July 16 (Bloomberg) -- Fear dominated the run-up to the publication today of Mark Leibovich’s “This Town.”
The book is a sharp-eyed, funny and elegantly written takedown of Washington’s crass, insidery, back-scratching (by journalists and politicians alike) culture. Before galleys existed, Politico wrote a prebuttal; possible targets sought out the author to soften him up; and a Capitol Hill aide, Kurt Bardella, so over-cooperated that he lost his job.
It’s not easy living up to that kind of anticipation, especially if you are the Tony Soprano of journalists, a killer profiler for the New York Times (ask such subjects as the young Ted Kennedy Jr., Politico’s Mike Allen and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews), but with a heart. Leibovich has suffered, having lost a brother young. He married in the traditional way, to a doctor, not in the merger way -- so common in Washington -- of journalist to journalist or journalist to politician. He makes his kids’ soccer games.
That doesn’t mean the book doesn’t hit its targets, but it does so humanely. Many of us could change the name of his subjects, put ours in, and have a forehead-smacking revelation about who we are.
For instance, one of the diseases of reporting in Washington is that we treat all inside information as deliciously communicable. We’re unable to distinguish the tragic from the trivial -- thus, the scene at a book party hosted by event-planner and media consultant Tammy Haddad, where she shouts to Leibovich: “ELIZABETH EDWARDS IS DYING! ELIZABETH EDWARDS IS DYING! I JUST GOT OFF THE PHONE WITH HER DAUGHTER! Now c’mon, come meet the novelist.” In Washington, you are rewarded for being first, not for being sensitive.
Haddad is Becky Sharp to Leibovich’s Thackeray, a recurring character in his novelistic examination of characters who are unknown outside Washington but have an outsized presence within. This is where the personal, interpersonal and public intertwine inextricably. In Leibovich’s telling, Haddad latched on to an epilepsy charity founded by former presidential adviser David Axelrod and his wife, Susan, raised visibility for the cause, then “acquired a coveted mantle of her own: someone who had connections to the Obama White House.” She parlayed those connections into getting another client an interview with the president on Air Force One.
In the same vein, Leibovich skewers President Ronald Reagan’s former chief of staff Ken Duberstein, who has leveraged his short stint in the Oval Office for the past four decades. Lawyer Bob Barnett, agent to A-listers of both parties (Sarah Palin, the Clintons), wrangles deals in a rat’s nest of conflicts of interest. Leibovich considers him “tireless in his self-promotion” and reports that President Barack Obama dismissed the lawyer as the embodiment of conventional wisdom. That’s no insult in Washington; Barnett can now double his hourly fee.
Leibovich cops to the local diseases of vanity, self-delusion and mindless socializing that obtain even when death intrudes (the book opens with the funeral Mass and Kennedy Center sendoff for NBC’s Tim Russert). The grief is real but so is the sense that a networking opportunity like the one in front of Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Catholic Church would be a terrible thing to waste.
The book is a narrative of days that begin at dawn with Allen’s Playbook and “Morning Joe” on TV and ends with drinks at Adams Morgan nightspots with young aides or at salons in Georgetown with those who used to be young. He closes with a dinner thrown by the legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn, on a rainy night. As he wanders through the gathering of royalty in the stately mansion that was once home to Abe Lincoln’s son Robert, he lists the high-value targets in attendance. There is Susan Rice, the failed potential secretary of state nominee (now national security adviser), who had the bad luck to be called “brusque” by Thought Leaders, which, he notes, is helpful for men but deadly for a woman.
The Real America
There also are such Washington denizens as Alan Greenspan and Colin Powell, always destination guests, even though they add to the faint mustiness of a room that lacks sufficient “earpieces” -- evidence that there are high-level officials worthy of Secret Service protection in attendance.
He runs into those he’s previously profiled, such as Politico’s Allen and MSNBC’s Matthews, who says he no longer holds a grudge for the “hatchet job.” He captures the essence of efficient party-going by the former Time magazine editor, Steve Jobs biographer and Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson, a Geiger counter of who’s worth talking to. Spotting Rice, Isaacson brushes past Leibovich with his usual “Hello, Matthew,” which Leibovich doesn’t correct because “Walter is so smart, for all I know my name IS Matthew.”
But he found it a good party: “Comfort food heaped at the buffet, shelter from the elements, and plenty of folk heroes,” although he laments its distance from the Real America. “It still felt good to be invited.”
Don’t we all want to be invited, and don’t we all wish to be so secure that we don’t have to go?
In the epilogue, Leibovich proves himself the mensch when he forgives just about everyone their craziness, even as he discusses the freak out of potential subjects so “convinced of their outsize place in the grimy ecosystem that, surely, this book had to be about them.”
He takes an elegiac walk through the city as Obama is being inaugurated for the second time. Real Americans have taken over, crowding the Metro with kids on their shoulders, and Leibovich feels good until he hears NBC’s David Gregory on TV.
The hackneyed phrases of the boring “pundit lingua franca” jolt him back to This Town, which the Real America will soon depart and the inmates will reclaim. Mark Leibovich, like the rest of us, will reluctantly be at home again.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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