Tuesday, 10 September 2013

“This Town” by Mark Leibovich (Blue Rider Press)

Leibovich-ThisTownTwo Parties and a Funeral (Plus, plenty of valet parking!) in America’s gilded capital

Tim Russert is dead. But the room was alive.

Big Ticket Washington Funerals can make such great networking opportunities. Power mourners keep stampeding down the red carpets of the Kennedy Center, handing out business cards, touching base. And there is no time to waste in a gold rush, even (or especially) at a solemn tribal event like this.

Washington – This Town – might be loathed from every corner of the nation, yet these are fun and busy days at this nexus of big politics, big money, big media, and big vanity. There are no Democrats and Republicans anymore in the nation’s capital, just millionaires. That is the grubby secret of the place in the twenty-first century. You will always have lunch in This Town again. No matter how many elections you lose, apologies you make, or scandals you endure.

In This Town, veteran reporter Mark Leibovich (currently chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine), presents a somewhat-reluctant insider’s account and examination of America’s ruling class in their natural habitat: Washington, D.C. The book is catnip for political junkies and anyone who studies politics, policy-making and the media. These are three things that have fascinated me for years (academically and vicariously), and I found this book fascinating. It is not perfect, and there was the occasional whiff of the author protesting a bit too much about his own place in This Town’s ecosystem, but it also offers some fascinating insight into the movers and shakers in D.C.

Leibovich is at his best when he’s examining the highly-incestuous “media industrial complex” that in many ways fuels Washington, D.C. Through his eyes and experiences,  readers get a glimpse of the never-ending revolving-door between government and lucrative lobbying, consultant, pundit positions. The author critiques the way the funeral for a beloved newsman (Russert) becomes the social event of the year, with attendees more interested in furthering their own positions (cosmetic if not concrete) than in paying tribute to their “friend”. Leibovich shows how political reporters have become ever-more fetishized, not to mention desperate in themselves for their ability to get name-checked (or “hat-tipped”) in the predawn e-mail sent out by the city’s “most powerful” media platform, Politico. The book is packed full of insights and critiques of the media, the politicians who fawn and pander to them, and who are fawned over in turn, painting a compelling picture of the self-reinforcing nature of the politics-media nexus.

My favourite chapter, however, was the longest. Leibovich offers a detailed account of his interactions with one Hill staffer in particular – an aide to Congressman Darrell Issa, Kurt Bardella. It is a story of an almost hyper-actively ambitious aide becoming smitten with the attention he can accrue as someone in a position of power and access; it is also a tale of how easy it is for someone in D.C. to overcome ignominy and (more often than not) emerge with a more potent “brand” than some elected members of Congress. Leibovich uses Bardella’s story to highlight the single-minded pursuit of personal branding that has come to define much of Washington careerism.

Leibovich includes some discussion and criticism of the Obama campaigns (2008 and 2012), their “fervent” opposition to the lobbying culture of Washington (and plentiful examples of exemptions), and how they too eventually became subsumed by the media-go-round. One of the staffers to come off best was Valerie Jarrett (a sometimes object of frustration, scorn, and suspicion in White House circles, apparently). It’s a good description of how an incoming administration bent on “changing Washington” can be sucked into the ways of This Town with the same ease with which Tea Party insurgents can, once elected, settle into it like a warm bath. The author also deals with Obama’s opponents in the two campaigns. Thankfully, perhaps as recognition that there has been so much coverage of the two presidential campaigns, Leibovich keeps the campaign coverage to a relative minimum. That being said, I think the two campaigns offered a lot of grist for his argument which is left undiscussed, but there we go (my personal preference predicated on my fascination with the media).

I certainly enjoyed reading this book. The author sometimes gives the impression of protesting too much, given his own state of being highly plugged in to the the capital’s culture. Nevertheless, his self-deprecating treatment of his own interactions with the movers-and-shakers of that Town, saves the book from becoming a screed or overly harsh. This Town is filled with insight, gossip and also some excellent commentary on issues of media and politics. It’s not difficult to see why some of the DC crowd really didn’t like it (nobody is safe from criticism, including the author himself). If you are looking for an in-depth look into Washington, D.C., culture, then this is a must-read. Otherwise, you’ll probably see this as another example of self-analysis and -absorption from a member of the Washington establishment (even if he is not quite a household name like most of the rest of his subjects).

Recommended, certainly. This could be a good supplemental to Robert Draper’s Do Not Ask What Good We Do (recently re-named, When the Tea Party Came To Town for its paperback release), which takes a more focused look on Congress specifically.

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