Sept/Oct/Nov 2013

City on the Make

A close-in look at the seamy world of DC's power elite

Jim Newell


As I sit down to write, it’s roughly day 3 of the Washington political class’s overheated response to the release of Mark Leibovich’s This Town, and day 800 or so of what that class regards as the real story: the chatterbox narrative surrounding Mark Leibovich’s This Town. Politico has come forward with its latest report on the surveillance data it’s been collecting on all things “Leibo,” as the rag calls him. Glancing over the dispatch, it’s clear that the crucial question on Washington’s mind is this: Will this saboteur—who has courted no end of damning disclosures from his sources via his perch as the politics correspondent for the New York Times Magazine—be gracing the elite party salons of official Washington anytime soon, those same marbled hallways he has so dishonorably tarnished in his tome?

In the telling of Politico—the all-but-official tip sheet of the self-dealing lords of DC influence—the outlook is grim. To A-list socialites, labeling Leibovich’s recollections of exclusive, presumably off-the-record parties as a regrettable show of poor manners doesn’t begin to plumb the depth of his transgression. What Leibovich has done is much worse. He has threatened the ability of our Republic to function. “The fear,” Politico writes, is that Leibovich’s “cutting takedown of the city’s cozy culture . . . will send a chill through the elite after-hours social circuit—where the real business of this town often gets done between reporters and sources.”

It’s tempting to mark this absurd claim as the apex of the This Town saga. But the self-referenced frenzy surrounding what is, at bottom, a puckish satire of the Washington political class’s steady retreat into its own gilded navel has shown us that narcissism has an infinite momentum once it takes hold.

Even well before the book’s publication, the DC power elite’s petty obsession with how it would be treated in Leibovich’s opus kept flaring up—most notably back in 2011, when a Hill staffer was fired for leaking reporters’ e-mails to Leibovich as he was still researching This Town. (Perhaps fittingly, the tale of that Hill staffer, Rep. Darrell Issa aide Kurt Bardella, also led to one of the book’s finest chapters.)

What’s to fear, though? As Leibovich shows again and again, his subjects typically garland the routine conflicts of interest and sub-rosa acts of career sabotage that make up their working lives with one variation or another of “What’s the big deal?” So what if “superlawyer” Bob Barnett is depicted as pathetically cozying himself to all those in power in order to convert their postgovernment lives into overpriced book/TV-gig/speaking-tour packages? Or that Steve Schmidt, the chief strategist of the 2008 McCain-Palin campaign, preserved his own media standing by maniacally leaking all sorts of self-martyring dirt on Palin to the authors of Game Change—and was rewarded three years later with a hero’s welcome at the red-carpet premiere of Game Change, the adapted HBO film?

This is all to say nothing, of course, about the scores of former senators and congressmen who solemnly pledge not to take lobbying jobs when they leave office and then briskly collect a clutch of “lobbying” jobs (unregistered ones, that is, to bypass laughable regulations) for the most odious clients who wave retainers beneath their noses. Or the “Formers,” per Leibovich’s coinage, who held one position or another in government twenty or thirty years ago and have been banking on their erstwhile titles without doing any real work ever since. Why should such industrial-strength hypocrites fear someone coming along and documenting what they do for a living?

For all their blasť protests to the contrary, it seems that Washingtonians are generally worked up over the not-so-secret thesis Leibovich advances in This Town. In uncovering the conflicts of interest that infest the less palatable side of these people’s careers, Leibovich has apparently let loose an intolerable insight: Conflicts of interest actually are their careers. “Such people used to have an air of mystery about them,” he writes. “You assumed they did something exotic, like work for the CIA. Now you might assume the Kuwaiti government or someone is paying them a gusher to do something not terribly virtuous. They would prefer not to discuss their work, if you don’t mind, and you have to respect their discretion. Ambiguity pays well here.”

Click to enlarge

Ed Harris as John McCain and Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin in Game Change, 2012.

Leibovich is a talented writer, and he resists the trap that more insecure, bloviating political writers—which is to say, nearly all of them, myself included—might fall into: affirmatively spoon-feeding their own political judgments to readers at all turns. Leibovich just documents what he sees, and whom he talks to, wittily mimicking the so-what tone that these glib, dismal samples of humanity use to describe their controversial waking lives. In other words, he lets those who would be hanged hang themselves, by being themselves. There’s Democratic lobbyist Heather Podesta, wife of Democratic “superlobbyist” Tony Podesta, telling Leibovich she “cannot believe so many Americans are currently on food stamps” during the elite convention brunch she’s hosting, with food “sampled from thirty local eateries to yield this day’s decadent smorgasbord of bourbon chocolate truffles, cucumber slices topped with chicken salad, and crab cakes slathered with peach chowchow.” And there’s Democratic fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe (aka “the Macker”)—now spending millions on his campaign to be the next governor of Virginia—whose “principal identity is as a professional best friend to Bill Clinton. . . . To deprive McAuliffe of the words ‘Bill Clinton’ would be like depriving a mathematician of numbers.”

Under Leibovich’s deceptively simple narrative strategy, the people who are laid lowest are those most prone to believing their own bullshit—i.e., straddlers, like the corporate lobbyists who moonlight as activists. Leibovich grants little credit to these lost souls despite whatever conflicted feelings they may have. CNN pundit Hilary Rosen, for example, is an idealistic gay-rights advocate according to cable news, but a post–Deepwater Horizon spin manager for BP according to how she actually makes money. She earns a one-way ticket to the wasteland of the damned with very little embellishment on the author’s part. Her problem is that she appears to be constitutionally incapable of detecting the rank stench of duplicity emanating from her own CV.

As Rosen’s story shows, success in This Town doesn’t exactly put a premium on moral self-awareness. This is a critical point of Leibovich’s book, which stresses that the leading peddlers of DC influence may be, and are, perfectly nice people to chat with. Many of them even harbor a sense of civic duty and an ethos of public service. The systemic problem, then, is that these quaint conceits can never hope to compete with the cataracts of cash blasting through the nation’s capital.

The few figures who do manage to withstand some moral scrutiny in This Town tend either to be ardent partisan types—very much in contrast to the reigning centrist myths that govern the consensus discourse of Washington—or unapologetic panderers for corporate interests. In the former camp are Senators Harry Reid and Tom Coburn, who understand the hideousness of it all while generally keeping their distance from the leeches as much as they can. Whatever their political failings, you admire their allergy to the billings and cooings of the permanent Washington social set, and even their innate deficiencies of tact. (“They said I’m supposed to offer you a drink, so that’s what I’m doing,” Reid, a teetotaling Mormon, tells Leibovich at the outset of an interview. “If anyone asks, just tell them I offered you a drink.”)

In the latter group are the shameless players, such as lobbyist-politicians Haley Barbour and Trent Lott. Members of this cohort—by far the more numerous DC social type—appear to know precisely how corrupt it is to use their contacts in government to enrich their clients and themselves, and they do it anyway, with no moral qualms. Because why not? They’re getting rich—and you can quote them on that! There’s an almost perverse sense of honor in those who embrace the role of villain, daring you idealistic twits who might object to it to do something about it.

If you do think something should be done about it, your best hope is to wait it out. Because in one sense—the most literal one—This Town is dying. The old guard is old! Leibovich writes that the regular attendees at elite Washington’s spiritual home, the mansion parties hosted by Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee, are almost all older than forty, most of them by a significant margin. Two of the club’s most decorated and ubiquitous members—Bradlee, the legendary former Washington Post editor, and Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chair—have served a combined 179 years on this planet. So many of the old standbys in media and politics whom Leibovich describes came of age during or shortly after Watergate, when journalism was suddenly transformed into a fashionable line of work, and during the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations. They haven’t left, and they certainly haven’t changed for the better, but they have aged.

Leibovich had his hands full enough describing the insanity of the survivors of this particular era, but one wishes he could have trained some of his trenchant observations on the generation(s) now coming up to supplant the staid fixtures of This Town. Many of my younger colleagues in political media have taken offense at the generalizations that have been unloosed in the wake of the punditry surrounding Leibovich’s book. These aggrieved youngsters protest, quite rightly, that they’ve never even been in a room with any of these people—the Bradlees, the Woodwards, the Hilary Rosens, et al. That old brigade of needy, narcissistic gatekeepers—who believe that a presidency’s failure or success hinges on whether the president sucks up to them at their dinner parties—makes DC newbies roll their eyes just as much as it makes the rest of the country do so. The young folks might argue that the environment has now changed so dramatically that the honor guard of This Town, as Leibovich portrays it, represents the final stage of elite rule, before the revolutionaries take over and a new epoch of egalitarianism reigns supreme.

From what I see and hear, it’s safer to bet on a new iteration of This Town replacing the old one, and things proceeding much the same way—maybe with a few stuffy old decorations renovated or replaced. Because on any night when there’s an A-list, dressy, old-fashioned, lavishly catered affair for seventy-year-olds at Sally and Ben’s mansion, there’s something else going on, a couple of miles away. There, in a Columbia Heights group house or a Mount Pleasant apartment of a youngish rising star, a different kind of get-together is in the works, where you may find make-your-own rail drinks and revelers engaging in a rousing round or two of beer pong. And when all the twenty-four-year-olds holding down entry-level online writing jobs hear about it, they’re asking, “Who’s going to be there? Anyone I’ve heard of?”

Jim Newell is a former staff writer for Wonkette and Gawker whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Salon, the New Republic, The Baffler, and elsewhere.

Advertisement