Book review: 'This Town' takes a fun poke at D.C.'s haughty in-crowd
July 17, 2013 4:00 AM
Ralph Alswang Photography
By Dan Simpson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This book has to be the book of the summer, open on the fat or flat bellies of Washington's privileged political elite at Rehoboth, Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket. Even if they are in it, or are looking for themselves in it with dread or delicious anticipation, a Washington version of narcissism, "This Town" is not to be missed.
Mark Leibovich is in the swim, and, as a longtime observer of and participant in the Washington scene as chief national correspondent of The New York Times Magazine, has written if not a tell-all at least a very revealing, slightly vicious portrait of the self-appointed movers and shakers who apparently run the United States -- at least politically.
"THIS TOWN: TWO PARTIES AND A FUNERAL -- PLUS PLENTY OF VALET PARKING! -- IN AMERICA'S GILDED CAPITAL"
By Mark Leibovich Blue Rider Press - Penguin ($27.95).
He is funny, and "This Town" can easily be appreciated on that level. At one time Tom Wolfe wrote this kind of stuff about the New York scene.
Mr. Leibovich describes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as "endowed with all the magnetism of a dried snail." Vice President Joe Biden is "a lovable rodeo clown of the Obama administration." The Clintons come across as mean and predatory. Mr. Leibovich is especially good on the incestuous relationship between the linked worlds of politics and media in the nation's capital. He cites the temporary pretense of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" co-host Joe Scarborough as a possible presidential candidate as "the ultimate example of the political-media complex flying up its own [orifice]."
One of his fundamental accurate points is that what he calls "the mob families -- journalists, corporates, pols, operatives, formers and hybrid squid" hang together, "a permanent feudal class" taking care of each other. He notes that 412 former members of Congress are currently influence-peddling; 305 are registered lobbyists in what he calls "The Roach Motel of Power."
Fifty percent of retiring senators and 42 percent of retiring congressmen become lobbyists. "Everyone," he says, "ultimately is playing for the same team."
Maybe it wouldn't matter, except that we, the taxpayers, foot the bill one way or the other for the whole Washington clown show. It's either our taxes, or, in the case of corporate donations, money that should have gone to us as shareholders or customers.
Mr. Leibovich sticks the knife in every once and a while, reminding the reader that while these people in Washington munch shrimp and drink flutes of champagne, the unemployment rate reached 8.2 percent and the median net worth of the American family dropped to a mid-1990 level.
Washington is, of course, the richest metropolitan area in the country. Feeding as it does off the ever-growing government and its hangers-on, it has never felt any of the pains of America's chronic recession, tormenting the rest of the country for five years now.
Using a device from the movie "Four Weddings and a Funeral," Mr. Leibovich uses a series of funerals of prominent Washingtonian members of "The Club" as the framework for his book. These include those of TV journalist Tim Russert and diplomat-politician Richard Holbrooke.
Watching all the political and media types milling about and playing to the house at one of these extravaganzas illustrates perfectly what Mr. Leibovich is talking about. Everyone is dressed to the nines, each is angling for a TV-visible seat, lots of "air kisses" are exchanged, and everyone notes who is there, who is not and who gets to speak.
A few personal observations. First, I hadn't realized what a big player on the Washington scene Tammy Haddad, the daughter of Pittsburgh's Haddad's Trucks, whom Mr. Leibovich refers to as "The Tamster," apparently is, nor how that came to be.
The second was that many of the people whom Mr. Leibovich identifies as heavy hitters -- Bob Barnett, Craig Crawford, Mike Allen, Doug Band as examples -- are not only not elected officials, but also people that I in my provincial ignorance have never heard of.
Worst of all, and this may have been incidental or deliberate on Mr. Leibovich's part, in discussing and describing these people who, in principle, are governing the country, he makes virtually no mention of issues, nor principles, nor anything of that sort. He says it is "a system that rewards, more than anything, self-perpetuation."
President Barack Obama plays, in effect, no part whatsoever in this account of the Washington melee. Heaven help us. Don't miss this book.