Friday, April 20, 2018
Books

Review: 'This Town' shrinks Washington to its petty dimensions

For one brief, faux magic moment, I was a big shot in This Town.

As a midlevel executive for a fledging cable news operation, the Satellite NewsChannel, a joint venture between Westinghouse Broadcasting and ABC News, I found myself in Washington, D.C., for meetings just before the service launched in 1982.

I arranged to have dinner with SNC vice president Tom Capra (yes, son of Frank) and the legendary ABC News foreign correspondent Lou Cioffi, who was now SNC's Washington bureau chief. I had made a reservation in my name at Mel Krupin's, at the time one of the premier see-and-be-seen eateries in the capital.

As Krupin himself ushered me to a far dark corner of the restaurant (we might as well have had a table in Dupont Circle), I casually mentioned I would be meeting Capra and Cioffi. Before I could sit down, I felt Krupin's viselike grip on my arm as I was re-ushered to a prominent table in the center of the restaurant. Capra and Cioffi arrived moments later, suitably impressed at my seating arrangement clout with Krupin.

Mark Leibovich knows something, too, about the power mating rituals among Washington's elite, its wanna-bes, its has-beens and never-weres, as he recounts with robust and funny zeal in This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America's Gilded Capital. It's a town so full of preening political peacocks it needed an equally verbose title to match.

As chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine and a former reporter for the Washington Post, Leibovich not only knows the capital, but is an unapologetic (well, maybe just a little bit) member of its inner circles of influence, power and cocktail parties.

The title of This Town refers to a phrase oft-repeated within the Beltway, that So-and-so is "the most powerful lobbyist in this town," or "the most influential lawyer in this town," or yes, perhaps, "the best connected hooker in this town."

For the political junkie, reading This Town is like eating peanuts as it explores the unchained narcissism of the people who are supposed to be running the country in between appearances on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and the rest of the chattering class soapboxes.

So it seems perfectly appropriate for Leibovich to use the 2008 funeral of the late Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert to lay the predicate for the book's scathing but hilarious indictment of the shallowness of Washington. Read this book and you'll understand why it made perfect sense to build the city on top of a swamp.

This wasn't a memorial service as much as it was a gathering of soaring egos attending a command performance of feigned grief, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, neither of whom had much use for Russert — nor he for them.

Amid the mourners, Leibovich notes, bookers for the city's numerous political talk shows exploited the target-rich environment for potential guests. Russert, known as the unofficial mayor of "this town," would have been amused.

Throughout This Town, Leibovich exposes the petty jealousies and shameless hypocrisies of Washington's clannish tribes. Outsiders (read: the rest of us) all too often view the city through the prism of bickering between Democrat/Republican, liberal/conservative, right/left. After all, that's what we see every night on the newscasts.

But Leibovich offers a far more nuanced glimpse of the city's inner workings, where status, power, privilege and money trump such esoteric nonsense as actually having a set of principles.

California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa comes in for some particularly brutal treatment by Leibovich as a headline-grabbing, camera-hogging opportunist using his chairman's perch atop the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to elevate his standing, power and media exposure, and to investigate everyone and everything as if a high crime and misdemeanor occurs with greater frequency than jaywalking across Connecticut Avenue.

And it is on this point, the reader begins to learn, for all its reputation as the capital of the world's foremost superpower, just how parochial "this town" truly is. Within its environs, while appearing on Meet the Press or being profiled in the New York Times certainly boosts one's political stock, Leibovich notes the most powerful news organization is the chatty Politico website, and in particular the secretive Mike Allen, who pens the service's Playbook feature.

It is Politico and the gossipy Playbook that often disproportionately set the daily agenda of what constitutes news, who's in, who's out, the winners and the losers.

This Town is a valuable primer into how the city works and, more often than not, how it doesn't work.

Perhaps the best anecdote capturing the city's penchant for self-promotion is one about lawyer Ken Duberstein, who very, very briefly served as Ronald Reagan's chief of staff. The easily slighted Duberstein is known to complain bitterly if he is ever referred to as a "former Reagan administration official," rather than by his former title, leading to the joke that Ken Duberstein spent 6 1/2 months as Reagan's chief of staff and the next 24 years dining out on it.

And that explains This Town perfectly.

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