This Town, by Mark Leibovich, Blue Rider Press, RRP$27.95, 400 pages
When Mark Leibovich asked Jack Quinn, a prominent Democratic lobbyist, why he had gone into business with Republican political strategist Ed Gillespie, the reply was classic Washington: “Ed got the joke.”
Quinn does not expand on this, observing only that everyone in their bipartisan circles is, deep down, “a patriot”. But Leibovich, a New York Times reporter, explains the “joke” for us in hilarious, wincing detail in This Town. Attaching himself like a modern-day Balzac to the US capital’s power players, he introduces us to super-lawyers, über-hostesses, celebrity journalists and a series of “formers”, be they members of Congress or White House or congressional aides. Leibovich paints a picture of an execrable suck-up culture in which it is possible to coast profitably on connections for decades, sometimes after only a few months of “public service”.
Tammy Haddad, a local hostess-cum-fundraiser – and, it must be said, an easy target – is described as a “human ladle in the local self-celebration buffet”. A former producer for Larry King Live, she walks around parties with a “Tam Cam” to do soft interviews, described by one guest as “like a light enema”. Many other Beltway figures are presented in a similarly unflattering light.
The book opens at the funeral of Tim Russert, the one-time host of NBC’s Meet the Press. This solemn event quickly turns into a networking opportunity, with “lucky stampedes of power mourners” preferring to mix than to mope. All stand back for Bill and Hillary Clinton. No fans of Russert, they are there “to pay respects, like the heads of Mafia families do when a rival Godfather falls”.
As pitiless and, frankly, cruel as Leibovich can be, he also pulls his punches. There is no detailed reporting on the kind of bipartisan dealmaking that has enriched so many lobbyists. Nor is there any sense of the physical Washington, let alone the fact that it has long been an African-American city. This is a strictly inside-the-Beltway operation, an insider’s take on other insiders. The author seems to do little other than drift in and out of parties and visit the offices of members of Congress, occasionally squeezing in trips to the 2012 campaign trail.
Most coverage of US politics focuses on its hyper-partisanship, which is true as far as it goes. But as Leibovich says, Washington, “far from being hopelessly divided, is hopelessly interconnected”. Longtime political enemies warm to each other after years of meetings in the demilitarised zones of the green room, take to the road together on lucrative Punch-and-Judy speaking tours, form consultancies and even sometimes marry.
Leibovich’s subjects have varied backgrounds and mostly arrive in town with good intent. “But their membership of The Club becomes paramount and defining,” he writes. “They become part of a system that rewards, more than anything, self-perpetuation.” No wonder everyone dislikes Washington, but that is no matter. As its inhabitants know, “the city exists to be condemned”.
Leibovich is perceptive about the psychology of politicians. His portrait of Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, is masterly. Reid famously whispers rather than speaks and has the mild looks of a small-town bank manager, qualities that belie his sharp-elbowed approach to politics. A Mormon from Nevada, he hates social Washington (of one fundraiser, he says: “I wouldn’t go to this thing if it were in my living room”) and is so busy he ends phone calls without saying goodbye. Many interlocutors are bewildered to find he is no longer on the line.
But he also understands that even his most powerful colleagues need emotional sustenance. As Reid rings fellow Democratic lawmakers after the successful 2006 elections, Leibovich, on hand to profile the senator, hears Reid tell them all: “I love you.” The Senate boss is unabashed. “They need to hear that,” he says. John Kerry, now secretary of state – who according to Leibovich is described by Reid as having no friends – appears to choke up when his then leader conveys the sentiment to him.
Journalists, and voters, mock politicians for their ambition but expect them to have it in spades. Likewise, politicians are despised for their contradictions, though in many respects these internal conflicts are essential to get around the hypocrisy of the electorate itself.
Washington not only understands that. It provides the means to monetise the sinuous qualities that help people survive and thrive in politics, which is why so many members of Congress and their staff stay on in the city forever after. As Trent Lott, a former Republican Senate leader, says: “Washington is where the money is. That’s generally what keeps people here.”
Richard McGregor is the FT’s Washington bureau chief
Letter in response to this article:The glory that is Washington / From Mr Al Gillespie