Wednesday, June 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.

Comments
5 fiction writers who've turned their attention to Donald Trump

5 fiction writers who've turned their attention to Donald Trump

He might not have intended it, but Donald Trump has been good for book publishing.
Published: 06/15/18
What’s Neal Thompson, author of ‘Kickflip Boys,’ reading?

What’s Neal Thompson, author of ‘Kickflip Boys,’ reading?

Neal ThompsonFor Father’s Day, we checked in with Neal Thompson from his Seattle office. In his new book, Kickflip Boys, Thompson weaves together a story on raising his two independent, passionate sons while giving us an honest look at the underbelly...
Published: 06/15/18
What is Jen Waite, author of the memoir

What is Jen Waite, author of the memoir "A Beautiful, Terrible Thing," reading?

Jen Waite It is June. Romance and weddings are in the air, and with that comes the paperback release of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite, 33. The book, based on Waite’s heartbreaking wedding story, fi...
Published: 06/07/18
Review: Jake Tapper’s ‘Hellfire Club’ a fictional thriller sharpened with real 1950s politics

Review: Jake Tapper’s ‘Hellfire Club’ a fictional thriller sharpened with real 1950s politics

Washington, D.C., is a city in crisis, the operations of the federal government all but paralyzed by the conspiracy theories of a powerful politician who behaves as if the bounds of protocol and decency don’t apply to him. As he distracts the nation,...
Published: 06/06/18
What’s Helen Rappaport reading?

What’s Helen Rappaport reading?

Helen RappaportWhile delving into archives and researching her new book about the murder of the Russian imperial family 100 years ago, The Race to Save the Romanovs, Rappaport celebrated the digital age. "I am able to go back so far in time and look ...
Updated one month ago
Review: Lauren Groff’s ‘Florida’ explores a state beyond the boundaries

Review: Lauren Groff’s ‘Florida’ explores a state beyond the boundaries

In "Flower Hunters," one of the stories in Lauren Groff’s stunning new book Florida, a character gets a reader’s crush on 18th century explorer William Bartram, an early chronicler of the state’s flora and fauna: "She’s most d...
Updated one month ago
Notable: Books for the beach

Notable: Books for the beach

NotableBooks for the beachSuit up: It’s time for a few new books built for vacation reading.By Invitation Only (William Morrow) by Dorothea Benton Frank is the latest serving of Frank’s trademark warm humor and engaging characters, set around two wed...
Updated one month ago
Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

NightstandJudy BlundellSince it’s Memorial Day weekend, we decided to touch base with Judy Blundell, whose new book is High Season. The novel’s protagonist is Ruthie Beamish, director of a small museum who, to make ends meet, rents out her seaside ho...
Updated one month ago

Events: Pulitzer winner Jack Davis to discuss ‘The Gulf’ at Oxford Exchange

Book TalkUniversity of Florida historian Jack E. Davis (The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea) will discuss and sign his Pulitzer Prize-winning book at 1 p.m. May 27 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Admission $5, applicable towar...
Updated one month ago
Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

David Sedaris gets right to the point in the opening of the first essay in his new book, Calypso: "Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll ac...
Updated one month ago