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The ‘Town,’ The Book | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

The ‘Town,’ The Book


Washington, DC. (Reuters/Molly Riley)

My new Think Again column is called “Mainstream Media Refuses to Recognize the Elephant in the Room

My new Nation column is called “The MSM and the Snowden Affair: Where True Loyalty Lies

Had I not gone on so long on the Think Again column, I would have noted the passing of Leonard Garment whom I got to know in the late 1980s for a long profile I wrote, and whose company I thoroughly enjoyed. A proud graduate of Brooklyn College, Len, like his fellow Thundering Herd member, Alan Greenspan, should have stuck to jazz. (I got the chance to suggest this to Greenspan once, but that’s another story.) Anyway, Garment was, as Safire described him the “resident liberal conscience” in the Nixon White House. There has not been any such position in the Republican Party for a very long time, and it will be a long time before there is. Len’s long life was marked by tragedy, but when I knew him, he was quite the happy warrior, though, by that time, I think he would have a hard saying exactly for what. Anyway, he passes into history with an era that is gone as well, for better in some respects, but mostly for worse.

Alter-reviews, Joan Osborne live:
I have always had a thing for Joan Osborne. I saw her for five bucks in a bar in DC when her first album came out—the one that everybody has—and I’ve always been impressed by the various directions into which her music has grown, including her country album, her soul album, her original paean to my city, her work with an early post-Jerry version of the Dead, and most everything in between. Whenever she comes on the Ipod, I’m always taken aback, again, by how well her voice and interpretation works with a particular song.

Last night at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, my appreciation for her was redoubled if not retripled. While I appreciated her voice and interpretive skills, in the past, I was actually taken aback by just what a terrific singer she is: a powerful voice almost perfectly controlled with chancy interpretations that swung and hypnotized in equal measure. Part of the pleasure came from the intimacy of the club—and the ability of Joan to keep it rapt—as well as her brilliant piano player whose name I don’t know, but without whom the show would not have been half as great as it was. (Also, I have to say, Joan is a weirdly good tambourine player. I’ve never noticed anyone who made so much of the instrument before.) Anyway, the show was a combination of hits from the first cd, songs she just likes, and a few from her recent blues-oriented Bring it On Home. She’s pretty sexy too, especially when she gets into that tambourine trance. She’s playing a show of all Dead tunes next week on the net. It’s here, but I don’t quite understand how it works.

Now here’s Reed though I want to say I rather strongly disagree with him about This Town. I think it has flaws, mostly relating to what’s left out (substance, for instance especially as it relates to Republican nuttiness, which, in that respect, mirrors what is so wrong with most MSM journalism and inspired my Think Again column above, where I do I mention the book, and also how easy it goes on Sally Quinn and how transparently this is a nod to Ben Bradlee, which is how Quinn’s ridiculousness has been allowed to go on all these years without getting its due) but aside from all that, I think it’s a fine and useful and also quite fun book.

Now here, really is Reed:

I Had to Read the Book, Having Had a Look…
By Reed Richardson

"Washington is not Hollywood (or 'Showbiz for Ugly People' as the dumb cliche goes). The stakes are real and higher."

So says Mark Leibovich in This Town (Blue Rider Press, $28), but you'd never know it from reading his book.

In fact, Leibovich’s breathlessly awaited DC potboiler, four years in the making, exists in a rarefied world almost wholly detached from the rest of America. Any perspective on the broader consequences of what Washington does (or doesn’t) isn’t the only thing lacking from the book, though. Substance, sincerity, structure, outrage, and wit are too. But the first thing missing, you'll learn, even before you open it up, is an index. Inspired by famed political journalist Richard Ben Cramer's refusal to include one in his books on Washington (to prevent Capitol Hill luminaries from merely skipping ahead to mentions of themselves), Leibovich does the same here. But in an ominous foreshadowing of the clumsy, overwrought fate about to befall his readers, Leibovich isn't content to follow Cramer's example, he has to go one better. So he boasts of this omission in a big, red, faux warning label on the back cover of his book jacket. Don’t you see? This book is dangerous.

Still, I can forgive an author foregoing an index to make a point, but skipping a table of contents too? This starts to suggest what would ordinarily fall in between the former and the latter is not held together by much. The same goes for the arbitrarily titled Prologue and Epilogue, which don't clearly sit outside the book's narrative arc, probably because the book doesn't really have one. No narrative engine drives This Town forward, instead it mostly just spreads, contagion-like from one glad-handing Washingtonian to the next in a semi-arch, stream-of-unctuousness style that is long on the little details and short on the big picture. Leibovich, who's spent 16 years reporting from Washington, first for the Post and now for The New York Times, openly admits to membership in “The Club,” as he calls it. But he never quite figures out at any one moment if he's trying to make us righteously angry or fully amused by the selfish and craven power-hungry culture that has wholly subsumed our nation's capital.

Early on, though, Leibovich is careful to distinguish this well-heeled world from the struggling city that serves as its backdrop. Still, the crass tone he inhabits to (presumably) mimic the cloistered viewpoint of DC’s chosen few fits just a little too comfortably for my taste:

Yes, [Tim] Russert was the mayor of This Town. To be sure, the 'real' city of Washington has an actual elected mayor: black guy, deals with our city problems. But that's just the D.C. where people live, some of them (18.7 percent) even below the poverty line, who drag down the per capita incometo a mere $71,011—still higher than any American state but much less than what most anyone at the Russert funeral is pulling down. Yes, Washington is a 'real city,' but This Town is a state of belonging, a status and a commodity.

There’s lots more of this personality profile-cum-political analysis from Leibovich, but it was striking how derivative it feels most of the time. Over and over again, his insights on the Washington culture seem rather small-bore and banal when standing alongside the more trenchant observations of others he quotes, many of whom, like Joan Didion, plowed this ground long before he did.

Part of the book is drawn from a 2010 New York Times profile Leibovich wrote on infamous Politico press tout and DC gadfly Mike Allen. The debt the book owes to this section is magnified, however, because Allen, and, more broadly, Politico, serve as the book’s ne plus ultra of the new Washington media culture This Town is intent on unveiling.

“Mikey” as everyone calls him, including Leibovich, who counts Allen as a friend, exemplifies the type of access-addicted, hive-minded, “drive the conversation” journalism that overwhelms the DC discourse more often than not. Viewed from another dimension—one not swayed by running into Allen at this swanky party or that well-catered fundraiser—Allen would have nicely fit the role of the book’s antagonist, someone who both compulsively seeks and dispenses approval to members of The Club. Instead, the book falls into the same amoral trap that plagues the shameless self-promoters it highlights. Just as everyone in the book seems only to respect success and power, no matter how ill-gotten it was gained, so too does their profile. Thus, the book repeatedly gives Allen’s boss, Politico executive editor Jim VandeHei, a platform to effuse over how Mikey has “authentic power,” is “the real deal,” and “has built the most successful brand in journalism.” If you’re struggling to recall even one big news story that this “brand” unearthed that improved ordinary people’s lives or that shook the levers of power, then you’re not alone (and don’t count on Leibovich for examples either). But then again, you’re also not likely to merit a birthday shoutout in Allen’s daily “Playbook” email, so who, really, gives a damn what you think.

The only real dramatic tension in the book comes when Leibovich briefly juxtaposes Allen’s oeuvre with that of recently deceased Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings. Known for an award-winning 2010 expose outing General Stanley McChrystal’s insubordinate comments toward the White House, Hastings, inexplicably, endured a lot of criticism after the story from Washington’s media culture for actually reporting on what McChrystal said. Leibovich documents the establishment media backlash, where Howard Kurtz, David Brooks, and Lara Logan all came forward to express their disappointment in Hastings’ professional conduct. Allen’s verdict in the matter, however, was so laughably in the tank that it serves as possibly the greatest indictment of his servile reporting one could think up: “A quick search would have showed McChrystal that caution was warranted around the irreverent reporter.” Your secrets are safe with ol’ Mikey, dontcha know.

Leibovich tries to play this conflict straight, and mostly succeeds in not taking sides, although that alone should be cause for concern. But he tips his hand when he describes fellow RS reporter Matt Taibbi, who rose to Hastings’ defense, a “wicked screed artist.” And there’s more than a whiff of insider tut-tutting when he says Taibbi is “one of the few legitimate heirs to Hunter S. Thompson in a blog-inspired generation of gonzo wannabes.”

Thompson’s legacy hangs heavy over This Town. On the surface, the book seems like it would be just the kind of scathing, damn-the-torpedoes takedown of Beltway hypocrisy and self-aggrandizement that Thompson would have hilariously dashed off, despite the frantic protests of his publisher’s lawyers. Coincidentally, in the pseudo-Prologue, Leibovich tries to gin up some of that same ol’ Hunter edginess by talking vaguely of trying not to “scare the vetters.” In reality, This Town is a far cry from something like Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, not the least of which because it tries too hard (and fails) at being funny. I laughed out loud exactly three times and each time was at something someone other than the author had said (in order, Christopher Hitchens, Obama, and Hillary Clinton.) Leibovich’s humor is less rapier-like wit and more Borscht Belt comic—“he had me at sleazeball,” or “an online photo of [Paul] Ryan in a bathing suit made his the most-discussed abs in the history of running mates, other than possibly Joe Lieberman’.” Thank you DC, be sure to tip your waiters and waitresses!

The truth is, when Leibovich isn’t telegraphing his punches in This Town, he is pulling them. Each faintly damning profile gets a helping of praise as well. Three paragraphs into documenting the myriad ways some DC operator takes advantage of his friends or ruthlessly flaunts her power, Leibovich can’t help but add a few drops of antidote, seemingly with a knowing wink toward the offended, that renders all the poison harmless. Even Terry McAuliffe, who comes off as badly as anyone in the book, gets his share of begrudging tough love and respect. “You can be the most detestable person in the world—and the Macker is not, for the record—but you would still be assured of having thousands of elegant friends by being a good fund-raiser.” These little gestures may have been intended to humanize his subjects, but when they’re dropped in like this, with no added context, it effectively excuses their behavior.

Leibovich undermines the book in other small ways. Time and again, he cues up a chapter or segues to a new topic with a throwaway line about the pain felt in “real America.” These dispatches are so transparently disingenuous, however, that they approach self-parody. When you wrap up the year-long battle over the passage of the Affordable Care Act in one independent clause, for instance, all you’re really doing is reminding the reader that, in the calculus of This Town, actual policy and the people it impacts are of little consequence. “Notwithstanding the economy being in the sewer and Tim [Russert] being in the ground,” Liebovich writes, “Barack Obama provided a shot of adrenaline and ignited the hottest local media swoon since Camelot.” If this is supposed be read as ironic, as merely another affectation of The Club’s mentality and not Leibovich’s, it is buried too deep to be detected.

That’s too bad, because there is a core of a good book in here. Leibovich, perhaps better than anyone else before him, limns the hopelessly intertwined and incestuous nature of DC’s political, philanthropic, and social worlds. Here, someone is always leaving government to start and/or join a lobbyist/communication/strategy/public relations firm. That they often join forces with their ideological rivals just reinforces that the fix is in. Leibovich points out that, while the Great Recession waylaid the rest of the country in 2009, lobbyists had a banner year. But writing a great book about the pernicious influence of lobbying clearly wasn’t what Leibovich had in mind, since that would at some point actually involve talking about policy. (Robert Kaiser’s So Damn Much Money beat him to it, anyway.) What’s more, This Town, for all the problems with the Washington culture it documents, shows no appetite for coming up with solutions.

This lack of focus becomes pronounced as the book nears its end. Unmoored from the only visible thread in the book—Washington—Leibovich gets really tangled up when he moves the action out to 2012 presidential campaign trail. Having already been done a million times elsewhere, his election coverage increasingly feels like an afterthought. By the time his book gets past Obama’s re-election, it’s like he just started opening up his notebook and dumping everything out. On page 340, for example, Leibovich begins with the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction proposal, moves on to Dick Armey’s $8-million golden parachute from the Tea Party, jumps to Jim DeMint’s six-figure salary with the Heritage Foundation, then is on to Chris Dodd’s MPAA lobbying take, follow that with a generic Thanksgiving tweet from journalist Howard Fineman, and then the page ends talking about the quadrennial post-election debrief at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. In this town full of great editors, Leibovich really couldn’t find one for This Town?

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The final set piece for Liebovich’s book is yet another big soiree, one at the palatial home of DC fixtures Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn. Politicians, journalists, lawyers—People Worth Knowing, in DC parlance—are all in attendance and Leibovich isn’t above basking in the afterglow of his former boss, Bradlee, the longtime legendary Washington Post executive editor. “Whatever the occasion, it’s always a thrill to score the invite to Ben and Sally’s,” Leibovich writes, all but giving the game away. Still, the mood he portrays here is one of an aging generation of big, bold-face names bemoaning a Washington that is changing before their eyes—the hosts have dubbed it “The Last Party.” But the tragedy of This Town is that the political/media/social culture currently suffocating Washington is far from close to ending and the schmoozing one percenters who populate it are far too insulated from the rest of the country to care. In that way, Leibovich’s book perfectly captures this phenomenon—since no one outside of Washington should ever want to read it. And that’s probably just fine with the people in That Town.

Contact me directly: reedfrichardson (at) gmail (dot) com.
Or on Twitter: (at)reedfrich

The mail:

Michael GreenLas Vegas, NV
First, to Dr. A., your commentary on economic liberalism (how I hate the term "progressive") reminds me that we should just declare Elizabeth Warren a national treasure and get it over with.

Reed Richardson inspired me this week because I would like to think I am inspiring people to think as he does. On Facebook, for a couple of years now, I have been regularly posting that Republicans are guilty of treason under Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution. What gives more aid and comfort to the enemy than intentionally weakening the government of the United States? That is what they are doing, and they are doing it because of, as I refer to him with appropriate irony, the Uppity One in the White Man's House. I also make a concession to political correctness in not using another word that I will guarantee you regularly is heard in the privacy of leading Republicans' offices, including the speaker of the House and the Senate minority leader.

Apropos of whom, I can now tell you definitely that Harry Reid is the greatest majority leader in the Senate's history, and he had been my choice for second behind LBJ. But now we know he is first. Why? Because the Treasonous Turtle from Kentucky pronounced that he would be the worst leader in Senate history. If that doesn't prove it, what does?

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