This Town : Inside D.C.'s Unbreakable Scum Cycle

This Town, the newly released dive into insider D.C.'s fetid swamp by New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich, leaves the D.C.-based reader with something of an existential crisis. After the fourth or fifth anecdote relating the scummy, venal behavior of the capital's most influential movers and shakers, you start to ask questions. Can one make it in the political-media complex without jettisoning one's principles? Can one justify long hours and degrading obsequiousness if the payoff is an invitation to an exclusive brunch? Are my friends the "right" friends? Can I even call them "friends"? What the hell am I doing here?

Then it dawns on you, reassuringly, that D.C., like most places, is exactly what you make of it. There is an actual city of Washington, with its neighborhoods and churches and people who will never be "consultants," that, as Clinton Yates of the Washington Post observes, receives vanishingly little attention in This Town. The side of the city chronicled by Leibovich is Official D.C., the side that attracts the hucksters, the self-important, the power-desperate, and, more than anything, the people who want to cash in. If you're one of those people, you'll probably see This Town as a kind of guide book. For the rest, it's a cautionary and dispiriting tale of the allure of power and influence.

This Town teaches you a few things. You learn that the real reason the oceans are overfished is because every single one of the multitudinous parties thrown by Official D.C. has a sushi bar. (There's also a curious recurrence of butterscotch milkshakes.) You learn that ur-pundit and "spin room" fixture Bay Buchanan was "conceived in the back of a satellite truck" and "hatched from a quivering egg incubated under warm TV lights into the welcoming obstetric hands of Wolf Blitzer." You become familiarized with the practice of raising boatloads of money for good causes and needy charities because doing so will ingratiate you to the well-connected champion of said cause or charity. It warms the heart and churns the gut at the same time.

It's all part of a culture of terminally insecure people flattering and palm-greasing "the people that matter" to further their own interests. Within that culture there's a divide between people who get things done (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid comes off as a reluctant, effective member of insider D.C.) and people who simply do things (the army of former Hill staffers and lobbyists who are paid well to show up at parties). The common thread uniting it all is money, and the self-debasing extremes people will go to in order to maximize the payout for putting in a few years in a Senate office. Along the way they become friends with big-fish celebrity journalists, creating a web of conflicting interests that's too complex for those journalists to navigate, so they ignored it.

The people inside the bubble act without shame and are perfectly comfortable knowing that their peers within the bubble know what's up. But they're also terrified that their incestuous rituals will become the stuff of headlines. Being a scam artist is OK, you just don't want to come off as a scam artist.

But in the end, even that doesn't matter. Exposed as a morally absent, money-grubbing social climber? People will talk about it for a few days, a week tops, and then it's back to business as usual. So it's not the impropriety, nor even the appearance of impropriety, but the fleeting impression of concern over the appearance of impropriety that ultimately drives the day. Leibovich's extended account of the saga of Kurt Bardella illustrates this phenomenon and drives home just how self-involved and pointless much of insider D.C. can be. Bardella, an overeager and common sense-deficient press secretary to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), began feeding internal correspondences to Leibovich to provide material for Leibovich's book. Bardella boasted of this, the press found out, a "scandal" ensued, and Bardella was fired. After six months of laying low and writing for the Daily Caller, Issa rehired Bardella to no particular fanfare.

L'affaire Bardella eats up fifty pages of This Town, and Leibovich writes at length on how the "scandal" came to be because the political press (consumed with "winning" news cycles and turbocharged by social media) convinced itself that there was a scandal. "If this 'iconic tale' had happened a decade ago, maybe it would have merited a mention in Howie Kurtz's Media Notes column in the Monday Washington Post," Leibovich writes. "But because it happened in 2011, with all these new-media outlets and everyone eager to give their 'take' on the matter, the story of the rogue flack came to 'dominate' the Capitol." At the chapter's end you find yourself wondering why you bothered reading it all: the drama centered around no one particularly important, no significant changes in policy or behavior happened, and it ended precisely where it began.

In that way, This Town is a product of the culture it exposes. It's written for the same people it mocks, who exist purely for themselves. It describes how Official D.C. never changes, it just gazes more intently at the finely-graven contours of its own navel. The people whose fortunes are predicated on corruption's inertia will take comfort in that even if they're a little put out at having their dirty laundry aired.

The book will sell briskly in the 30-mile radius extending from the Capitol dome and will cause a burst of nattering buzz that will subside in a month as the same characters pilloried within its pages ritualistically gather in some hotel lobby to vainly try and remember why they were talking about each other a month earlier. After a few martinis and a trip to the sushi bar, they'll get distracted by Jon Breaux or Andrea Mitchell and then trundle off to congratulate someone on their new government affairs job.