hideously, that we — Tim and I — came to Washington at the same time and were friends, although mostly because I had a wife from Buffalo, and he delighted in teasing her about her bowling. The people at this funeral (and as I recall, this was an invitation-only rite) adhered to what Mr. Leibovich calls “the distinctive code of posture at the fancy-pants funeral: head bowed, conspicuously biting his lips, squinting extra hard for the full telegenic grief effect.”
The book is already generating buzz over Mr. Leibovich’s account of White House efforts to shape a profile in The New York Times of the first friend Valerie Jarrett and the administration’s apparent push to encourage Capitol reporters to disparage the conservative stalwart Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California.
Start to finish, this is a brilliant portrait — pointillist, you might say, or modern realist. So brilliant that once it lands on a front table at the Politics & Prose Bookstore on upper Connecticut Avenue, Mr. Leibovich will never be able to have lunch in This Town again, not that there is a respectable nonexpense-account lunch to be had in those precincts.
That said, this is a different Washington from the one I departed from a decade ago (Pittsburgh: what a relief!) and surely a different one from the era when, among the Washington royalty, only Alsop (and not Reston, Broder, Kraft, Evans or Novak) required a first name, and only because there were two of them (Stewart and Joseph).
The partisanship is worse, in part because the parties are different, with no liberal wing to the Republicans and hardly a conservative wing to the Democrats. And the rhetoric is mean, in part because it is less elegant.
All of which raises a separate point: Many of the Washington monuments most worthy of attention and praise, like the three Davids of capital journalism (Espo of The Associated Press, Rogers of Politico and Wessel of The Wall Street Journal), aren’t featured in this book and would be mortified beyond words if they were. They’re not at celebrity parties but at their battle stations, notebooks in hand. Nor is there a respectful bow, much deserved, to the thousands of unknown, selfless, deeply skilled bureaucrats who, since the Reagan years, have been pilloried but who, since the Franklin D. Roosevelt years, have made the country, or at least parts of its government, work.
In the old days, Washington — then as now a place where “disproportionate numbers of residents lie about reading The Economist” — was pretty much a bar where everyone knew your name, or in the case of John Paul Hammerschmidt, a former congressman from Arkansas, all three of them. Now it’s far less personal — but the personal matters far more.
So do personalities, which is why the book that Mr. Leibovich’s seems patterned after is Lytton Strachey’s 1918 “Eminent Victorians,” a classic of its time and all time, and the book it most resembles is “The Columnist,” Jeffrey Frank’s remorselessly hilarious work of fiction from 2001. As such, it is a wiseguy’s tour d’horizon of an entire city trying out for the role of Washington wise man.
So, striding self-importantly through these pages are the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (“harshly judgmental of fat people”); Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican (“a blister on the leadership of both chambers, or sometimes something more dangerous”); Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York (“lens-happy, even by senatorial standards”); the lobbyist and former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour (“looks like a grown version of Spanky from the Little Rascals”); the former House minority leader Richard Gephardt (“whose willingness to reverse long-held positions in the service of paying clients was egregious even by D.C.’s standards”); and the modern super-flack Kurt Bardella (possessed of “a frantic vulnerability and desperation”).
And though much of this volume is a sendup of the capital of kissing up, there are some important insights tucked in among the barbs. Such as this: “Though Barack Obama won the 2008 election, Hillary Clinton won Obama’s first term.” And this: The political culture is full of “people who’ve been around the business forever, who never go away and can’t be killed.” And this one, about Representative Paul D. Ryan, that must have befuddled the publisher’s fact checkers: “Like most members of Congress with half a brain, Ryan had a pretty low opinion of many of his colleagues and had been thinking of how to escape.”
So here’s to all the big mouths, big egos, big shots, big machers and big jerks. In case you’re wondering, Mark Leibovich is on to every one of you, and his portrayal of “This Town” is spot on. Because Mr. Leibovich, perhaps alone among capital insiders, has realized that Washington, once an inside joke, now looks more and more like a bad joke.