Raves are rolling in for This Town, Mark Leibovich's book-length skewering of Washington culture, not only because the author is an exceptional writer and storyteller, but also because he knows how to shoot at easy targets.
As described by the Washington Post, the book tells the story of "self-interest, self-importance, and self-perpetuation in the nation's capital … His tour through Washington only feeds the worst suspicions anyone can have about the place — a land driven by insecurity, hypocrisy, and cable hits, where friendships are transactional, blind-copying is rampant, and acts of public service appear largely accidental."
I have not had the opportunity to read the book, nor do I feel compelled to make the time. It's not news that a capital city is filled with ego-driven social climbers. Leibovich appears to have simply embedded himself in a target-rich environment and fired at will.
Moreover, based on the reviews, it seems Leibovich succeeded in hitting the targets he aimed at, but missed the bigger picture.
An overarching theme dwelled on by reviewers is an Obama administration riddled with hypocrisy. Self-righteous staffers quickly succumbing to Washington's innate narcissism and careerism. The president presiding over the continuation of revolving-door culture, with promises to ban the hiring of lobbyists waived when convenient and former staffers taking lucrative jobs. "Just another administration," as one reviewer summed it up.
Other politicians are mocked for their phoniness, like "lens-happy" Sen. Chuck Schumer's showy lip-biting at a funeral. Or their social awkwardness, like Sen. Harry Reid's rude habit of hanging up phone calls without saying goodbye or delivering private putdowns (although Slate's Dave Weigel says Reid comes off as "admirably charmless.")
Weigel notes, "The overall tone of This Town is hopelessness." I can only presume that's because Leibovich left out the hope.
Reid may lack manners, but he was able to herd enough Senate cats to help avert a global depression by enacting the Recovery Act and to achieve near-universal health coverage after 70 years of Democratic futility by enacting the Affordable Care Act. The most dangerous place in Washington may still be between Schumer and a TV camera, but he's a work horse, not a show horse, as evidenced by his toil to get bipartisan immigration reform through the Senate.
And what of the supposed revolving-door culture suffocating the promise of change from the Obama White House?
First off, most of those lobbyist waivers were manifestly innocuous. It's not a conflict for the deputy secretary of Health and Human Services to have lobbied for children's health at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. It's irrelevant that the agriculture secretary used to lobby for the National Education Association. It does not affect immigration policy for the pro-immigration president to hire the pro-immigration lobbyist from the National Council of La Raza.
Other lobbyist hires might have raised the possibility of a conflict of interest, but in practice the White House exercised its independence. Hiring a former Service Employees International Union lobbyist did not stop the White House from disagreeing with the union on trade policy. Hiring a former American Civil Liberties Union lobbyist did not stop the White House from disagreeing with civil libertarians on counterterrorism policy. Hiring a former defense contractor lobbyist did not stop the White House from scaling back the military-industrial complex.
In the end, what matters more: Following the letter of a campaign pledge — at the expense of turning away skilled professionals — or ensuring that the underlying spirit of the pledge shapes policy?
What about those former White House staffers who have taken lucrative jobs? Well, what about it? On Obama's first day as president he instituted a ban on former staffers lobbying his administration for as long as he's president. They could still lobby Congress. But they can't profiteer on personal connections cultivated inside the executive branch, rendering them little different than any other lobbyist in Washington. Who cares if some individual former aides make personal decisions to work for private corporations instead of remaining in public service, so long as they can't unduly influence public policy decisions?
By the way, this is change. At least 150 Bush administration staffers become lobbyists after leaving the White House, and they only had a one-year delay before they could turn around and lobby their former agencies.
No, President Obama did not transform Washington's narcissistic culture into a communal Shaker village. If you don't like that, perhaps you shouldn't choose to live there. I don't, and — unlike Leibovich — I don't.
But what's interesting about the past five years in Washington is how certain politicians and aides found a way to navigate, in Rahm Emanuel's words, F**knutsville, and enact policies that others failed to do for decades.
Leibovich appears to have revealed much gossip, and is poised to feed much cynicism. But it's not all that revealing to find that a capital city is filled with weird people hungry for power and influence.
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