A Brief Defense of This Town From This Town
I’m eager to read Mark Leibovitch’s This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital. The reviews make it sound like an utterly delicious dissection of the clubby, incestuous ways of Washington D.C.’s most powerful figures. As the Washington Post review summarized, “His 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.”
But as I see reviewers tripping over themselves to salute the book as the Necronomicon of Washington Insiders, I’m left wondering who, exactly, is still surprised by a description of powerful D.C. officials being ambitious and eager to trade favors and jockeying for status . . . and how, exactly, one would cultivate a culture significantly different from this in the capital city of a democratic republic.
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.
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.
(If you want to find something likeable about those past eras, let’s note that Washington’s role as “Hollywood for ugly people” meant you were less likely to be judged by your appearance. Henry Kissinger said power was the ultimate aphrodisiac, not his rugged good looks or rumbling baritone.)
Anyway, back to This Town. From the Washington Post’s review:
First, there is longtime 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 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.”
I can hear you cheering the public flaying of Mitchell for being too clubby with the officials she covers, but let me ask you this: If Andrea Mitchell had been a college professor or worked in some other non-media jobs, would Greenspan be widely sneered and spat upon and put in public stocks to have rotten fruit hurled at him? Does anybody feel like coverage and public discussion of Alan Greenspan — and the resulting public opinion of him — was/is significantly altered by Mitchell’s role at NBC News? Greenspan’s had his defenders and critics hashing it out in the public square for years. (See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here…)
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”?
Ahem. Some of us noticed this a long time ago.
Clubbiness between government officials and those who cover them is a legitimate issue to discuss, but the Greenspan-Mitchell marriage feels like a rather dated issue to find objectionable…
Then there’s this, from the New York Times review . . .
He opens with an account of the 2008 funeral of the NBC Washington bureau chief and “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert, and as a quarter-century resident now in happy exile, I suppose I should stick to form and mention, hideously, that we — Tim and I — came to Washington at the same time and were friends, although mostly because I had a wife from Buffalo, and he delighted in teasing her about her bowling. The people at this funeral (and as I recall, this was an invitation-only rite) adhered to what Mr. Leibovich calls “the distinctive code of posture at the fancy-pants funeral: head bowed, conspicuously biting his lips, squinting extra hard for the full telegenic grief effect.”
How does Leibovich know they’re mugging grief for the cameras? How does he know this isn’t how these people look when they’re actually grieving?
Then there’s this litany in the Times review:
So, striding self-importantly through these pages are the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (“harshly judgmental of fat people”); Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican (“a blister on the leadership of both chambers, or sometimes something more dangerous”); Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York (“lens-happy, even by senatorial standards”); the lobbyist and former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour (“looks like a grown version of Spanky from the Little Rascals”); the former House minority leader Richard Gephardt (“whose willingness to reverse long-held positions in the service of paying clients was egregious even by D.C.’s standards”); and the modern super-flack Kurt Bardella (possessed of “a frantic vulnerability and desperation”).
Lest you’ve forgotten, here’s Spanky. Yeah, yeah, “ha ha ha.” We can all see Barbour. He’s fat. Round face. Double chin. A lot of folks have that. Is making fun of Haley Barbour’s appearance . . . edgy? Daring? Some sort of great, witty insight that reveals the ways of American politics?
Finally, there’s this detail in a long excerpt that ran in the New York Times this weekend:
Robert Gibbs announced that he would be leaving as White House press secretary . . . he was a journeyman flack who struck gold with the right patron and wound up talking at the lectern at 1600 Pennsylvania. Gibbs’s time at the White House had been a mixed bag, which included internal West Wing clashes, strained relationships with reporters and a few mishaps that resulted from excessive candor. But he was nonetheless set for life as a professional “former.” That is, a former official who can easily score a seven-figure income as an out-of-office wise man, statesman or hired gun. “Formers” stick to Washington like melted cheese on a gold-plated toaster, and Gibbs would be no exception. He could move seamlessly into the news media (MSNBC) at a time when punditry replaced reporting as journalism’s highest pursuit. (Since leaving the White House in 2011, Gibbs has made about $2 million in paid speeches alone.)
Cue the outrage that Gibbs has made $2 million in paid speaking gigs in about two years. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Just keep in mind that unless you’re a member of an organization that paid Gibbs his unspecified fee — like the Traffic Club of Pittsburgh, National Ocean Industries Association, Union College, American University in Dubai, Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, United States Travel Association, Premier Health Alliance, Citigroup Latin America, Saint Xavier University — he didn’t take your money.
Speaking gigs are pretty much the only way a guy like Robert Gibbs is ever going to make a million a year. If you give a man an opportunity to make oodles of money giving speeches . . . he’s going to take it. Tears for Fears didn’t quite have it right; Lots of folks don’t want to rule the world; they just want to live well while somebody else rules the world.