Editorial - Barry MacDonald
This Town, Two Parties and a Funeral - plus plenty of valet parking! - in America's Gilded Capital, by Mark Leibovich. Penguin Groups, ISBN 978-0-399-16130-8, pp. 387, $22.45 hardbound.
Mark Leibovich is an insider, a "member of the club." The title of the book, This Town, is an oft-used phrase among insiders, expressing "belonging, knowingness, and self-mocking civic disdain."
He has been working in Washington for sixteen years, for the Washington Post and now for The New York Times. Though he is not making lobbyist or T.V. money, he has made a good life for his wife and family, choosing to work "in the murk." He has lots of Washington friends and "also some real ones." He describes the many personalities of Washington, often with affection, sometimes mockingly, but always oh-so-accurately.
This Town is not only an insider's view of how Washington works, it is also a collection of revealing profiles. If you have been paying attention to cable news for the last fifteen years, most of the personalities he describes will be familiar. Mark loves his job and feels privileged to see "the momentous and ridiculous up close." (I couldn't find anything momentous in the book.)
There was the late Richard Holbrook, the tall and imposing Clinton-era diplomat. Richard was the sort of person at cocktail parties who looks over the heads of people he is "stuck talking to," scanning the room for important people.
Richard had come to hard times during the Obama administration. He was not getting invited to key meetings. Mark describes an incident when he accosted an aide to David Axelrod at a urinal: "Eric, I am very disappointed in you." Eric had not prompted David to usher Richard into President Obama's presence - Holbrook had a habit of pressuring people at urinals.
Mark writes that outsiders are clueless about the consuming insularity of Washington D.C.:
No matter how disappointed people are in their capital, even the most tuned-in consumers have no idea what the modern cinematic version of This Town really looks like. They might know the boilerplate about "people who have been in Washington too long," how the city is not bipartisan enough and filled with too many creatures of the Beltway. But that misses the running existential contradictions of D.C., a place where "authenticity and fantasy are close companions,". . . It misses that the city, far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected. It misses the degree to which New Media have democratized the political conversation while accentuating Washington's insular, myopic, and self-loving tendencies. It misses, most of all, a full examination of how Washington may not serve the country well, but has in fact worked splendidly for Washington itself - a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives.
This town imposes on its actors a reflex toward devious and opportunistic behavior, and also a tendency to care more about public relations than any other aspect of their professional lives - maybe even personal lives.
. . . it's a massive, self-sustaining entity that sucks people in, nurtures addiction to its spoils, and imposes a peculiar psychology on big fish and minnows alike. It can turn complex, gifted, and often damaged, individuals into hollowed-out Kabuki players acting in the maintenance of their fragile brands.
A "brand" is a measurement of style, influence, and prominence in the pecking order. A person's brand involves personality, public political affiliation, and, of course, power. A brand is a self-created, marketable commodity that can be parleyed into regular appearances on T.V., book deals, a spot on the speaker's circuits. A successful brand is key to wealth and fame.
Mark knows the "big fish and the minnows."
There is Marshall Wittmann - "career vagabond," "ideological contortionist," and
"political pontificator." According to Marshall "There is no sweeter word in Washington than your own name," and it's all about having a shtick and role, and honing them in a way that creates a brand.
Marshall is a Jew who grew up in Waco, Texas. He worked for Cesar Chavez, the labor activist, in the1970s; for Linda Chavez, Republican Senate candidate (1980s); for Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition (1990s); for Bruce Reed of the Democratic Leadership Council (2000s). He was the top aide to the Independent Senator Joe Lieberman.
He was a Trotskyite, then a Zionist, then a Reaganite. He was the only Jew to be the chief lobbyist for the Christian Coalition. After Senator Leiberman retired he became the top spokesperson for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
There is Kurt Bardella, a 27-year-old Asian-American aid to Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA). Kurt displays "frantic vulnerability." He is a "jittery wreck, working long into the night." Kurt says of himself:
I'm never that far away from blowing myself up completely. . . . It's all part and parcel of my inferiority complex. I struggle with things. But generally I'm pretty good at channeling this in a way that serves Darrell Issa.
The Washington ethos is in Kurt's words:
You can tell that there were certain people that everyone kind of gravitated to. They walked in, and people just knew who they were. I remember thinking, "I wonder what it would be like to be one of those people. The cool kids."
He told Mark
. . . There is that place to get in Washington that everybody is striving for. . . . Once you get to that place, that inside place, you kind of just know it. . . . It's exciting. . . . But you're never sure if that feeling is going to last, or if other people are seeing you as someone on the inside. It puts you on edge, constantly. All you know is, once you've experienced being on the inside, you don't want to lose that feeling.
The divides in Washington are not between the economic haves and have-nots, but are between those inside and those who are not; and the feeling of inclusion is subjective and fluid.
Mark writes of Kurt:
I was really more interested in Kurt, an emblematic super-staffer who was making Washington work for him and trying to move up in The Club. He was a kind of will-to-power orphan who was feverishly devising his persona on the fly. I loved the sheer unabashedness, even jubilance, of Kurt's networking and ladder climbing and determination to make it in The Club.
Meg Greenfield, veteran editorial page editor of the Washington Post, made a sharp observation about Washington in her memoir:
Loners may be able to sell themselves electorally at home, but they cannot win in Washington, no matter how bad or good they are. Winning here means winning people over - sometimes by argument, sometimes by craft, sometimes by obsequiousness and favors, sometimes by pressure, and sometimes by a chest-thumping, ape-type show of strength that makes it seem prudent to get with the ape's program.
Mark writes that partisan divisions are largely an illusion. The journalists, Democrats, Republicans, super-lawyers, super-lobbyists, super-staffers
. . . run together like the black-tie dinners or the caricature drawings of notable Washingtonians on the wall at the Palm on Nineteenth Street. [The Palm is a steak restaurant.]
Mark was at a party (everyone yearns for an invite to the best parties) where he encountered high-profile members of the club. The Mardi-Gras themed party was in honor of the birthday of Betsy Fischer, the executive producer of NBC's "Meet the Press," the Sunday morning talk show.
Everyone was congratulating each other on "a recent story, book deal, job, show, speech, or haircut." Greta Van Susteren of Fox News was chatting with David Axelrod next to a "tower of cupcakes." In the basement a "bipartisan conga line was coursing through the room to a loud hip-hop song" - the conga line is an apt metaphor for The Club, the inner-ring rising above the economic doldrums outside Washington.
The people at the party included John Meacham, Pulitzer-prize winning author, David Gregory and Andrea Mitchell of NBC news, Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve (married to Andrea Mitchell), Hilary Rosen of CNN and spokesperson for the Obama presidential campaign, Jack Quinn, the fix-it lawyer of Bill Clinton's administration, Terry McAuliffe, super-fundraiser for the Clinton administration and former chairman of the Democrat Party, and Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican Party.
Ed and Terry are "outstanding friends." They "forged a green room marriage" (the green room is place where people wait before appearing on a political talk show). Ed and Terry would tangle on air, each slinging their respective talking points as chairmen of the opposing parties.
After leaving their positions they became partners on the paid speaker's circuit: "top dog" Democrat and Republican putting on a show ($50,000 a pop), disagreeing without being disagreeable. "I love Terry," says Ed, "and I hate myself for it."
Ed Gillespie and Jack Quinn are also "dear" friends and former business partners. They both share working-class, Irish Catholic backgrounds: Jack in New York and Ed in New Jersey. Ed began his career in the capital as a parking lot attendant.
They are both "pugnacious but generally respectful on camera, congenial and knowing off-camera." They formed a partnership: Quinn Gillespie & Associates, believed to be one of the first bipartisan "one-stop-shopping firms" lobbying successful members of both parties.
Mark asked Jack what appealed to him about Ed when they first started bonding in green rooms. Jack said "Ed got the Joke." Mark asks:
What was the joke? Who was it on? Did it refer to the conceit that much of the Washington economy - lobbying, political consulting, and cable news - is predicated on the perpetuation of conflict, not the resolution of problems? Did "the joke" refer to the fact that all of the shouting partisanship that we see on television is just winking performance art? And in reality, off-air, everyone in Washington is joined in a multilateral conga line of potential business partners? What was "the joke?"
Ed and I both appreciate that everyone involved in the world in which we operate is a patriot.
The joke is on us, the outsiders.
Almost every major corporation, union, or trade association hires lobbyists, or an army of lobbyists. They pay handsome retainers "often in the neighborhood of $50,000 a month" - sometimes just to keep a powerful lobbyist from working for the other side.
Lobbyists are Washington's "middleman economy," connecting clients with government officials. Often lobbyists disguise themselves with misleading titles in "strategic communications" or "strategic public affairs." The Atlantic magazine reported that in 1974, three percent of retiring members become lobbyists. Now 50 percent of Senators and 42 percent of Congressmen become lobbyists. Also "tens of thousands" of congressional staff move into lobbying jobs.
Why should former Congressmen or Senators leave when they can "monetize" their Washington contacts? A former Senator can:
. . . use his specialized knowledge and access to call on old colleagues, friends, and fund-raisers to advance his clients' interests in bending a law or provision to their favor. He knows not only whom to call but also the phone number and who hired the staffer and precisely what to say to make things "happen."
. . . corporations have figured out that despite the exorbitant costs of hiring lobbyists, the ability to shape or tweak or kill even the tiniest legislative loophole can be worth tens of millions of dollars.
There are dozens of examples in This Town of enterprising politicians.
John Breaux, a former Democrat Congressman and Senator, remarked that his vote could not be bought but "could be rented." He was called a "cheap whore." John retorted that he was "not cheap!" After leaving the Senate John started his own lobbying firm just down the road from the White House.
Senator Trent Lott was the Republican Majority Leader. His response to Senator Tom Coburn's reform bill was "there would be plenty of time for 'good government' after Election Day."
Mark asked retired Senator Lott why he stayed in Washington. Trent said that's "where all the problems are" and he could "make a difference," and also, that "Washington is where the money is. . . . That's generally what keeps people here."
Democrat Senator Byron Dorgan was "quick to get all contemptuously righteous about people on the Hill cashing in their public service." After retiring he joined Arent Fox. Former Senators aren't allowed to lobby for two years, so Byron doesn't, but he "oversees a staff of lobbyists."
The example of Dick Gephardt, former Democrat Speaker of the House of Representatives, is "egregious even by D.C.'s standards." Dick, a Teamster's son, represented a working-class district in Missouri for twenty-eight years. He was a champion of organized labor. He would appear in Teamsters' halls in a union windbreaker booming "I'm fighting for yoouuu." AFL-CIO head John Sweeney called him "a real friend of working people and a powerful voice for working families on issue after issue."
Upon retirement Dick joined the Washington office of DLA Piper, and then started his own lobbying outfit, Gephardt Government Affairs. His corporate clients included Goldman Sachs, Boeing Company, Visa Inc., and Spirit AeroSystems, where he directed a "tough anti-union campaign."
While a Congressman, Dick supported a House resolution condemning the Armenian genocide of 1915. While a lobbyist working for the Turkish government (being paid $70,000 a month) he opposed the resolution condemning the Armenian genocide of 1915, according to the Washington Post.
Mark sees Republican Haley Barbour as a "throwback" to when politicians weren't afraid to tell dirty jokes, to brag about smoking cigars, and to talk about their "drinking buddies." Haley is
. . . a perfect specimen of a fat-cat Republican that liberal Hollywood screenwriters would concoct to conjure the perfect specimen of a fat-cat Republican (southern, cigar-smoking, rich, fat. . . . )
Haley was the chairman of the Republican Party, political director of the Reagan White House, "legendary" tobacco lobbyist, and Governor of Mississippi. Haley is a Washington favorite. Columnist Michael Kinsley believes many veteran reporters yearn for Haley to run for President. Kinsley wrote that Haley
. . . plays on the social insecurity among journalists. . . . [He] doesn't literally wink as he spins, but he manages to send the message: This is all a big game - a big wonderful game - and you have the privilege of playing it with me.
Even journalists become lobbyists, as did the "once eminent financial reporter" Jeffrey Birnbaum. Jeffrey covered the lobbying sector for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. He co-wrote the book Showdown at Gucci Gulch: Lawmakers, Lobbyists, and the Unlikely Triumph of Tax Reform. Jeffrey left journalism to lobby for Barbour, Griffith & Rogers.
People move within The Club all the time, especially in these lucrative Washington days in which the so-called revolving door has been so lavishly greased. Journalists become People on TV or go into public relations or lobbying; politicians and staffers become lobbyists or consultants or commentators; lobbyists (like Haley) run for office or go back into the government to "refresh their credentials," or earning power, before taking their rightful place back in the retainer class.
. . . Lobbyists joke about the big-game "purists" whom they can lure to their side. They speak of the naive but powerful suckers who have left money on the table by staying in their lower-paying journalism or elected or government staff jobs.
. . . K Street people often boast of the purists on the Hill, in the White House, and increasingly in the journalism ranks whom they have corrupted or deflowered. Or "co-opted," as the former Senate-Majority-Leader-turned-lobbyist Trent Lott vowed to do with the incoming group of Tea Party-propelled House members a few months later. [Ed] Rogers hailed Birnbaum to me as "one of the highest-ranking people ever to switch teams."
. . . The overriding message . . . is that everyone, ultimately, is playing for the same team.
Jack Abramoff was a Republican lobbyist convicted of fraud and conspiracy charges; he spent forty-three months in federal prison. In his memoir Jack wrote that the best way for lobbyists to manipulate lawmakers is to suggest casually that the legislators join the lobbying firm after their public service. Jack Wrote:
Now, the moment I said that we owned them. And what does that mean? Every request from our office, every request of our clients, everything that we want, they're gonna do. And not only that, they're gonna think of things we can't think of to do.
So, people who believe in good government are presented with a predicament. Whom can we trust? Do the Washingtonians we admire believe the things they profess? Are they sincere now? Will they be co-opted later? Are they frauds from start, just biding their time until they cash in?
Considering the insider's game that Washington politics is, with its ever-shifting alliances, where civic ideals are cover stories, how can we place faith in anyone who works there? Any modest organization without bribe money lacks influence.
The partisan gridlock so often lamented is an illusion. The business of Washington politics is not gridlocked - it's burgeoning, just like the national debt.
Intelligent, observant, caring and involved Americans, on both sides of the political spectrum, are bamboozled. We misunderstand when we focus only on ideology, because the hearts of the Washington players aren't invested in ideology - ideology is a tool. The hearts of the players are in self-advancement and in the preservation of the system of self-advancement.
Americans on the left should see that the many programs designed to uplift the poor have worked precisely as designed: the redistributors of money are uplifted; the poor remain poor. Americans believing in limited government should see that many establishment-type Republicans aren't interested in smaller government.
Who is genuinely anti-establishment? Look for those who are demonized by consultants and politicians from both parties, and by most of the media: Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Sarah Palin come to mind.
The first step in solving a problem is to see it. Mark Leibovich has exposed the players of Washington, D.C. The solution is to restore the checks and balances we had at the founding, and to shrink the power of Washington. The national debt will break the current system. We have to remember our heritage. *