Mark Leibovich, author of THIS TOWN: Two Parties and a Funeral – plus plenty of valet parking! – In America’s Gilded Capital, penned a withering account of the insider class of DC. However, despite the scathing depiction of the US capital as run by “a permanent feudal caste” in his book (a bestseller now in paperback), Leibovich told Truthout that he has not lost many professional friends or alienated many contacts. After all, given all the publicity that This Town has received, Leibovich – chief national correspondent for The New York Times – has achieved the most coveted status in Washington: He has become a celebrity who has proven his media power.
Obtain the just-released paperback version of THIS TOWN: Two Parties and a Funeral – plus plenty of valet parking! – in America’s Gilded Capital. THIS TOWN is a lacerating unmasking of DC in the Swiftian satirical tradition, except it’s not just a lampoon; it’s the truth. Contribute to Truthout and obtain THIS TOWN by clicking here now.
In DC, being a celebrity empowers you with the status of being able to influence people and also – if you are in the media – to raise the profiles of power brokers. Power brokers, savvy about building a perception within the capital bubble of being influential, are also increasing the cash value of their brands when they get media exposure. As Leibovich writes in his prologue:
Washington has become a “permanent feudal class,” a massive self-sustaining entity that sucks people in, nurtures addiction to its goals, and imposes a peculiar psychology on big fish and minnows alike: It can turn complex, gifted and often damaged individuals into hollowed-out Kabuki players acting in the maintenance of their fragile brands.
That is why Leibovich, as noted in our introduction to the first chapter of his book – recently excerpted on Truthout – chose to begin This Town with the memorial service for Tim Russert held at the Kennedy Center in 2008. Russert, as host of “Meet the Press,” was a key gateway to national public exposure and inside-the-beltway recognition of influence. “If you were a politician of serious ambition, an invitation to his set was your rite of passage and your proving ground,” Leibovich writes in his book.
Russert also represented the epicenter of This Town: “Tim lived in the sweet spot of the big, lucrative revolving door between money, media and politics.”
At one party . . . the incestuous blob of elected officials, journalists, K Street powerhouses, and even White House officials joined together in an inebriated conga line that snaked its way into the night.
Even though “Meet the Press” was facing competitive pressure from cable television and the internet when Russert was still hosting it, it still was the gold standard of bestowing DC status bonus points. In that regard, Russert symbolized how important television had become in amplifying power, importance and cash value for the Washington insiders.
The ongoing mainstream media meme from Washington reporters about the bitter divisiveness between Republicans and Democrats in the capital makes for good copy. Certainly, there are a few Republicans with visceral rancor toward President Obama and some Democrats with a bilious distaste for Mitch McConnell.
Yet, as Leibovich describes the A list in DC, it is an endless round of convivial social affairs, lobbyist-sponsored events and dinner parties attended by bipartisan notables who enjoy each other’s company after the camera lights are turned off. They are joined by the very reporters who endlessly promote the “feuding enemies meme,” other DC dignitaries, lobbyists and public relations specialists. At one party for the guest booker for “Meet the Press,” the incestuous blob of elected officials, journalists, K Street powerhouses and even White House officials joined together in an inebriated conga line that snaked its way into the night.
Political ideology is a distant second to the characteristic the makers and shakers of This Town share: raw, brazen ambition, a respect for aggressive self-promotion and a desire to use the spectacle of DC as a rocket booster to joining the moneyed elite.
Perhaps the most nationally known symbol of how Democrats and Republicans shed their partisan roles after hours is the Carville-Matlin marriage, which Leibovich refers to as DC’s “Brangelina.” The GOP and Democratic character assassination specialists, James Carville and Mary Matlin, are gladiator performers as TV analysts, but in reality, they are a marital team raking in the dollars. Indeed, This Town chronicles how frequently Republican and Democratic elected officials and campaign advisers open bipartisan consulting firms so that they can get business from clients who are aligned with one party or the other.
There is nothing that overcomes the alleged great party divide like a high income or a fat contract. In his book, Leibovich drops the stunningly dismaying statistic that “In 1974, 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Now 50 percent of senators and 42 percent of congressmen do.”
The list of congressional representatives and senators who criticized and disavowed using public service as a vehicle to cash in with seven-figure salaries on K Street when exiting the revolving door – only to announce affiliations with lobbying or consulting firms for seven-figure salaries after they leave office – is staggeringly long. If you land a job that pays a few million dollars, you won’t face criticism from your peers, just envy or admiration.
Even the legendary 2008 campaign of Barack Obama, which had as a key theme ending the rein of lobbyists owning elected and administrative officials in DC, evolved into an administration of staffers and department officials who were lured into cashing in on their access. Leibovich writes that former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told him, “I remember saying in that meeting [of Obama aides], ‘Somehow we have all changed. Or maybe Washington just changed us.’ ” Leibovich makes it clear in This Town, from his detailed recounting of Obama advisers and officials who bolted for the big bucks, that you can remove the word “maybe” from Gibbs’ quote.
In person, Leibovich is blunt, affable and open to any questions. He doesn’t pull any punches, while also admitting that he loves DC as his beat – and that he and his family enjoy living in the Washington area. The corrosive portraits and biting exposure of opportunism, hypocrisy and total disconnect from the voters of the United States that Leibovich has witnessed make him a self-described cynic about the corrupting influence of the nation’s capital. Nevertheless, he revealed to Truthout that he wrote the book because he wants to raise the benchmark, to expose the spectacle of DC that is not seen on television or only fleetingly reported. He maintains the slim hope that somehow it will shed its corrupt values. In short, Leibovich has a Frank Capra Mr. Smith Goes to Washington heart while swimming in a polluted fish bowl.
“DC is a city of poseurs,” Leibovich told Truthout. “A lot of people are working on an angle in this day and age of very easy money and very easy fame in Washington.”
Leibovich doesn’t attend the celebrity event known as the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, which has become a full week of swanky parties, including Hollywood actors and actresses, who fly in. Politicians, cabinet officials, journalists, media moguls, lobbyists, LA stars – they all blend together as brands seeking the pinnacle of success: power, money and fame.
Speaking of the annual dinner at the Washington Hilton, Leibovich told Truthout of an incident when humorist and journalist Bob Garfield posed questions to attendees as they walked in on, yes, a red carpet. Garfield’s exchange with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer would make Joan Rivers proud:
BOB GARFIELD: You look lovely as always Wolf. Who are you wearing?
WOLF BLITZER: Armani.
BOB GARFIELD: Well done. What story are you chasing tonight?
WOLF BLITZER: I’m not chasing anything. We’re here to have fun.
Leibovich, Garfield and another reporter held a journalist ethics seminar that evening in the hotel, but nary a reporter showed up.
Asked if there was one major thing that surprised him after This Town‘s publication (which was the subject of many more than a hundred references and articles in the city’s most self-absorbed publication, “Politico,” and its insider’s “comings and goings” gossip column by Mike Allen), Leibovich responds with a frown. Yes, he was blindsided by how many people e-mailed or told him how much the book would help them strategize their success when they came to DC or Washington exiles who lamented how much they missed DC after reading This Town, he said.
Given such insights, Leibovich can be forgiven for being a self-avowed member of ”The Club,” as he calls it. After all, he provides a book that is as painful as it is witty, as cynical as it is well-paced – a book whose details only an insider would have observed through the filter of an outsider’s disdain.
As John Oliver, formerly of The Daily Show and now of Last Week Tonight With John Oliver on HBO, writes of This Town: “Funny . . . demoralizing . . . I loved it as much as you can love something that breaks your heart.”
That about sums up a well-crafted book that will make you laugh aloud before you realize that it is democracy which is at stake – and that the players in the DC bubble have little interest in preserving the process or even thinking about the electorate: They are too busy building their cash brand value.