Allow me to start this post with an apology for the long hiatus since my last post. Things like moving and starting a new job seem to make it hard to find time for the things that fulfill one the most. I must admit that it feels great to be writing again, for when there is time for writing, there is time for reflection. The day-to-day drudgery of the news cycle can often make us feel imprisoned by the thoughtless, reactive political discussions that take place among our friends and family. Making sense of the book reviewed in this post will definitely be refreshing, for it presents a few troubling problems.
Mark Leibovich’s “This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!- in America’s Gilded Capitol” is a Hunter S. Thompson-esque skewering of the political culture in Washington. It shines a little-too-knowledgable light on the antics of America’s ruling class. The influx of political and lobbying money, the “political-media complex,” and the irresistible revolving door have combined to turn the Washington professional culture into “The Club.” Members of The Club come in many flavors: lawyers, lawmakers, bureaucrats, journalists, lobbyists, TV producers, congressional staff among others. The Club is essentially a self-loving, self-perpetuating gang of the popular kids. The gang only has a few rules, each punishable by banishment: telling the truth and not paying proper homage to the luminaries of The Club. Back stabbing, criminal offenses, shameless addiction to fame and money are all forgivable. The book abounds with examples of this sort of tomfoolery, mixed in with descriptions of the contrast between life in Washington and what is happening elsewhere in the country.
Thus, the reader is treated to endless descriptions of super-lawyers and high-profile “formers” eating decadent buffet foods at lavish parties while Americans face hardships such as the BP oil spill and 10% unemployment. The parade of events like the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, inauguration parties, book release announcements, birthday parties, and charity functions are all indications of an “era of good feelings” that the media produces for itself. Never mind that “much of the Washington economy- lobbying, political consulting, and cable news- is predicated on the perpetuation of conflict, not the resolution of problems…” and this “economy” is
“…a product of, among other things, the continued growth of government, the boom in lobbying, the tidal wave of money pouring into the campaigns and super PACs- not to mention the continued and sweaty orgy raging between corporate and political enterprise”
There is a lot to process here. Apparently, the wistful days when political crusaders went to Washington to make the world a better place are gone. The reader is left wondering what happened to that bygone era when the political-media complex consisted of honest men, ready to report the substance of our political process rather than gossips and self-promoting opportunists.
Please. It’s hardly news that Washington is full of scum bags and has been almost since the beginning.
There are several problems with the book’s message. First, the author badly suffers from the disease it attempts to condemn (a fact not lost on Mr. Leibovich). He attempts to condemn The Club by sharing juicy gossip stories. Problem is, the stories are actually just feeding the gossip machine the D.C. crowd thrives on. Further, the author is himself an A-list member of The Club. The afterword to the paperback edition describes the book release party for “This Town” and it is hardly different than the countless parties he disparages throughout the rest of the book. The author ridicules people like Politico author Mike Allen for his multitude of less than sincere (and wholly self-interested) friendships with Washington operators, only to tell of his own involvement in fake and back-stabbing relations with fellow D.C. acolytes. This is analogous to an investigative exposé on scoundrels written by Judas Iscariot. The little rants of righteous indignation peppered throughout the book strain credulity. Particularly rich is his proclamation that readers have written him to ask about solutions to the problem of which he is clearly a part.
The author also seems to condemn rich and powerful people for acting like, um, rich and powerful people. The fact is, he is right about the fact that it has gotten worse. Corruption and greed amongst those at the top is certainly a problem, but it is nothing new. Changes in campaign finance law have certainly led to dizzyingly fast growth in the consulting and lobbying industry. The revolving door has emerged unscathed from the Obama administration’s valiant effort to dismantle it. However, history shows us that improprieties by the richest and most powerful political players is nothing new. No country is free from this type of behavior. The time and effort spent writing this book would have been better spent preparing solutions.
The larger point is this: the fight against corruption and the grossly irresponsible lifestyle lived by many in the political class is a noble one, but our indignation should not necessarily be aimed solely at the conduct of our officials. Our focus should primarily be on their ability to keep the country running. Much more valuable than the gossip contained in the book would be a look at what is keeping politicians, journalists, and bureaucrats (as flawed as they are) from getting the work done that is so important for our country: things like entitlement reform, criminal justice reform, tax reform, campaign finance reform, etc.
We must always remember that Jefferson had improper relations with one of his slaves, FDR had an affair, and Nixon had a slush fund. These flawed men respectively helped write the Constitution, led us through the Great Depression and WWII, and dramatically reopened China to diplomatic relations with the U.S. More recently, the deeply flawed Bill Clinton oversaw an era of unbridled economic growth, engineered entitlement reform, and signed the landmark 1993 budget that set our country on the path to a budget surplus later in the decade.
To be perfectly clear: the book describes a sickening state of affairs in Washington. But this isn’t news. Perhaps the book is valuable in that it highlights that the problem has in fact been getting worse. But for most Americans, it shouldn’t be news that there is rampant narcissism and boundless greed in Washington.
There are bright spots in the narrative: I found his inability to find anything juicy to say about Rep. Paul Ryan both surprising and refreshing. Paul Ryan is an example of the kind of person that can make Washington better. In that vein, it is also worth pointing out that there are so many thousands of people working in public service in Washington, D.C. that didn’t make the book because they are trying their best to do what needs to be done. Virtue seldom garners attention. Granted, their work these days is often in vain, but there are some bright spots showing. I invite all journalists to focus on solutions rather than gossip, investigative journalism rather than hatchet jobs, if they want to be a part of the solution.