Early in “This Town,” Mark Leibovich’s new book about Washington D.C., is the following description of Ken Duberstein: “[T]he standard line on Duberstein is that he spent six and a half months as Reagan’s chief of staff and twenty-four years (and counting) dining out on it.”
Leibovich, the chief national correspondent at The New York Times Magazine, does a wonderful job writing about Washington’s elite. (He won a National Magazine Award for his profile of Politico’s Mike Allen; his profile of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews is even better.) And while “This Town” falls a bit short of his magazine work, it still surveys the pettiness, pointlessness, and obscene wealth of well-connected operators like Duberstein — and of the media that report on them. “Washington may not serve the country well,” Leibovich writes, but it “has in fact worked splendidly for Washington itself.”
There’s a touch of Tom Wolfe in Leibovich’s subtitle: “Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital.” He shares the New Journalist’s affection for lists (a Democrat soiree serves “milk chocolate fondue, mini lobster rolls, and $420 bottles of Louis Roederer champagne”), along with his satiric sense of humor.
The funeral is Tim Russert’s, in the spring of 2008. “This Town” starts there and continues through the reelection of Barack Obama. The closest the book comes to a narrative is in charting the president’s administration as it lapses into the ways of Washington. After his first election, Obama’s transition team gets a “No Ego, No Glory” memo that outlined their objectives as civil servants — and not as people eyeing lucrative post-political employment. By 2012, the internal memos feel more familiar, and Leibovich uncovers “The Magic of Valerie,” or 33 talking points about senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. The best one: “Valerie is someone here who other people inside the building know they can trust. (need examples.)”
“This Town” also includes some tawdry set pieces — D.C.’s power lunch circuit, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the post-debate spin rooms. There’s rarely much action in these scenes. What makes them work are Leibovich’s details, which are frequently juicy enough to dine out on. At Russert’s funeral, even the male mourners arrive wearing “Queen Elizabeth levels of Pan-Cake makeup as they are coming straight from their TV standups.” Others keep thrusting business cards at the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” — “A new low, even for Washington tackiness,” says one, Mika Brzezinski.
Is it a new low? After all, way back in 1988, Joan Didion could savage the city’s “self-created and self-referring class.” But Leibovich argues that the pesky new media, our burgeoning celebrity culture, and above all a sharp increase in the sheer number of dollars have combined to change things. “ ‘Insider Washington’ is much larger than it used to be,” he writes, pointing to the way small PR firms and consulting groups have merged into “integrated services” behemoths.
It all adds up to what the locals winkingly call “This Town,” a place where fakeness is so pervasive it feels like authenticity — and from which it’s virtually impossible to be expelled.
But one more question remains: will Leibovich’s book change anything? Washington insiders won’t find many surprises. After all, the only reason he can quote the “standard line” about Ken Duberstein is that hundreds of people have quoted it before, even if they weren’t anxious to see it in print. Leibovich’s reporting has kicked off a few interesting conversations — notably about how Washington’s clubbiness will fare opposite its increasingly partisan politics. (The best bet seems to be a future with two “towns,” one for each side.)
For the most part, however, “This Town” has simply provided Washington with another chance to chatter about Washington. That means the book’s true impact will land outside city limits, where its details can shade in our worst stereotypes about the slick lobbyist and the chummy senator. Leibovich, himself a cagey insider, doesn’t do much moralizing in his book. But he has provided an excellent (and lively) compendium for the rest of us. There’s a lot to get angry about in “This Town.” And in this regard, if in no other, the election year rhetoric seems exactly right — what we need are a few crusaders from “outside the beltway.”
Craig Fehrman is writing a book about presidents and their books.