The must read book of the summer was Mark Leibovich's This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral -- plus plenty of valet parking! -- in America's Gilded Capital.
This Town is tittle-tattle, the flibbertigibbet musings of a fashionisto political reporter covering the Washington beltway. Think of it as a wannabe "true-life" rendering of Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing. Does this qualify as political analysis? Not! But if the scandalmongering of today's political events makes us yearn for The West Wing to the extent that the simulacrum becomes our perceived reality, then, This Town stokes like "Big Blue" crystal meth.
Leibovich's tale is a bestseller about the lifestyles of the rich and/or famous masquerading as our political leaders. The politics are driven by testosterone. Equal rights may have permeated the American mindset, but in Washington men still prevail. There's a frat-boy quality, a gin-room feel, to "The Club." And yes, Leibovich and his cohorts, our Washington political journalists, are embedded in the political firmament of This Town.
The narrative unfolds with a series of snarky vignettes about some of the colorful personalities in "The Club." Coverage is tilted in favor of the Dems. Take Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nevada). Even though he has "all the magnetism of a dried snail," he is credited with tremendous savvy in ensuring the passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). However, no analysis is provided of either the bill or why he has failed to pass a "budget resolution" since 2009.
Contrast Reid's portrayal with Leibovich's coverage of Republican Senator Tom Coburn (Oklahoma). He is depicted as a shovel-wielding conservative who kills water moccasins swimming in his pool "by slicing their heads off with the sharp edge of a shovel." And Representative Darrell Issa (California), current Committee Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee charged with investigating Benghazi, is marginalized by virtue of Leibovich's titillating profile of Kurt Bardella, Issa's former aide.
Bardella's excesses seem more The West Wing than Beltway governance until he admits to blind copying Leibovich on a number of his email correspondences with other politicians. Thus, in the embedded arena of Washington politics, Leibovich becomes a central character in his political story. And Bardella? He's fired and subsequently rehired by Issa before leaving in September of 2013 to start his own public relations firm. Proof positive that if you're somebody you'll always eat lunch in This Town again.
"The biggest shift in Washington," suggests Leibovich, "over the last forty or so years has been the arrival of Big Money and politics as an industry." Politicians who are players in Washington have the potential to ride the continuum from aspiring politico to seasoned lobbyist. There's the Democratic lobbyist Jack Quinn, who paired up with Republican Ed Gillespie, a political strategist. They worked in President Clinton's administration and capitalized on their contacts to create a "one-stop" consulting shop for Democrats, Republicans, and their brethren. When the two men cashed in on their lobbying business, their total earnings were some $40 million. Or the Beltway Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose actions led to his own conviction along with twenty-one others. And what about Senator Chris Dodd (Connecticut), who allegedly obtained a special rate mortgage for himself from Countrywide and subsequently attempted to grant special favors to the bank in the aftermath of the housing market fiasco?
The most tragic portrait of This Town is that of Richard Holbrooke. He had worked with Averell Harriman to help conclude our involvement in the Vietnam War. During the Clinton administration he was largely responsible for broking an end to the Balkan Wars. Holbrooke's approach harkened back to an era when America's Foreign Service operated at the axis of global power. But in the "no-drama Obama" administration he was perceived as a temperamental grandstander who sucked up all the oxygen in the room. Not surprisingly, Holbrooke's diplomatic role in negotiations with Afghanistan and Pakistan was limited, possibly to our great detriment.
This Town concludes with "The Last Party" given at the home of Ben Bradlee. That evening should have been a celebration. As executive editor of The Washington Post, Bradlee had published the Pentagon Papers and a series of articles by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that exposed the Watergate scandal and ultimately led to the resignation of President Nixon. Nevertheless, "The Last Party" reads as if it's a dirge. At ninety-one, Ben Bradlee is characterized as elderly, forgetful, and likely to have dementia.
Nor was the fate of The Washington Post much better. By 2013, the newspaper teetered on the verge of insolvency. Some of its best reporters had left to work for Politico, which has a strong online presence and was closely read by the White House staff. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, the Internet has become the "go-to" source for information. Reporters no longer have a beat: they troll the Internet. People no longer read: they watch television. Journalists are no longer perceived as writing the first draft of history, as Theodore H. White saw his role when he published The Making of the President, 1960. Today, if journalists want to sell "copy," they, like Leibovich, are much more inclined to posture as celebrities embedded in the very story they are covering, rather than impartial observers rendering painful or enlightening truths. It's only after the publication of This Town we learn The Washington Post has been bought by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com. That seems fitting given that This Town serves as a kind of elegy to the bygone era of print journalism. In its place we have the raucous age of online digital communication replete with blogs, tweets, and WikiLeaks.
Will journalism survive? Stay tuned.
Dr. Diana E. Sheets, an iFoundry Fellow and Research Scholar at the University of Illinois, writes literary criticism, political commentary, and fiction. Much of it can be read on her website, www.LiteraryGulag.com.