THIS TOWN: TWO PARTIES AND A FUNERAL — PLUS, PLENTY OF VALET PARKING! — IN AMERICA’S GILDED CAPITAL
By Mark Leibovich
Blue Rider Press, $27.95, 377 pages
Recently, I wasted several badly needed brain cells watching coverage of the latest royal birth and the official naming, and I found myself wondering what Churchill and Thatcher almost certainly thought in private moments: Might there be any group more preposterously useless than the British royal family? In his new book, “This Town,” New York Times correspondent Mark Leibovich offers his own contender.
Emerging from this grotesque, often entertaining, 377-page chronicle of life in our nation’s capital is a vacuous group of egomaniacs and layabouts enriching themselves in the name of public service. The center of American democracy, in Mr. Leibovich’s rendering, is not far removed from the capital city in “The Hunger Games,” complete with the weirdly colored hairdos, brain-dead spectacles and questionable fashion choices. As though they needed it, conservatives will find much in this book to buttress their contempt for big government and its assorted bloated buffoons. Though, it must be said, some of the most bloated turn out to be those alleged anti-government conservatives who hate Washington so much that as high-dollar lobbyists, they can barely choke down their dinners at the Palm.
Mr. Leibovich’s autopsy of Washington begins, fittingly enough, with a funeral, that of NBC journalist Tim Russert, who at one time or another somebody decided to dub the grand poohbah of the nation’s capital. Looking beyond the ostentatious demonstrations of grief for the greatest newsman in human history, Mr. Leibovich characterizes the gathering of Washington’s finest as little more than another tedious networking event or vanity show, where people are seen as mattering simply by their attendance. As one reporter covering the funeral noted, “All of the most important people in politics and the media are in the same room.” (Herself, of course, included.)
In subsequent chapters, the author manages his way through a casserole of receptions, conventions and book parties that might well leave readers in search of an Alka-Seltzer and a dark, quiet room long before the book’s denouement. Which is not to say “This Town” is badly written. It’s just that there’s only so many roller-coaster rides with the same loudmouths that a normal person should be expected to take.
A fair warning to those still believing in the selfless nobility of public service. (Suckers.) With a handful of exceptions, in these pages you aren’t likely to stumble across many residents of A Shining City on a Hill. Instead, you encounter people such as journalist Howard Fineman so un-self-aware that he once composed the following tweet: “Just hit 45K followers, a big sum by my humble standards. I’ll do my best to merit your continued attention to what I write and say.” Or the buddy-buddy backslapping of overpriced superconsultants from both parties who pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars running around pretending to debate each other about the Great Issues of the Day but really advance little more than the balance in their own bank accounts.
It is enough to almost make one want to muster a defense of Washington, but I’ve worked and lived here too long to make the effort. (Washington is so incestuous that its sinful ways even have infiltrated this very review. I have a cordial acquaintance with Mark Leibovich and, in fact, once offered an alternative title for his book. That’s just the sort of cozy Beltway clubbiness readers will appreciate.)
Probably unfairly, “This Town” has been long awaited in some D.C. circles as the definitive takedown of all the people who got us into this mess. Indeed, there was much speculation by the author’s friends (both the real and Washington varieties) about whether he would even survive such a bracing, honest expose. This is not that kind of book.
If anything, Mr. Leibovich will find even more invitations to Washington’s toniest salons. He’ll be the one everyone needs to kiss up to so they can be listed next time among Washington’s well-to-do barnacles. And let’s be clear: The national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine is not a person whose name any smart person in Washington permanently removes from one’s Rolodex or iPhone.
Nor can one argue that any character is permanently burned, or even singed, in this account. Sure, there are juicy asides about various power players — the pricey book agent who solicits conservatives for business reasons, but then works against their political interests; the disastrously quotable Bill Clinton; the oozing, well, ooziness of Virginia’s human cash register Terry McAuliffe; and the D.C. gadfly Tammy Haddad, who seems to know everyone and be everywhere and plan every event for no discernible purpose.
It is hard to find villainous people who lack the introspection (or, in some cases, good conscience) to be aware of their inherent dastardliness. Unintentionally, the book might even in some ways serve as a tribute to the very people we are meant to lament. There is nothing people in “This Town” — a phrase repeated perhaps a tick too often in “This Book” — relish more than to be quoted in print as if they were important.
Take Ms. Haddad. (Please.) It is not easy work being the town’s head cheerleader, having to know who is up and who is down, having to show up at every conceivable party, having to offer kind words, a joke, a wink, a hearty laugh to anyone important, or potentially important, who might cross your path. I didn’t turn away from this book exercised over her, or despising her. I was exhausted for her.
It is kind of sad, come to think of it, that the people we are meant to like in this telling — the Harry Reids of “This Town” — are even bigger oddballs than the rest of them. In my favorite passage in the book, Mr. Reid tells each of his fellow Democratic senators that he loves them. Why? Because they need to hear that, Mr. Reid tells Mr. Leibovich. That’s how pathetic and needy he thinks they are. And he’s right. These insecure attention addicts running our country love Mr. Reid for pretending to love them.
Of course, what is left unsaid about “This Town” is that the true fault for the state of our nation lies not with the awful boors who populate Mr. Leibovich’s book, but with the rest of us laughing at them. This is the government we elected, and the ruling class we deserve. These are the leaders and elites we have allowed to take power, take root, and take our money. And just like the British royal family — more menacingly known as The Firm — they will keep on surviving quite nicely, thank you. As long as we let them.
Matt Latimer, a former presidential speechwriter and New York Times bestselling author, is a partner at Javelin, a communications, literary and digital firm in Arlington.