Washington’s Pepe LePew
This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital
By Mark Leibovich
Blue Rider Press. 386 pages. $27.95.
In the summer of 2011, President Obama geared up for his reelection campaign by launching a series of strategy meetings. The contents of the meetings were private, and although he worried that a large number of people were involved—attendees included top aides from the White House, the Chicago operatives, and outside consultants—Obama trusted everyone. It was, after all, basically the same group that got him elected in 2008.
The meetings proved productive. Soon, Obama unveiled a list of issues he wanted to focus on in his second term: climate change, same-sex marriage, immigration reform, and closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay. Shortly after he disclosed the list to his team, however, two journalists approached Obama’s campaign manager and asked him about it. Obama was furious. During his 2008 campaign, he had managed to keep a lid on leaks. In office, he had come to view leaking as symptomatic of one of D.C.’s major maladies: a need to prove your own importance. The following week, Obama said he hoped the meetings would continue without him, and walked out.
In the finger-pointing that ensued, former press secretary Robert Gibbs flew into a rage. Gibbs viewed the episode as a watershed moment for a group that had previously worked together for a common good but now increasingly traded public service for self-service. “I remember saying in that meeting, ‘Somehow we have all changed. Or maybe Washington just changed us.’ ”
Mark Leibovich recounts the anecdote in This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital, his blistering assault on Washington’s insider culture. Leibovich uses the story to establish his book’s premise: Washington, D.C., has become such a deeply corrupting place that despite the noble ideals you may enter with, you’ll end up selling out like everyone else. Leibovich portrays Obama—deservingly or not—as a man of principle, initially sincere in his desire to serve the greater good and govern from above the fray. Ultimately, however, he proved naïve—and nearly as corruptible as everyone else. There’s a touch of the Shakespearean in this portrayal, but while Leibovich makes much of the Administration’s double standards and sell-outs, Obama is not his prime target. His colleagues in the press are.
To Leibovich, our nation’s capital has devolved into a cesspool of vanity, greed, and conflicts of interest so ubiquitous that it is openly joked about, even bragged about. This vision of Washington has been partially glimpsed by many Americans, but it’s rarely been drawn in such detail by a Washington insider.
Examples abound. One prominent “superlawyer” is commonly referred to as the “doorman to the revolving door.” Lobbyists on K Street boast of corrupting purists in the White House and on Capitol Hill. “Getting rich has become the great bipartisan ideal,” Leibovich writes.
The Washington press corps, for its part, has become so consumed by the town’s self-obsessed culture that it has ceased serving as a check on power. Members of the media are now far more concerned with being “players” themselves, and the officials they cover have become their friends, associates, business partners, and occasionally even husbands or wives. How can journalists objectively report in such an environment? They can’t.
There is a conspicuous problem with Leibovich’s argument, however. If D.C. is all-corrupting, mustn’t he, too, have been corrupted? As he readily admits, he is a card-carrying member of The Club, having served as a Washington-based political reporter for nearly two decades. So the question looms: Can a longtime member of The Club offer a worthy critique of it? Or is This Town just another product of Washington—a piece of entertainment designed to outrage in the name of boosting sales, but with nothing consequential expected to come of it?
The most provocative argument Leibovich makes in This Town is that what is perceived as Washington dysfunction—gridlock, hyperpartisanship, the failure of Republicans and Democrats to work together—is, to a large degree, purposeful. Washington has become more concerned with economics than politics, he asserts, and “much of Washington’s economy is predicated on the perpetuation of conflict, not the resolution of problems.” It is conflict that attracts viewers and readers, conflict that keeps the money pouring into Super PACs, conflict that sells ads. Politics as theater, it turns out, is far more lucrative than doing the people’s work. This point resounds despite the fact that Leibovich poses it passively, in the context of a question, and follows it up with more musing. Is all the shouting on television, he ponders, just “winking performance art? And in reality, off-air, everyone in Washington is joined in a multilateral conga line of potential business partners?”
The fact that Leibovich floats his key argument so passively is particularly galling given that he attacks other journalists for cloaking assertions in questions or by assigning them to others, as in “Some have said . . .” It is an example of Leibovich’s pulling his punches, evidence that as a member of The Club there are some places he won’t fully go, some things he is reluctant to come out and say directly. Other evidence that his insider status impedes his argument is his failing to single out nearly as many journalists for criticism as politicians, even though journalism in general is his main target. He is absolutely brutal in blasting the hypocrisy of “public servants” like Christopher Dodd, Tim Pawlenty, Evan Bayh, and many others who railed against lobbyists and special interests while in office only to end up shilling for those same interests later on.
“Monetizing government employment” is the cynical phrase the Beltway crowd uses to describe politicians turning the fame and contacts of public office into lucrative business careers. Leibovich’s examples are so relentless and egregious that even when you know how each will end, you’re still left flabbergasted. And he offers this for context: In 1974, 3 percent of lawmakers went on to lobbying careers; today that number is about 50 percent. In case you’re wondering why this is bad, he quotes former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who explained his method for gaining influence with a politician. Abramoff would simply suggest to a politician’s staffer that he or she work for him after completing public service. “The moment I said that to them . . . that was it, we owned them. . . . Every request from our office, everything that we want, they’re gonna do.”
Leibovich’s criticism of his fellow journalists is broader, less specific, but withering nonetheless. He takes us to fancy D.C. parties such as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, even Tim Russert’s funeral, and shows us reporters jockeying for position and hobnobbing with the people they are supposed to cover. The message is clear: Politicians get away with being corrupt hypocrites because journalists let them. Many members of the Washington press corps, after all, go on to become political spokesmen and then “monetize government employment” themselves by jumping to careers in public relations, lobbying, or punditry. “Everyone, ultimately, is playing for the same team,” Leibovich concludes. He uses the example of Obama’s about-face on Super PACs. Rather than holding Obama’s feet to the fire, journalists, like everyone else in Washington, celebrated the flip-flop. Why? Because a Democratic embrace of Super PACs would lead to an arms race with Republicans, and then even more money would flow into town.
There are two journalists that Leibovich does single out, however. Mike Allen, the White House correspondent for Politico, and Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone and Buzzfeed reporter who died in a car crash in June. It was Leibovich’s New York Times magazine profile of Allen, in fact, that launched his research for this book, and Leibovich reiterates his argument here that Politico—which he says covers politics the way ESPN covers sports—has largely contributed to the increasingly vapid culture in Washington today. He is particularly critical of Allen’s daily newssheet, Playbook, which is a briefing on happenings around town. With its shout-outs, birthday announcements, and “trivial attentions to Washington’s lame celebrity doings,” Leibovich blames Playbook for making everyone in town constantly seek out their own name—a Facebook for Washington. Allen is portrayed as the quintessential member of The Club.
And then there is Hastings. Leibovich dubs him a “troublemaker,” but means it as a compliment. Leibovich describes the furious reaction the mainstream press displayed to Hastings’s famous 2010 story, “The Runaway General,” which got General Stanley McChrystal fired. As recounted in Hastings’s 2011 book, The Operators, establishment journalists like Lara Logan, Howard Kurtz, David Brooks, and others lambasted Hastings over his reporting for the piece.
Leibovich asserts, as Hastings did, that it was because portraying military leaders in such a poor light jeopardized access for Club members. Many reporters relied on that access to do their jobs (it also made them feel important, Hastings asserted). Hastings fired back, blasting “access journalism” as lazy and inherently corrupting. In doing so, Hastings all but ensured his “lifetime banishment” from The Club. He was “a skunk at the garden party” who “made the other guests look bad,” Leibovich writes. Maybe so, but the point here—again, Leibovich doesn’t actually say it—is that Washington could use a lot more Pepe Le Pews and a lot fewer Judith Millers. Or, rather, more Michael Hastingses and fewer Mike Allens.
There’s a warning here that true reform will become increasingly hard to accomplish without more “troublemakers” like Hastings doing real journalism. Leibovich wonders if a story like Watergate could be broken today.
“Forget the question of whether Woodward and Bernstein would be given the time, space, and editorial backing to pursue such an endeavor,” he writes. “Even if they did, the Nixon White House would now have a massive Fox/Rush/Drudge apparatus at its back. A complicated story would devolve into the familiar left-right, rock ’em, sock ’em. Soon enough, Watergate would be over, eclipsed by the next shiny object, and no one would remember who won or lost, and even what ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ meant beyond the ESPN-style scoring.”
It’s a trenchant point that resonates long after you’ve closed the book.
This book is not without its flaws. It’s over the top, and even if it is loosely structured by design, there are moments when it feels disjointed. Leibovich’s long passages on Harry Reid, for example, while engaging, don’t seem to correspond much with his thesis. And occasionally Leibovich exhibits a hypocritical streak, as when he attacks the pettiness of Washington while using his book to settle a score with Sidney Blumenthal, or when he scolds others for self-aggrandizement while citing a letter from Ben Bradlee that praised one of his articles.
But despite all this, Leibovich’s book is loaded with fascinating insights and keen observations, and no journalist outside The Club could have written such an effective first-hand exposé. Moreover, Leibovich demonstrates courage in attacking his colleagues, risking “lifetime banishment” from The Club himself.
But a question lingers: Will the book spark reform or change behavior in any meaningful way? Almost certainly not.
As Leibovich repeatedly points out, scandals in Washington don’t last long anymore. Even if the book makes an impact, chances are it will be quickly forgotten, lost in the noise of next week’s news cycle. Besides, most of what he recounts here is not actually illegal—just unseemly and unethical.
The key reason nothing will change is because there is too much money at stake, and the allure of the game is too strong. Leibovich admits as much.
As scathing as he is of Washington’s incestuous culture and of his colleagues’ role in enabling it, he can’t shake his own fondness for being inside the velvet ropes.
“It still felt good to be invited—to be part of The Club,” he confesses. “At least for now.”
Jake Whitney is a journalist based in New York. In addition to contributing to The Progressive, Whitney’s work has appeared in The New Republic, The San Francisco Chronicle, Playboy, and Guernica.
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