It’s not bad, but the longer I roamed around “This Town,” the more I thought Leibovich should have borrowed his title from Newsweek’s memorable post-Sept. 11, 2001, cover line: “Why They Hate Us.” His guided tour through Washington only feeds the worst suspicions anyone can have about the place — a land driven by insecurity, hypocrisy and cable hits, where friendships are transactional, blind-copying is rampant, and acts of public service appear largely accidental.
Only two things keep you turning pages in between gulps of Pepto: First, in Leibovich’s hands, this state of affairs is not just depressing; it’s also kind of funny. Second, you want to find out if the author thinks anyone in Washington — anyone at all? — is worthy of redemption.
Leibovich, chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine and a former reporter at the Washington Post (where we overlapped briefly but never met), is a master of the political profile, with his subjects invariably revealing themselves in the truest, most unflattering light. That talent becomes something of a crutch in “This Town,” which offers more a collection of profiles and scenes than a fully formed narrative. Still, his characters reveal essential archetypes of Washington power.
First, there is veteran NBC news reporter Andrea Mitchell — a conflict of interest in human form. Married to former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, Mitchell has specialized in covering administrations and campaigns that “overlapped considerably with her social and personal habitat,” as Leibovich puts it.
There are those weekend getaways at George Shultz’s home. And dinner with Tipper and Al. And that surprise 50th birthday party for Condi. And running into Lloyd Bentsen outside the Oval Office, while Mitchell was part of the White House press pool, only to have Clinton’s Treasury Secretary gush about a dinner party. (“Oh, Andrea, I was gonna write you a note, we had such a good time last night.”)
And what do you do when you’re reporting on the 2008 financial crisis, and many people are pointing at your husband as a chief culprit? NBC tossed up a fig leaf: Allowing Mitchell to cover the politics of dealing with the financial crisis, but not the conditions that gave rise to it. Such hair-splitting becomes inevitable, Leibovich writes, because Mitchell trying to avoid conflicts of interest is “like an owl trying to avoid trees.”