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Book review: 'This Town' skewers Washington DC's insular, vain elite

Erik SpanbergThe Christian Science Monitor

You can judge this book by its cover. Back cover, that is. It reads: “WARNING: This Town does not contain an index. Those players wishing to know how they came out will need to read the book.”

In other words, Beltway types will eat this up. So, too, will anyone who spent recent campaign seasons monitoring Nate Silver’s election forecasts, wondering whether David Gregory is worthy of “Meet the Press,” or marveling at the staying power of Newt Gingrich.

Mark Leibovich, the chief national correspondent of The New York Times Magazine, stands both above and among the fray in Washington. (, the knowing nickname used by the chattering classes in the nation’s capital, explores the shameless vanities of that same population of electeds, formers, media and PR types, lobbyists, and even POTUS himself.

Those blessed enough to be ignorant of D.C.-speak should think of electeds as members of Congress, formers as the retired and ousted Senate and House members now trading on their so-called public service for taxpayer-fueled private-sector riches, and POTUS, of course, is the president of the United States. Not to be confused with FLOTUS (Michelle Obama, at present), VPOTUS (Joe Biden) and SCOTUS (the Supreme Court).

Leibovich acknowledges his own role in the spin-happy Beltway Twitterverse throughout the book. Such “full disclosure” moments serve a need for faux self-loathing as he documents the bottomless striving and lunacy of government life, not to mention hypocrisy beyond anything conjured by the likes of Christopher Buckley.

“This Town” covers a full four-year cycle in Washington, starting with the funeral of NBC “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert and ending with the second inauguration of Barack Obama. In between, Leibovich serves up hyper-caffeinated gulps of Politico, the web site driven by arcane and often vapid government gossip (Exhibit A: Mike Allen’s Playbook chronicling obscure bureaucrats’ birthdays); MSNBC talking-head fest Morning Joe; and all of the intertwined personal and professional relationships among members of Congress, the White House, major corporations, lobbyists, consultants, and reporters and editors.

“Tim Russert is dead,” Leibovich writes. “But the room was alive.”

With that, the panoply of Washington royalty, up-and-comers, and self-referential types fall under Leibovich’s bemused gaze. When Bill and Hillary Clinton enter the Kennedy Center memorial service, he writes, “that exotic D.C. tingle falls over the room.”

The hot hands of the moment, Obama advisers David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, find themselves engulfed in embraces and handshakes, signs of their candidate’s surging momentum as the Democratic nominee and the networking inherent in a major political funeral. Reflecting on the Clintons’ attendance at the Russert funeral, Leibovich writes, “Hillary has a memorial service to attend: the memorial service of a man she and her husband plainly despised and who they believed (rightly) despised them back.... But the Clintons are pros at death and sickness. They show up. They play their assigned roles.”

Russert worked his way into becoming what the author calls the mayor of This Town by first working for the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Washington veteran who tormented fellow Democrats Bill and Hillary during the Clinton administration. Thus, Russert retains a grudge for the Clintons and they for him. This entanglement is tidy and straightforward, standing in contrast to many others navigated by Leibovich in the course of 400 pages of Washington resentment.

At times, the blizzard of majority and minority leaders and press aides and consultants can become as exhausting as the introduction to an omnibus budget bill. But, more often, Leibovich skewers his subjects (admittedly, no tough task, but still entertaining) and then dashes off to another ridiculous rite of D.C. (the White House Correspondents’ Dinner! Republican primary debates! Book parties at the Newseum!) before too long.

Conflicts of interest consume plenty of space in “This Town,” book and city alike. Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chairman, is married to Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News foreign affairs reporter, who finds herself restricted from covering the financial crisis because her husband was one of its main architects. Such matters pass by Beltway types with nary a pause. Far more troubling, the likes of BP double their government contracts even as the administration deriding the oil giant for its recklessness in the Gulf promises to bring its full power to bear. And, as Leibovich makes clear, the Obama team’s professed loathing of lobbyists and Beltway status wars, as well as private-sector cash-ins, proved to be more of a slogan than actual ethos.

Best (or worst) of all, Leibovich never lapses into outrage or self-righteousness. Instead, he caps especially ridiculous bouts of self-congratulatory excess such as lobster- and crab-heavy receptions by noting how often such feasts go uninterrupted even as unemployment surges toward 10 percent or a terrorist attempts to blow up Times Square. Why let such matters spoil a chance to hobnob?

“This Town” is, in the author’s view, “the most powerful, prosperous, and disappointing city” in all the land. He backs that opinion up with more than enough evidence.

It’s hardly new or news that powerful people and their supplicants tend to possess huge egos and equally sizable insecurities. But that doesn’t make it any less titillating, or horrifying, to glimpse Colin Powell griping about his preference (insistence) to be called General rather Secretary (as in George W. Bush’s former secretary of state), Hardball host Chris Matthews complaining for years about a single newspaper profile, or former McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt profiting from his disastrous decision to put former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on the 2008 ticket. Schmidt shaped the “narrative” – a favorite D.C. term – of what went wrong and, along the way, extricated himself from blame while managing to turn his blunder into a lucrative gig as a political analyst on MSNBC.

Let us not lapse into cliché and say that such things happen only in Washington. After all, who remembers or cares about Robert Downey Jr.’s former transgressions now that he is an Avenger? Or, for that matter, the travails of Kobe Bryant? What was it he did, or didn’t do, in Colorado lo those many years ago? Again and again, Leibovich demonstrates the short-term scandal memory inside the Beltway. It’s enough to make one think former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, last seen cheating on his dying wife, might have a comeback in his future. (Let’s hope not.)

The tics and mannerisms of Beltway life provide plenty of fodder, too: Pols and others describing scandals and other peccadilloes as “saddening” and “troubling,” journalists who slip free of poor judgment by asserting instead that they are “just asking the question,” and the epidemic of humble-brags polluting the Potomac. Of the latter, many examples can be found, starting with the late “Meet the Press” host being eulogized at the start of the book.

“Russert – Tim – reached the top of the pecking order while shrouding a cutthroat ambition in his slovenly nonchalance,” Leibovich writes. He goes on to list many of the affectations indulged in by Russert to further burnish his reputation: the branding of his own father as “Big Russ,” the endless mentions of his Buffalo hometown, his blue-collar love of the NFL Bills, his frequent paeans to millionaire populist Bruce Springsteen, and the Russert machine’s paid speeches, “where he would tell the same jokes and stories over and over, like a politician does.”

In similar fashion, Arianna Huffington, she of the improbable online media empire, hosts a book-release party for a tome called “Third World America” that includes, yes, valet parking. What, people are supposed to park themselves because others are less fortunate? Don’t be silly.

If all of this makes the federal government’s leaders and its attendant parasites sound like ambitious, entitled children playing a game, a winking, nodding affair where everyone in the know gets richer (Washington became the most prosperous city while income plummeted across the rest of the nation), why, that’s because they are. They bond in the same cable TV green rooms before going on-air for a few minutes of partisan shtick, but, as the nexus lawyer-agent Bob Barnett illustrates, everything here is post-partisan. What began with James Carville and Mary Matalin merging their political “brands” in marriage and multi-million-dollar endorsements and speeches has become a way of life for all concerned in The Club.

Even the federal debt makes has-beens richer. To wit: Just after one of many rounds of fiscal cliff stalemates, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles took their failed budget-reform recommendations on the road, charging $40,000 a pop to enlighten the masses. Tim Russert must have been, yes, smiling up in heaven, as does every D.C. Luminary who passes into the afterworld.

Erik Spanberg is a regular contributor to Monitor Books. The preceding review was first published by The Christian Science Monitor and is republished here with permssion.