I have never met Mark Leibovich. We have attended a few of the same parties, I have read just about everything he's written for the New York Times Magazine over his seven years as its national correspondent, and I spent almost all of my day Sunday consuming his new book, "This Town," the thoroughly enjoyable new takedown of Washington and all that's wrong with the incestuous cesspool bubbling inside the Beltway. But we have never been formally introduced, and I am somehow too awestruck by Leibovich and maybe a half a dozen other top political writers to wander up and introduce myself.
But what is evident from his pieces over the years, and especially in "This Town," is that Leibovich has a healthy sense of humor and a deep appreciation of irony. I'm sure he would find it as funny as I do that my copy of "This Town," a book about the fundamental phoniness of Washington relationships, is inscribed with the words "To Reid -- You Rock!" followed by a scribble that is either the autograph of a man I have never actually met or my friend Paul having a little fun with me.
I am late to the party; most reviews came out weeks ago. But I didn't get an advance copy. I had to wait for Paul to grab a copy at the book party thrown in Leibovich's honor last week. I've only now had the time to sit down and consume his insights. And it was worth the wait: "This Town" is as entertaining for the broader picture it paints of a capital that corrupts even the most incorruptible as it is for the salacious gossip that dominated early reviews. It is both telling and sadly appropriate that the vast majority of the juicy nuggets those who previewed the book come almost entirely from the first 50 pages, offering a new spin on David Brooks' definition of a Washington read, which Leibovich cites: "I haven't read your book, but I praised it on TV."
The book's subtitle -- "Two Parties and a Funeral -- plus plenty of valet parking! -- in America's Gilded Capital" -- is actually a little misleading. There are at least three funerals: Tim Russert's, Andy Rooney's and Richard Holbrooke's. Given the number of parties Leibovich attends, one wonders when he finds time to do all that writing (This author is not bitter at all and completely over the fact that he wasn't invited to Leibovich's own book party).
If the subtitle uses "parties" in the capital-P sense of political organizations, Leibovich himself demonstrates the existence, perhaps dominance, of a third party -- one entrenched within Washington and committed to the status quo money machine that makes defeated lawmakers and former low-level Hill staffers into millionaires. And, just as a character on a television show never spends time looking for parking, we don't get a glimpse of Leibovich tossing his keys to an eager valet (though valet is a growth industry in Washington, to be sure).
The gossip details the intertwined lives and lifestyles of a few of the best-known names inside the Beltway, names of people infamous in Washington but nowhere else (Tammy Haddad! Bob Barnett! Kurt Bardella! Oh my!). "This Town" paints a portrait of a city hopelessly besotted by conflicts of interest, run by a set of deeply insecure socialites and super-lawyers who really want you to know what they've done lately, how important you are, and how what they've done lately can make you more important, all while demonstrating they never emotionally developed past high school.
But read past the first 50 pages, the scenes of Chuck Schumer biting his lip at the tragedy of Russert's passing or Terry McAuliffe's shameless name-dropping or Robert Gibbs swatting away yet another admiring fan, and Leibovich has delivered a serious and important critique of the Washington that existed long before Barack Obama showed up, and will exist long after he leaves.
Leibovich finds a city obsessed with power and, more importantly, the financial payout that comes after one holds a powerful position. Most of the organs of official Washington, be they the politicians who vote on legislation, the consultants who determine which politicians get to vote in the first place, the lobbyists who determine what is to be voted upon or the media who are supposed to be skeptical of it all, have little regard for the actual Americans who exist beyond the Beltway, and for whose welfare this entire city is supposed to be dedicated.
The voters are stupid, the media and the consultants tell us; the average American doesn't have a view that's ideologically consistent with one party or the other (Perhaps, one might guess, the average American is rather busy trying to make enough money to survive the impact Washington -- both parties -- has on them). And regardless of how they vote, the politicians and the lobbyists will make sure the "change" elections of 2006, 2008 and 2010 don't really change all that much. Whichever party wins control of Congress or the White House simply determines which members of professional Washington get new business cards along with their administration jobs, and which climb the K Street ladder just waiting until their party returns to power.
"Great, now I don't have to go lobby the administration for four years," the super-lobbyist Charlie Black told Leibovich after his candidate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., lost the presidential contest in 2008. "I can play more golf."
Ah, but Obama was going to change all that. No candidate has embodied Hope and Change more than the black son of a single mother who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago determined to return power to the people. He will change the way Washington works, with the help of his altruistic aides; he will drain Washington's swamp.
But Leibovich deftly points to the many exceptions Obama allows himself: He is in favor of publicly financed presidential elections (He even checks the box to donate $3 on his tax returns), except when he realizes he can outraise and outspend McCain in 2008, guaranteeing that neither he nor Mitt Romney will take matching funds in 2012 and neither will any future nominee. He is strongly opposed to super PACs, except when he needs big-dollar donors to fork over enough money to make sure his super PAC can compete with the Republican super PACs. He is against bringing lobbyists into his administration, except in the cases of Steve Ricchetti and Broderick Johnson and Cecilia Muñoz and half a dozen others who get waivers. He is repulsed by Washington's revolving door, the back-and-forth migration of political professionals who waffle between official positions and sweet gigs on K Street, except when his junior staffers take lobbying jobs and his senior staffers take six-figure fees for speeches in Azerbaijan.
And he is the anti-politician truth-teller, except when he spends so much time crafting his evolution from anti-gay marriage to marriage equality supporter that his own vice president scoops his news. Obama told his top advisors in a fall 2011 meeting that he wanted to address same-sex marriage, among other issues, if he won a second term; Biden made his comments on "Meet The Press" on May 6, 2012, at least six months after Obama's private comments.
There are few winners in Leibovich's book, a fact the author, who plainly hates the winners-and-losers take anyone offers in the instant-analysis media world we now inhabit, likely wears as a badge of honor. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid comes across as gruff but authentic. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is the earnest, ideological yet pragmatic father of the Tea Party. While Politico, NBC and MSNBC come in for particularly harsh criticism and ABC and CBS take a few knocks, Fox News is left almost entirely unscathed. Even Sarah Palin comes off looking better than she has in other media portrayals (Let's call Hotline, first mentioned on page 118, a winner too).
Books like Leibovich's are important resources for historians who, a century from now, will use "This Town" as a trove of background information for a pivotal period when our politics became poisonous. It reminded me a bit of Allen Drury's "A Senate Journal, 1943-1945," though with far more socialites than Drury saw fit to include (Perhaps a better analog would be a real-life, updated version of Drury's seminal "Advise and Consent").
It's also a needed reminder that everyone in the Beltway should pause and reflect on their actual importance in the whirring Washington machine. "This Town" provides an opportunity to remind oneself of the joke we're all in on, the incestuous, interconnected nature of Washington.
What's the joke? "[I]n reality, off-air, everyone in Washington is joined in a multilateral conga line of potential business partners," Leibovich writes. He quotes Democratic lobbyist Jack Quinn, who talks about what he and his business partner, Republican lobbyist Ed Gillespie, have in common: "Ed and I both appreciate that everyone involved in the world in which we operate is a patriot."
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Quinn Gillespie & Associates has earned at least $44.7 million in lobbying fees since Obama took office in 2009.