Coming to Do Good, Staying to Do Well

AP Images/ Stephen J. Boltano

For 20 years, since the weekend of Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, I have rented against all financial prudence an apartment in Washington, D.C. even though I really live in Manhattan. So, at least in a real-estate sense, I can rightfully claim to be both part of political Washington and an authentic subway-riding, theater-going, real-bagel-chomping outsider.

I have no regrets about moving from D.C. to New York in 1983 at a time when reporter friends were bragging about playing tennis with Paul Laxalt who—as anyone who mattered knew—was Ronald Reagan’s closest friend on Capitol Hill. Washington, then as now, was a city of truncated life possibilities: Everyone was either in government, a lawyer, a lobbyist, a journalist or in transition between two of these exalted states of being.  

But I still nurture a bemused attachment to Washington—the shining city of my post-college youth, the place where I once walked the corridors of other people’s power. Which is why, in theory, I am the ideal person to review Mark Leibovich’s corrosively funny and subtly subversive new book, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital.

Except I can’t review it because (and this makes me sound like a true Washington insider) I have a conflict of interest. Leibovich is a friend who kindly mentions me on page 104 (I thought you needed to know where to find my cameo since the book deliberately lacks an ego-stroking index). But more than that, we share the same publisher (Blue Rider Press) and the same editor (David Rosenthal).

Like everyone in Washington, I have a nuanced sensitivity to ethical issues like this combined with a lawyer’s eye for the loophole. So rather than reviewing This Town, I instead will write a commentary about it. That way when readers encounter sentences that begin, “Not since Thackeray has a writer…,” they will have to decipher whether this is my sincere aesthetic judgment or just artful self-promotion. But, in truth, this is a meaningless distinction, the sort of D.C. Thing that Leibovich highlights when he writes, “There is little practical difference between what a former officeholder who lobbies does and what a former officeholder who ‘senior advises’ does.”

My copy of This Town is punctuated with underlined passages that come with notes that explain, “Great sentence” and “good writing.” This, by the way, is not a reviewer’s gush, but the factual observation of a commentator who has read the marginalia.

A Leibovich sampler:

  • After David Axelrod was granted Secret Service protection in the White House, Valerie Jarrett demanded her own security detail because of “earpiece envy.”
  • The author describes self-crowned Washington Wiseman Ken Duberstein and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell once spending Yom Kippur “at a most sacred of Official Washington shrines: the McLean, Virginia, mansion of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States.”
  • His musing on Bay Buchanan’s ubiquity on television: “Buchanan might have even entered the world in a spin room, after being conceived in the back of a satellite truck and gestated in a green room, to be hatched from a quivering egg under warm TV lights into the welcoming obstetric hands of Wolf Blitzer.”

This Town is more than a parade of one-liners, though that would have been enough to lift the book above the forced mirth of humor-challenged Washington where rib-ticklers mock John Boehner’s year-round tan and Rahm Emanuel’s scatological vocabulary. Leibovich is also after more serious game than just parodying the on-the-make antics of minor Washington fixtures like media arranger Tammy Haddad and deal-making, book-and-speaking-fee-negotiating attorney Bob Barnett.

The larger message of This Town is the sad-eyed truth that, ultimately, everyone sells out. The money quote for Leibovich is former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s honest explanation, “Washington is where the money is. That’s generally what keeps people here.” That comment meshes with my favorite aphorism about dewy-eyed young aides “coming to Washington to do good and staying to do well.”

Everyone’s convictions and contacts can be bought or, at least, rented. Leibovich quotes former AFL-CIO president John Sweeney calling former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt “a powerful voice for working families.” But Leibovich archly notes that after giving up his House seat in 2005 to become a lobbyist, “Gephardt has become a powerful force for Dick Gephardt on issue after issue.” Ditto for former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd who disdained the idea of lobbying until he was offered a $1.2 million job as the head of the Motion Picture Association. Then there’s Jeff Birnbaum who was an ace reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post covering the lobbying beat until he became (wait for it) a high-priced lobbyist. As Leibovich puts it, “Birnbaum joining a lobbying firm was an extraordinary passage, akin to Bob Woodward joining a White House staff.”

This is modern Washington where shame is about as common as it is when Eliot Spitzer looks in the mirror. And what distinguishes, say, Politico from the newspaper journalism once practiced by Birnbaum is that Washington’s swaggering online political journal rarely makes moral judgments about the revolving door. Every few days Mike Allen in his influential morning “Playbook” newsletter, which establishes the D.C. conventional wisdom, hails another administration official or top Capitol Hill staffer who has become a lobbyist … oops … a strategic consultant for business interests. Cashing in on government service is part of the natural order of Washington cosmology as defined by Politico.

The nation’s capital has always been a prized destination for young men and women with middle-aged dreams. If you pick the right friends and gamble on the right campaigns, you can find yourself with an exalted position on the White House staff in your late twenties or early thirties. As a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, I recall the heady master-of-the-West-Wing euphoria of being close to the person who is close to the person who is close to the Leader of the Free World.

That is why the most affecting and disturbing chapter in This Town is Leibovich’s portrayal of Kurt Bardella, a nakedly striving yet guileless 27-year-old press secretary to Darrell Issa, the Inspector Javert of the House Republicans. Bardella, who never graduated from college, is torn between two ambitions: White House press secretary someday (all that TV time) and quickly being able to “monetize his government service” (all that money). But before he can achieve either dream, Bardella is fired by Issa for leaking to Leibovich large chunks of the staffer’s daily emails from reporters and Capitol Hill Republicans. But this is Washington where only overly sensitive losers feel disgrace—within weeks Bardella was writing columns for the Daily Caller, negotiating with cable TV bookers and soon winning back a Capitol Hill job with Issa.

So much of life within the inner circles of political Washington is a character test. And it is easy to understand how the jejune Bardella and his youthful Democratic counterparts can be blinded by the TV lights and the fawning write-ups in publications like Politico. The adults—the politicians transformed into K Street rainmakers, the preening journalists covering politics from cable TV green rooms, the networkers and the net-worthers—are the ones who should know better.

Four decades ago, Richard Nixon duplicitously proclaimed, “I am not a crook.” These days, in get-it-while-you-can Washington, the bipartisan philosophy has become, “I am not a schnook.” The siren song of money and pseudo-celebrity is irresistible. Reading the comic tragedy that is This Town made me wonder if—after 20 years—it was finally time for me to abandon Washington and head north towards home.

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