In classic This Town fashion, let me start by disclosing that the author of This Town, Mark Leibovich, is a friend. He’s a great guy and a great writer. You should buy his new paperback edition, which is out this week with a new afterword — an afterword which, incidentally, quotes one of my tweets, in which I described this hilarious story as “the ultimate This Town excerpt,” which was very This Town of me, because at the time I had not yet read This Town.
I’ve read it now. It’s as brilliantly reported and sharply written and fun as everyone says it is. But it misses the point of the era it covers.
This Town is an affectionately brutal takedown of Washington’s insider culture. (Leibo’s unique ability to dispense brutality with affection might explain why the city’s establishment types continue to give him such amazing access even though he repeatedly makes them look ridiculous in the New York Times.) He tells the story of President Barack Obama’s first term through D.C. players like Tammy Haddad, a party-thrower for the Beltway elite, and Kurt Bardella, a shamelessly self-aggrandizing flack for a Republican congressman. With devastating wit and insight, without partisanship or ideology, Leibovich chronicles a specific subculture that sees national politics as bipartisan entertainment and lucrative business. He savages the self-important, self-satisfied, ready-for-my-closeup slice of Washington that will be on display Saturday night at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner.
To the extent This Town has a message, it is that despite all of President Obama’s big talk about change, Washington has not changed: “This is the story of This Town in a time of alleged correction.” Leibovich approvingly cites the notion that there are “no Democrats and Republicans in Washington anymore, only millionaires,” describing the crowd he chronicles as “the ultimate Green Party.” He shows how politicians and lobbyists and staffers from both parties end up cashing in, and suggests that the political polarization of Washington is largely a myth. “The city, far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected.”
But it’s not. The conventional wisdom that Washington is hopelessly divided happens to be correct. Ever since Republicans took back the House in 2011, Congress has been unable to pass major legislation, even though leaders of both parties claim to favor immigration reform and tax reform and infrastructure spending. The one exception has been the Budget Control Act, which created the universally unloved “sequester” and other harsh budget cuts, essentially a ransom paid at legislative gunpoint to prevent the GOP’s Tea Party wing from forcing the U.S. government into default. Sure, Democratic and Republican operatives can come together to launch lobbying firms, and chat amiably in the Morning Joe green room, but partisan gridlock is real and important.
And regardless of your political persuasion, what happened in the first two years of Obama’s first term was just as real and even more important: Change. In his first month in office, the president passed an $800 billion economic stimulus bill, which helped prevent a second Great Depression, launched a clean energy revolution, and transformed the country in so many ways that — This Town alert— I wrote a book about it. Then came Obamacare, the most ambitious social welfare legislation since the Great Society. The President also signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms into law, the most sweeping overhaul of financial regulations since the Great Depression.
The fact that some Obamaworld figures went on to exploit their Change We Can Believe In credentials to make big bucks, while definitely worth exploring, matters significantly less than the change they produced for — or, if you prefer, inflicted upon — the American people. And the foibles of a repulsive Republican flack, while amusing, mattered less than the transformation of the Republican Party, which has embraced the anti-government, anti-science, anti-compromise ethos of its Tea Party base, and has marched in lockstep against all those Obama initiatives.
This Town barely mentions those dramatic policy milestones. At one point, during a four-page skewering of the eminently skewerable senator-turned-lobbyist Chris Dodd, Leibovich notes in passing that Dodd “played key roles” in health reform and “a major banking bill,” presumably Dodd-Frank. He also observes that even though Obama “engineered passage of historic legislation, rescued the economy from collapse, and was killing terrorists like flies,” Washington elites tended to focus on his messaging problems, blathering about why he had “lost the narrative.” But that’s about it. Substance is mostly an ironic backdrop in This Town, illustrating how political types don’t care about substance. They prefer gilded political conventions with fancy food, ice scultpures and free aromatherapy. “Also,” Leibovich snarks, “lots of panel discussions to remind us that this is all about issues.”
Leibo isn’t interested in those issues, either. That’s OK; not all of us are policy dorks, and he’s got the keenest eye of any political reporter in the city. But This Town purports to tell the story of Washington during a “time of alleged correction,” and it misses the correction, the transformation of federal policies regarding the economy, foreign affairs, health care, energy, education, and much more. It’s like a book about the moon mission that focuses on the sketchy endorsement deals the astronauts signed when they got back. Or, if you prefer, it’s like a book about the Titanic that focuses on the lame on-board entertainment. It exposes some things about Washington that never change, but misses the change hidden in plain view.
I don’t think I’ve ever met Tammy Haddad, although I think I might have gone to one of her parties. I’ve definitely never gone to the WHCA dinner. I don’t live in Washington anymore, and I don’t miss that suck-up scene, the power groupies, the climbers, the spinners, the hacks. But This Town is unfair to a lot of that town.
“You still hear the term ‘public service’ thrown around, but often with irony and full knowledge that ‘self-service’ is now the real insider play,” Leibovich writes.
Perhaps, but Washington insiders pushed a health care bill that is helping millions of the uninsured. Washington insiders passed a stimulus bill that helped keep millions out of poverty. Washington insiders passed financial regulations designed to prevent another financial cataclysm. And while I’ve been critical of cynical GOP obstructionism, some Washington insiders on the Republican side fought back because they genuinely believed those policies would hurt the country. Sure, the revolving door is real, and there are too many influence-peddlers and self-dealers in Washington, but there are also a lot of nerds in who care primarily about the city’s outsized impact on America. Leibo probably won’t see too many of them at NerdProm.