Brother Jim Geraghty partially defends This Town from This Town. He’s a bit like Abraham asking if Sodom can be spared because if it has even 50 righteous people within its walls (By the way, I do think there are at least 50 righteous people within the Beltway, so we do have that going for us; “We’re better than Sodom!”).
I think Jim makes some very good points. One is near and dear to my heart. It’s the “Compared to when?” question. He writes:
The ambition, desire for power, and temptation of lies that Leibovitch describes is more or less the human condition, and I’m skeptical that the culture of today’s Washington is significantly different than a generation ago, when Clark Clifford scoffed that Ronald Reagan was an “amiable dunce” at a party while working for the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, and Sally Quinn enjoyed her era of “five-course dinners a couple of nights a week, with a different wine for each course, served in a power-filled room of politicians, diplomats, White House officials and well-known journalists.” Want to go back further, to the era of Pamela Harriman’s Georgetown parties? The grand gatherings of Marjorie Merriweather Post? There was no golden age when Washington didn’t have folks who wanted to be thought of as the smartest, the most powerful, the most well-connected, the funniest, and so on.
I’d go further and argue that DC is possibly, just possibly, less incestuous and clubby today than at any time in the past. It’s a funny thing. We are constantly hearing lamentations about the excessive partisanship and divisiveness in Washington, but we love hearing how awful Washington is because all the powerful people get along. Which is it?
That said, I have my disagreements with Jim as well. His core defense of D.C. is the “everybody does it” argument applied to cities:
Isn’t any one-industry town a combination of clubby shared interests and quiet competition for superiority? Certainly Hollywood is. Don’t all the big shots in Silicon Valley run into each other at the same parties, eat at the same restaurants, meet at the same conferences, and so on? I realize J.R. Ewing is a fictional character, but I am to believe that Dallas and Houston don’t have their share of ambitious, sharp-elbowed energy industry executives competing for the corner office? Aren’t most state capitals the same cultural dynamics as Washington, on a smaller scale? And you’re telling me that Manhattan isn’t just as bad or worse when it comes to giant egos, conspicuous consumption, fierce competition, less-than-genuine social-based friendships, and so on?
Any city with a lot of power (political, economic, cultural) and money is going to attract a lot of folks who want to get a part in it. Some will be brilliant, some will be craven, and a lot will be somewhere in between or both.
This misses the mark, I think. D.C. is different. The industry in question isn’t widget making or movie hawking. Who cares if the executive V.P. of Spacely Sprockets cozies up to the head salesman of Cogsley Cogs? In Washington, the “industry” is paid for with the money taken (by force) from hardworking Americans. The product here is laws that tell people how to live. Rent-seeking, cronyism and the like may be endemic to all seats of power, but that doesn’t mean we can write it off as no worse than the clubhouse atmosphere of say 1950s Detroit or the campus feel of Silicon Valley. Buicks and iPhones are very different from laws and taxes. Today’s incestuousness may or may not be better than in yesteryear, but the sheer size and scope of government is so much greater that the incestuousness is greater too.
Last, there’s the issue of the media establishment here. Jim writes:
I need to read This Town to see if Leibovitch finds Mitchell to be the figure at NBC/MSNBC who most deserves a public dressing down. But don’t her offenses seem mid-level at best? In the end, which is more damaging to journalism – Mitchell’s marriage to Greenspan and friendships with elected officials, or MSNBC determining its market role is to be the Obama administration’s in-house network, showcasing the likes of (at various times) Al Sharpton, Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann, Lawrence O’Donnell, Melissa Harris-Perry, etc.? How about the hiring of Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod as “political analysts”? How about the president of MSNBC declaring, “we’re not the place for breaking news”?
While he will get no argument from me that there are plenty of other problems at MSNBC, I think Jim is way, way too kind to Mitchell here.
I don’t know how deeply Leibovich gets into it — and here I think Jim will agree with me at least in part — but there’s something special going on in terms of the relationship between the legacy media and the Democratic party. They are both, essentially, the party of government and government-imposed liberalism. The ones who get paid by the DNC (or the taxpayers) amount to the policy arm of the party. The ones who work for MSNBC, Newsweek et al are the marketing and public-relations arm of the same party. Obviously this is an exaggeration. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule. But as a generalization there’s a basic truth to it. This White House plucked numerous staffers from the MSM who — until they were hired — would surely insist they were purely objective journalists. If Jay Carney was so objective, how did Joe Biden know he’d make such a great flack?
The problem with Andrea Mitchell — well, a problem, there are so many to choose from — is the pretense she’s anything like an honest broker of ideas or information. I am not saying that she is knowingly corrupt or dishonest. That’s the point. She is so deeply enmeshed in the pseudo-feminist goobbledygook of super-rich liberal old white ladies not to mention the speed-dial elitism of D.C.’s permanent class, she actually thinks she’s got her finger on the pulse of the real issues. She may be a wonderful human being, but I think she’d be caught dead before saying anything one micrometer outside the conventional wisdom of her circle. It’s telling that as the chief foreign-affairs correspondent for NBC News she spent much of the last five years “reporting” relentlessly about . . . Sarah Palin, long after the 2008 election and even Palin’s tenure as governor. I understand that for Mitchell, Palin is far more foreign than her literally foreign friends at Davos, but come on. More recently, but not unrelatedly, Mitchell spent much of the campaign season breathing as much life as possible into the manufactured sub-theme of the Obama campaign: “The War on Women.” And what’s really hilarious is that Mitchell almost certainly believes that her water-carrying is serious, objective, news and analysis. Again, while I too have yet to read This Town, I can think of few better emblems of what’s wrong with Washington culture than Mitchell.