The Gilded Trough
The publishing world likes screeds. Every season sees a sweaty-browed batch of them, teeing off on this group (Republicans!) or that (unelected judges!!) for destroying our beloved America. Occasionally an author just limbers up and lets fly at just about everyone in sight (see Charles P. Pierce’s Idiot America). The general rule is that the more specific the target, the more successful the book. After all, if too many people or institutions are implicated in the screed’s assault, then a solution becomes tricky, and screeds tend to be written by solution-minded people.
Mark Leibovich’s This Town is a welcome exception to the rule. It’s angry but funny, hitting big targets with ease while somehow avoiding the shrill tone of the screed. As the New York Times’ chief national correspondent, he has spent more time covering politics in the American capital than any human being should have to, unless serving time for a horrific crime. After 16years covering the circular grip n’ grin of Washington politics, Leibovich has served up a heaping platter of disgust, but he’s done it with a smiley-face emoticon. After all, he’s still got to work in the place he calls “a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives.”
Everybody will understand that he’s got to make a buck. One thing his book makes clear is that no sinner is ever cast out of the inner circle that long. There’s too much money to be made helping out old friends and keeping those connections open.
Unless you’re dead, that is. As though constructing some reverse-engineered The Day of the Locust, Leibovich starts his tale with a sprawling, epic chaotic orgy of filigree and bloviation: the 2008 funeral of Meet the Press host Tim Russert. The Hollywoodness of the moment is hard to ignore, with all the status-mongering and mythologizing going on; not for nothing is it said that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people. After all, Russert was the one man (and it’s always a man) whom the tastemaskers clique Leibovich terms The Club could agree had been their star: “He was a full-on ‘principal,’ the D.C. usage for elected behemoths and cabinet secretaries—the Main Bitch. The Mother Eagle.”
As the head of the top-rated Sunday talk show, where pols and pundits talked about what they had been talking about, Russert had been a den dad to The Club, the one with the apparently unmistakable scent of the common man:
No one was better attuned than Russert to the cultural erogenous zones of powerful men. He spoke endlessly and nostalgically about dads and sons and sports and Springsteen… He was expert at the male bonding rituals that lubricate so many chummy capital relations… He brought an enthusiasm for the politics-as-football sensibility that defined the modern boy’s game. The ethos conveyed to and evolved with the next generation of boys. It had been embodied by Politico, the testosteroned website that aims to gorge political junkies like ESPN does sports fans.
This enthusiasm for being at the center of the action, for that “who’s up / who’s down” play-by-play narrative pulses through This Town, a whiz-bang scattershot, pulsating narrative charged with the same anxiety that it skewers on page after page; when he’s not whipping snark-darts at the competition (Politico) or gatekeepers like Russert’s successor David Gregory.
The Washington that Leibovich describes is “a pumped-up place where everything is changing… or maybe nothing is changing at all.” It’s a place where at the reception after Russert’s funeral—attended by more silver-haired eminences than the passing of the leader of a largeish European nation—the spotting of a rainbow leads to ecstatic chatter of miracles and references to Russert being called to “heaven’s green room.” His son Luke asks, “Is anyone still an atheist now?” (Leibovich gives Christopher Hitchens the final word on the moment: “No benign deity plucks television show hosts from their desks in the prime of life and then hastily compensates their friends and family by displays of irradiated droplets in the sky.”)
“And God just loves Washington; of that we are certain,” Leibovich writes with the lilting tone of silky self-deprecation that makes the book such a swift and occasionally guilt-inducing read. “His presence is indeed potent at the Kennedy Center, although everyone keeps looking around for someone more important to talk to.”
When he pulls back from these big satirical set-pieces, Leibovich’s eye remains sharp, and he has the long-form newsman’s feel for quick characterization. His portrait of Harry Reid is more affectionate than most but still on-point (“He talks interminably about his hometown, even for a member of Congress”) and it’s hard to imagine anybody coming up with a more apt description of Chris Christie’s appeal to the Morning Joe demographic than what Leibovich calls his “killer persona of charismatic crankiness.”
For all the fun that Leibovich has, though, with his vignettes of pomposity and image-grooming, the Russert spectacle, or with the stories of the preening cocktail parties and receptions squired by the self-appointed doyennes of Capital society, the real scandal is what he describes happening after Obama takes office. Or more correctly, what didn’t happen.
There was a time when the word getting spread around Washington was that the new boys in town (and they were almost all boys in the Obama White House) weren’t going to be playing by the old rules of what one top Obama guy termed “Suck-up City.” No more working for a couple years in the public sector for starvation wages that most of the country would kill for and then cashing in at one of the many lobbying firms sprouting up like mushrooms in the Beltway’s fecund soil. “Because, rest assured,” Leibovich writes, “This Town as we know it would have no friend in the Democratic nominee.”
Of course, that never came to pass. Too many exceptions for this White House nominee or that staff member. Too many people who know people. Too many friends. Too much money to be made. It’s that ever-revolving door of sucking up for dollars and access which most of This Town concerns itself with.
The cashing-in of every single professed belief is non-stop. One of the more stomach-churning is Dick Gephardt’s transformation from Missouri Congressman who supported a House resolution condemning the 1915 Armenian genocide to lobbyist who campaigns against it for $70,000 a month from the Turkish government (“Genocide goes down a little easier at those rates”). The smorgasbord of late-Roman Empire decadence reaches some kind of apogee at the 2012 conventions of both parties, where Beltway types live it up in the happy knowledge that while unemployment is still hitting eight or nine percent in much of America, it’s less than sic percent in the District of Columbia. They’re doing fine:
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 (the Huffington Post’s “Oasis” also offered free massages, aromatherapy, and yoga classes in both cities), and so many politicians to honor for their service… Also, lots of panel discussions to remind us that this is all about issues.
Even with Leibovich’s amused and glinting grin that falls just short of a smirk, it’s hard not to feel the slight taste of indigestion bubbling up after a few hundred pages of this. This makes it all the harder to swallow his insistence that, despite all the calumny on display, he can still “plead optimism”. But maybe understated gossipy sarcasm is the right approach to the “continued and sweaty orgy raging between corporate and political enterprise.”
After all, what good would another screed do?