This book purports to explain how Washington really works. In a sense it does – though only by omission.
The book is a chronicle of the most noticeable people in DC – the most “important” politicians, lobbyists, reporters, consultants, etc. From this viewpoint, you get great insight into what these people are doing. Unfortunately, you therefore get absolutely no insight into anything else.
For example, 10% of the book is devoted to Tim Russert’s funeral. This sort of event is extremely important to these people. A few pages are devoted to David Axelrod shaving his mustache. Also an incredibly important event, apparently. (By the way, Axelrod may be the only guy ever who looks like more of a perv without a mustache).
On the other hand, this book takes place during a time of momentous developments that go completely unmentioned. (The book basically covers the time Obama has been in office). A grand total of zero words are devoted to financial reform, Obamacare, or any other policy initiatives. One sentence would suggest that Tom Coburn really cares about the debt and another would suggest that Obama supported gay marriage from the start. Otherwise, it’s all parties, jostling for TV time, and other vapid stuff. As Leibovich notes,
There was little slog to it, as there is in so much of political office: the policy debates, the town meetings, the committee hearings, the constituent visits. Screw that. Press is immediate gratification. It’s where most politicians truly live, the realm of how others see and judge them, the hour-to-hour score sheet of their massively external definition.
In other words, in six years of chronicling the important events of the most notable and important people in Washington, zero words of the book are devoted to any processes that even remotely resemble a legislative, executive or judicial process.
You can come to Washington, achieve complete success and never actually have to govern anything, other than perhaps a campaign. Even when he discusses campaign, it quickly becomes about how people will be portrayed by HBO.
Through this massive omission, which – also tellingly – the author doesn’t even notice, you learn more about Washington than you do from anything that’s actually written in the book.
Leibovich’s thesis is that “This Town” is run by what he calls “The Club.” The Club consists of 500 or so of the most influential people from a collection of reporters, public figures, politicians, appointees, consultants and lobbyists. The group includes “formers,” i.e. former politicians that make lots of money “advising.” These people don’t perform any obvious function beyond self-perpetuating:
But their membership in The Club becomes paramount and defining. They become part of a system that rewards, more than anything, self-perpetuation.
In this case the initial focus on Tim Russert is instructive. He’s basically treated like a god by those in The Club, but what did Russert actually do? I have no idea – is being on TV and asking innate questions all that impressive? And the funeral itself makes Leibovich’s point that:
No matter how disappointed people are in their capital, even the most tuned-in consumers have no idea what the modern cinematic version [Leibovich doesn’t suggest that there is any other version] of This Town really looks like . . . It misses that the city, far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected. It misses the degree to which New Media has democratized the political conversation while accentuating Washington’s insular, myopic, and self-loving tendencies.
Political Washington is an inbred company town where party differences are easily subsumed by membership in The Club. Policy arguments can often devolve into the trivial slap fights of televised debate [Leibovich doesn’t suggest that they start anywhere else]: everyone playing a role, putting on a show, and then introducing a plot twist.
Leibovich does a very nice job demonstrating how insular and unchanging this class is. You can’t get rid of any of these people. Many haven’t held office in a decade and yet they hang around when Congress starts a new session.
Washington—like high school—used to be a transient culture. People would expect to graduate eventually or drop out. But almost no one leaves here anymore.
The book chronicles party after party and jostling for spots on TV, or whatever, but it’s probably at its best when Leibovich follows around some specific members of The Club, including: Bob Barnett, “the doorman to the revolving door”; Harry Reid; Tom Coburn, who initially seems the most outside of The Club, but apparently has a mushy-spot for his relationship to the President; Kurt Bardella; Richard Holbrooke; Tammy Haddad; Mike Allen; and Trent Lott.
An anecdote from his time with Lott is insightful:
[Lott’s] tone shifted when I mentioned that [Ted] Kennedy had kept a letter from Lott hanging in his Senate conference room. It was a thank-you note Lott had sent to Kennedy after Kennedy had purchased a painting for Lott on Cape Cod. “Really?” Lott said quietly. “Did Teddy really keep that hanging up? I had no idea.” There was a pause on the line, and it occurred to me that Lott was choking up.
There’s lots of stories like this. Club members are flattered that other members actually like them. It’s mutual flattery all the way down. There’s no other there there.
Once in The Club, you basically can’t get kicked out and it’s incredibly easy to monetize your status. For example, when General McChrystal “resigned” following
a sexual scandal, some comments he made about the administration to an “embedded” reporter, he immediately started a political consultancy, got a book deal (courtesy of Barnett), ended up on the boards of a couple large corporations, taught a graduate seminar at Yale, and made $60,000 per speaking gig.
Leibovich has some interesting asides on the Obama administrations relationship with This Town. The administration fancies itself as more substantive than those in The Club. It wants to remain above it all.
On the other hand, everyone in The Club worships the administration (“comic levels” of sucking up, as Leibovich puts it) and Obama’s style seems to work really well for those in The Club (particularly the lobbyists the administration seems to disdain and then appoint to good jobs). It creates an odd and interesting dynamic that someone will eventually be able to explain. Leibovich at least identifies the potential story, even if he fails to follow-up very well.
Leibovich also criticizes the media’s role in The Club. Their membership in The Club creates constant conflicts of interest. Maintaining their status requires them to not actually conduct any . . . journalism. Any they can’t seem to get enough of glorifying themselves:
Perhaps more than anything, Watergate—and All the President’s Men—made journalists a celebrated class in This Town unlike in any other.
Near the end, Leibovich touches the third rail of examining The Club’s view of the electorate. In short, the view is characterized by disdain. As Leibovich puts it, the consensus is that “The basis of our democracy is Forrest Gump.”
Frankly, that seems about right to me. Perhaps it’s generous.
If you’re looking for an explanation of how the US is actually governed, you’ll get absolutely nothing out of this book. No one seems to have any beliefs or opinions of any kind, but they’d all be happy to develop which ever one you want if it’ll get them on the Meet the Press.
In that sense, the book begs a fascinating question: if the people that are supposedly running the country aren’t actually performing any of the functions of governing, who is?