There are certain books that destroy the author’s relationship with his community. Stevie Smith began her Novel on Yellow Paper with the words, “Good-bye to all my friends, my beautiful and lovely friends.” Julia Phillips made permanent enemies in Hollywood with You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. Greg Smith isn’t welcome in the Goldman cafeteria.
Mark Leibovich’s Washington, D.C., takedown — intensely anticipated for months inside the Beltway — isn’t that kind of book. Instead, This Town is a gentle satire that fills out in miniatures the case against Washington that has been widely accepted abroad in the land for decades (and is constantly articulated by politicians who work in Washington), but rarely presented in this sort of gimlet-eyed detail. The core narrative is “about how Obama and his team came to Washington with solemn vows to change it but then wound up joining the revolving-door culture,” as Dana Millbank wrote last Thursday. (His column was one of the Washington Post’s nine holiday weekend entries on This Town, after BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski bought a copy of the book at Newark Liberty Airport and broke the embargo on its juiciest scoop.)
As former Sen. Trent Lott tells Leibovich: “Washington is where the money is. That’s generally what keeps people here.”
Some of the details along those lines are genuinely discomfiting, in particular the suggestion that Washington operator and TV producer Tammy Haddad and others use the epilepsy charity that Obama guru David Axelrod and his wife founded for their disabled daughter as a path to access. Others are genuinely interesting and revelatory — the moment, for instance, in the late summer of 2011 when Obama stalked out of an informal Saturday meeting with senior staff after elements of an earlier one had been leaked, and never attended another one. “I trusted you guys,” he said on the way out the door.
But This Town typically keeps its satire gentle; Leibovich acknowledges early on that he lives there. He doesn’t want to burn the place down, and you sometimes wonder why he isn’t angrier. My own favorite character in the book is Harry Reid, who occasionally seems to take over as a blunter and nastier narrator, with a voice that sounds a bit like Hemingway. “Reid loves Jews.” Reid knows that John Kerry has “no friends.” And Reid knows from the start that the young Sen. Barack Obama is “unreachable in basic ways.”
Leibovich, unlike Reid, has real affection for many of his characters — and real needs to maintain them as sources (he’s a writer for the New York Times Magazine) and neighbors — and he can’t quite bring himself to damn them. His habit of pulling punches is the only annoying tic in a very well-written book: He gets partway through an attack on NBC’s Andrea Mitchell for conflicts of interest before deciding that she is in fact “a fierce, smart, and tenacious journalist and pioneer among woman broadcasters … a real-deal reporter … a journalist, and no one works harder.” Senator-turned-lobbyist Chris Dodd “for what it’s worth, is no asshole.” Of Clinton fundraiser Terry McAuliffe, painted throughout as detestable and marginally corrupt: “You can be the most detestable person in the world — and the Macker is not, for the record.” Lobbyist Heather Podesta looks like “a much more stylish and, yes, much prettier version of Cruella De Vil.”
Leibovich also throws a few unapologetically hard punches. Former Clinton pollster Mark Penn is the icon of “failing upward.” Former Clinton aide Sid Blumenthal looks like a maniac. The late NBC host Tim Russert also comes up for a revision: “He was a superb journalist — not so much in the sense that he wrote or produced stories or unearthed wrongdoings, but in the sense that he was a guy on TV whom everyone knew, who asked the ‘tough but fairs’ of important newsmakers and did so in a way that was distinctive and combative and made for good TV,” Leibovich writes, adding later, “No one was better attuned than Russert to the cultural erogenous zones of powerful men.”
But these are oft-told Washington jokes, if not told before in print. They don’t fundamentally threaten the town. Indeed, figures like the ubiquitous lawyer and fixer Bob Barnett, whose eagerness to see his name in print is also a source of barely disguised local amusement, are probably enhanced by being at the center of a book about power and connections in Washington. (Barnett, I’m told, emphatically did not see it that way, and let it be known that he was concerned over the manner in which he was going to be portrayed.)
In the same vein, the book winds up being a sort of extended love letter to Politico, my old employer, which has more than 50 mentions in This Town — conquest, clearly, complete. (Twitter, by contrast, is mentioned five times.)
This Town was published under the imprint of the legendary political editor David Rosenthal (who also worked with BuzzFeed on a political project), and Leibovich invokes his debt to Richard Ben Cramer; by way of homage, he follows Cramer’s example in leaving off the index. In a bit of showmanship that defeats the joke a bit, however, the publisher has attached a “warning” to the back cover that “those players wishing to know how they came out will need to read the book.” (Rosenthal also suggested that BuzzFeed put together its own index; we did, but the Post beat us to it.)
Leibovich writes that one of the book’s possible titles was “You’ll Always Have Lunch in This Town Again.” Self-loathing is Washington’s favorite sport, and Leibovich’s next round of subjects are no doubt already lining up to be bought meals.