Townies: Official Washington’s Latest Obsession Pulls Its Punches
Before I sat down to write this, another publication asked me to review This Town. I demurred: "Mark is a friend," I emailed back. The editor responded almost immediately: "How good a friend?" I guess I should be flattered that the editor thought I could write impartially if author Mark Leibovich wasn't "that good" of a friend; or maybe I missed a chance to set a precedent for what level of friendship would prohibit people writing reviews of each other. (Picking-up-from-the-airport friend? Probably too close. Christmas card exchange? Savage away.)
Obviously, I wound up declining, though not because Leibovich is that good a friend. I'd just as soon write this review for another friend, Mike Madden, the editor of the paper you're reading right now. As to how much my friendship with Leibovich will affect my review? You can decide for yourself. Disclosure performed! So you can't criticize me now, right?
Leibovich performs a similar, if less direct, inoculation of himself at the start of This Town. He admits right up front that he lives and works with its characters and is friends (maybe even "that good" friends) with most of them. He raises the "legitimate" question: "People… ask would it be possible to write honestly about The Club"—D.C.'s political and media elite—"from the inside?" (As a reporter for the New York Times, Leibovich is most assuredly a member of The Club.) But he doesn't answer the question. Instead, he tells a riddle: "Who discovered water?...I don't know, but it wasn't a fish. I am a fish." He then says of living in "the murk," "I have no plans to leave," and "plead[s] reality: my wife and I have built a good life here."
The implicit admission, I think, is that to write honestly about the watery atmosphere of The Club would mean leaving it, and life in the aquarium is too good to leave. I'm not sure about that. I left Washington a little more than two years ago, and my life on dry land (ironically, in "the land of 10,000 lakes") is awesome. But maybe I was never really a fish; indeed, one of the reasons I left was that I feared I was drowning.
Fortunately for readers, the degree to which Leibovich (who, as he notes in the book and as the constant sniping articles in Politico point out, is also often known as Leibo) writes honestly about The Club has no relationship to how well he writes about it. This Town is breezy and charming and occasionally sharp, if already pretty familiar to anyone who's followed Leibovich's work in the Times. His rich profiles of Politico's Mike Allen, would-be Vice President Paul Ryan, Terry McAuliffe, Sen. Tom Coburn, supernerd Peter Orszag, and House staffer Kurt Bardella all appeared in the Times Magazine, and he draws heavily on his wonderful accounts of being on the campaign trail in 2012.
There's new material, as well. Details about lawyer-to-the-Washington-stars Bob Barnett help illustrate the pervasive insecurity that haunts The Club, no matter how successful one is. Washington hostess and schmoozer Tammy Haddad emerges as the book's enigmatic anti-hero, whose main occupation seems to be throwing parties and making scenes—in both the sense of "see and be seen" and "Did you see that?" In one already oft-quoted passage, Haddad swoops in on a conversation at a book party to announce acontextually, "ELIZABETH EDWARDS IS DYING!" before downshifting abruptly: "Now c’mon, come meet the novelist.”
A vivid description of the hoopla surrounding the White House Correspondents' Association dinner takes up a good portion of the book. Though Times employees have been prohibited from attending the dinner itself since 2007, Leibovich at least attended the arguably more exclusive before- and after-parties. He is a welcome companion at these and many other events, the pal in the corner who snarks one-liners into his martini.
Most of what the Glenn Greenwald/Daily Kos-camp readers will consider, well, good information, if not "news," relates to the well-oiled revolving door between lobbying and government employment and the casual attitude Washington insiders take toward it. Documenting the deterioration of the Obama administration's promise to curtail the influence of lobbyists, Leibovich seems quietly appalled by how Politico reporter Amie Parnes covered this: "The work [at the White House] can be a grind, Parnes wrote sympathetically, with the plum lobbying gigs awaiting them as just rewards. 'There's a payoff,'" she quotes one expert. Using the word 'payoff,'" Leibovich notes, "with no apparent wryness."
Alas, "wryness" is about as harsh as Leibovich himself gets about the—let's come out and say it, even if he won't—corruption he observes.
Leibovich refuses to express explicit judgment or justified outage at either the coziness of the Washington scene or its insularity. The closest he comes to condemnation is dropping facts about the abysmal economy in contrast to the ludicrous luxury Washingtonians live in—or at least the Washingtonians he writes about. Leibovich makes a pointed distinction early on that This Town is not about D.C., the city, but rather Washington, the rhetorical conceit. He also, for example, notes without comment lobbyist Heather Podesta bemoaning the number of Americans on food stamps even as she is at a brunch featuring "bourbon chocolate truffles." Leibovich is at that brunch, too—and he's so consistent about recording the hypocrisy of others I have to believe he knows he and his book are, to put it plainly, part of the problem.
Because This Town makes clear its author knows what the problem is. He describes it frequently. It is that exchange of access for information that keeps the public in the dark about the more tawdry and legally suspect aspects of Washington culture. At one point, he illustrates how that system works with a negative example that is more ironic and more unforeseeably poignant than he could have ever guessed: a chapter on unofficial and official Washington's reaction to Michael Hastings' unmasking of former U.S. commander in Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal as "The Runaway General." McChrystal resigned because Hasting's story for Rolling Stone revealed a brutally arrogant and vulgarly dismissive commander whose lack of respect for civilian leaders was intimately related to causalities in the unwinnable and eternal "war on terror."
But people in Washington didn't see the article as an exposé of a dysfunctional military. At the time, CBS reporter Lara Logan barked that Hastings "violated an 'unspoken agreement' between reporters and military officials…[he] disingenuously gained the trust of his subjects and… burned the [them] on an off-the-record agreement." And for that violation, Hastings paid a price: "Hastings was treated as a suspicious interloper," Leibovich writes. "He had few defenders."
Leibovich concludes the chapter with the announcement of Hastings' "lifetime banishment" from "The Club." His excommunication serves as tidy evidence of the access-for-self-censorship system. And it's Hastings' experience that Leibovich may think about when he shies away from speaking honestly about life in the fishbowl. He wouldn't survive, you see. He would be banished! The "good life" he built would disappear. (Hastings is the only person in This Town who comes in for such treatment; everyone else, even the relatively clout-free Bardella, bounces back from scandals with ease and, as Leibovich writes, "will always eat lunch in This Town again.")
But making an example of someone only works if the target suffers. Far from being an object lesson in how bucking the rules ends a career, Hastings went on from the McChrystal dust-up to, you know, continue to have a career—a good one. I think even a good life! He wasn't banished! Though he lived in New York and then L.A., he kept writing and breaking stories about Washington. People kept talking to him. He rebelled against the system and, until his untimely death in a car accident last month, thrived. And though being invited to cocktail parties should in no way be confused with "thriving," he also got invited to cocktail parties. I saw him at one. (Hastings was—wait for it—a friend.)
That Hastings avoided the punishment D.C. tried to mete out should scare journalists and officials more than what they imagined would have happened to him. His success gives lie to the comfortable illusion that they are somehow trapped in the system, that they are fish.
It might not be completely fair to compare what This Town had to say about Tim Russert (whose passing gives the book its subtitular funeral-cum-social event) to how the media world mourned Hastings. He was, as I said, a friend. Russert was a guy I saw on TV. But if I had to choose how my colleagues might eulogize me, I would take what people said about Hastings over what they said about Russert any day.
Tim Russert was, as the book relates, widely known to be a great guy. He remembered to ask after people's families. He loved his dad. Important people sucked up to him because he had a TV show that other important people watched. A TV show whose part in the national conversation was that of an echo chamber.
Michael Hastings was a great guy and a great reporter. He did not echo; he did not just speak truth to power, he shouted. In This Town, Leibovich whispers.
This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus Plenty of Valet Parking!—In America's Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich, Blue Rider Press, 400 pps.