A few weeks ago I posted about “Act of Congress,” a primer on how a bill becomes law in DC. The book covered financial reform in 2010 and it was a journalistic look at all the machinations that are part of legislating here in the first part of the century. The process is so ugly at times that you can’t help but think that Congress is hopelessly broken. It will be a good reference point for someone who studies DC 100 years from now.
But if you just read “Act of Congress,” you are missing a critical part of how DC really operates. To fill in the gaps, you need Mark Leibovich and his new book, “This Town.”
You want to talk about ugly? That’s the DC that Leibovich describes. The book has been all over the news lately because the author is accused of writing about DC’s society and spilling secrets that he shouldn’t be spilling. He dishes on the media, on the lobbyists, on the pols, on the staff, and on the hangers-on. He writes of DC’s Gilded Age, and it is grotesque. (Regular readers of this blog may remember another book review about an earlier Gilded Age in DC, the book about Sam Ward “King of the Lobby.” But Sam Ward wouldn’t have recognized this new Gilded Age.)
“Leibo” as he is known to “The Club” (his term for the clubby insiders who compose DCs chattering class), writes about a DC he admits he is a part of. He chronicles the “snowflakes” that are mini-scandals, stories pushed by Politico, and trending topics on Twitter. In each case, circumstances that would otherwise shame most people into hiding just fade away as The Club moves on to new and other more interesting topics. He asserts that once you are part of The Club, you can always have lunch in “this town” again. And tis true. After all the damage this book was supposed to do, here’s the skinny on his book party.
This is a takedown, but one that avoids going so far as to completely alienate. It seems like even the people in DC who are portrayed as asses should thank him for writing this book and making people think twice about their behavior and the world they inhabit. I would hope that having a friend like Leibo tell you that your behavior is appalling would make some people reflect. But chances are, the book itself will be just another “snowflake”–something that trends on twitter for a few weeks and fades away.
What struck me most about the book was the lack of seriousness among almost all of his featured players. The DC elite, as Leibovich describes them, behave like children in high school (an all-too frequent comparison for our nation’s capital), and are busy with adult versions of popularity contests, sexual exploits, money-making schemes, and play-acting to get ahead. There is a theme repeated often in the book that this is all a joke they are in on, and we are not.
As I’ve reflected on the book over the past week, I kept thinking about how some of the characters felt familiar to people I’ve met at a City Hall or at a State Capitol building. “This Town” is a send-up of DC, but it’s also a reflection of the governmental elite that make influence policy/politics anywhere. In any state there are power-hungry lobbyists, media writers who have outsized influence, and hangers-on who want to be closer to power. It’s a smaller scale, sure, but the personalities are the same. Imagine if there were 500 people covering the state capital in Jeff City, Missouri. Chances are, a book about it would uncover many of the same uncomfortable moments.
So in a way, “This Town” is about the behavior of specific people who are DC Elite. But it’s also a book about the elite in general, and how they live in the beginning of this young century.
If you are reading this to see what he says about Senator X or journalist Y, you’ll likely be disappointed. Sure, there’s plenty of gossip, but again, I think of this more of a book about a city, a period of time, and a segment of society. I saw him do a reading of this book at Politics & Prose last week, and he said that was difficult–memoirs have structure and campaign books have winners. This had no end and no clear protagonist. Given those challenges, the end product deserves even more credit.
I should say, if you haven’t read much of Leibovich, you should. He’s an extraordinarily talented writer with a gift for observation and storytelling.
Thanks for reading.