Is This Town Right About Washington?

Mark Leibovich’s book is hopeless and very funny.

Mark Leibovich will eat lunch again in this town.

Halfway through This Town, in a long chapter about Rep. Darrell Issa’s hubristic spokesman, Mark Leibovich accidentally drains the story of its drama. Kurt Bardella had been forwarding embarrassing emails from staffers, reporters, and congressmen to Leibovich. These people found out, and the ensuing controversy, according to Fox News, had a “seismic” impact on Capitol Hill. 

And yet, “a few weeks after [Kurt] Bardella was fired,” writes Leibovich, “I kept running into people who said they’d seen my name mentioned somewhere but did not remember exactly why. Bardella was finding the same thing. The life cycle of public disgrace had been reduced to almost nothing, and what’s left after it exhausts itself is just a neutral sheen of notoriety.”

That insight, excerpted in Leibovich’s New York Times Magazine cover story over the weekend, proves the silliness of this book’s prerelease hype. Way back in April, Politico tried to blunt the This Town’s impact (it’s fairly brutal on Politico) by ratting out the “strangely self-conscious” Leibovich’s “therapy session”-esque reporting. Far too many reviews of the book have asked whether Leibovich will ever “eat lunch in this town again,” a cliché that hasn’t gotten fresher in the 20 years it’s been said about Hollywood.

Of course he’ll eat lunch in this town. That’s the point. The political press corps in Washington is unencumbered by shame, quick to forgive, driven by ego. Leibovich has written a very funny book about how horrible his industry can be. He shouldn’t suffer for having done that, and he won’t. This Town’s tone reminds me of Reuters/Financial Times star Chrystia Freeland’s 2012 book Plutocrats, which managed to excoriate the new global elite while featuring near-constant use of the phrase “as he told me over lunch in Davos.”

This Town takes place over four years and (rounding up) several thousand parties. These parties range in scale from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner fetes, which Leibovich neatly condemns by listing the menus (“sushi bar, butterscotch milkshakes … flutes of champagne”), and endless book parties with identical guest lists no matter how minor the author (“first-time novelist Graham Moore, the twenty-nine-year-old son of Michelle Obama’s chief of staff”). Leibovich roams through these parties like a middle-aged Holden Caulfield, agog at the phoniness of it all, writing down slights like the “D.C. scalp stare” endemic to parties, when someone is “looking for [someone] over your head if he happened to be stuck talking to you.”

What are they looking for? People who matter. Why do they matter? “You know you’ve made it in D.C.,” writes Leibovich, “when someone says … ‘It isn’t clear what he does’ about you.” Much has been written about D.C.’s permanent political class, but Leibovich argues that it’s no longer interested in anything except wealth accretion. Tammy Haddad, the former Larry King Live producer who throws parties whether people want them or not (“party rape”), starts fundraising for epilepsy research because, well, David Axelrod’s family is very focused on epilepsy research.

Leibovich’s reporting produces some uncommonly honest observations about this horror. It’s pretty obvious that most people referred to as “informal advisers” to campaigns don’t do anything. Leibovich gets Charlie Black, who played this role for the Romney-Ryan campaign, to say so. “I have the best job I’ve had in any election,” says Black. “I have no responsibilities. I am not accountable for anything.” Lots of people think that the “hope and change” Obama team sold out quickly; Robert Gibbs says so, admitting that “Washington changed us.”

It’s all very depressing, and worse when Leibovich turns to the media. “They are, by and large,” he writes, “a cohort that is predominately white and male and much younger than in the bygone days of pay-your-dues-on-the-city-desk-for-ten-years veterans for whom the elite political jobs were once reserved.”

Refreshingly, he doesn’t pretend that the bygone era was much better, or that its survivors are beyond lazy journalism. There is a theme, which only gets funnier with repetition, of how journalistic icons keep memorializing each other by saying their fallen comrades are “asking God some tough questions” or sitting “in heaven’s green room.” One of the best pithy discursions in the book comes when Leibovich traces how two idiotic, baseless rumors became stories, one about how Joe Biden might be dumped from the Obama ticket and one about how Mike Bloomberg and Joe Scarborough might run a third-party campaign. The respective stories started with respected reporters, Bob Woodward and Howard Fineman. In retrospect, Fineman admits his story was “probably the ultimate example of the political-media complex flying up its own asshole.”

The overall tone of This Town is hopelessness, which is probably why the only people who come off well here are the cynics. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is portrayed as an admirably charmless politician who ends phone calls without saying “goodbye” and leaves parties within 10 minutes of entering. When Leibovich visits his home in Nevada, Reid openly admits that he’s only offering a drink because “they said I’m supposed to.”

Hillary Clinton comes off well, too. Many mags have already quoted what she said about the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. I’ll quote it again: “Fuck the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.” There’s an even richer moment, though, when she arrives at a public memorial for Tim Russert and is stopped by a TV producer who decides, yes, this is the moment to Reach Out. “It is a pleasure to meet you,” says Clinton, smiling and walking on.

Reading that, you realize that the Clintons, having slogged through politics for 40 years, realize just what they need from it and what they can avoid. And you assume that the poor (nameless, classless) producer on the other end of this turned out OK. After all, “the life cycle of public disgrace had been reduced to almost nothing.”