The other day I was scanning online through some old year end "Best of" lists from some newspaper websites looking for books to add to my already substantial reading list. That's when I came upon a review of THIS TOWN -- Two Parties and a Funeral Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich, which was published last year to some excellent critical acclaim. I haven't yet read Leibovich's book, but some of the blurbs from the New York Times review of it were so interesting that I thought I would share them here:
Not to ruin it for you, but: if you already hate Washington, you’re going to hate it a whole lot more after reading Mark Leibovich’s takedown of the creatures who infest our nation’s capital and rule our destinies. And in case you are deluded enough as to think they care, you’ll learn that they already hate you. He quotes his former Washington Post colleague Henry Allen: “Washington feels like a conspiracy we’re all in together, and nobody else in America quite understands, even though they pay for it.”It's a conspiracy, all right, if in fact only a loose one among a large group of sociopaths who hate each other almost as much as they hate you and me. The meat of the review, and thus the book, comes with the author's depictions of four major changes that have come to Washington in recent decades:
Lobbying. President Obama’s first year in office was the best year ever for the special interests industry, which earned $3.47 billion lobbying the federal government. Ka-ching — your change, sir. There’s a phrase in journalism-speak called “burying the lede,” which Leibovich appears to do by waiting until Page 330 to cite this arresting figure (previously reported by The Atlantic): in 1974, 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. “Now 50 percent of senators and 42 percent of congressmen do.” No one goes home anymore. Cincinnatus, call your office.I spent most of my career prior to my recent retirement inside the Beltway, but I was as far away (metaphorically if not literally) from the glitz and glamour of "official" (read: "political") Washington as I'd been when I was still growing up in Illinois. You're either in what the late George Carlin described as "The Big Club" or you're not, and I most decidedly was not.
There are a number of sanctimonious standout “formers” in Leibovich’s Congressional hall of shame, but just to name a few exemplars who gleefully inhabit ethical no-worry zones and execute brisk 180-degree switcheroos on any issue, including the Armenian genocide, so long as it pays: Dick Gephardt, Evan Bayh and Tim Pawlenty. (Christopher Dodd, late of Connecticut, is another beauty. Disclosure: he beat my uncle out of a Senate seat, but judge for yourself if he isn’t loathsome for other reasons.) My own modest proposal is that the media stop referring to these scoundrels as “strategic consultants” or their other camouflage titles and call them what they are: influence peddlers. I know — good luck with that.
The other major change took place pari passu with lobbying: the arrival of big money in Washington. “Over the last dozen years,” Leibovich writes, “corporate America (much of it Wall Street) has tripled the amount of money it has spent on lobbying and public affairs consulting in D.C.” Alongside this money comes the tsunami of dollars from presidential campaigns. He reports that during the 2012 contest, the so-called super PACs and megadonors pumped “upwards of $2 billion . . . into the empty-calorie economy of two men destroying each other.” He refers to a datum courtesy of The Huffington Post, which reported in the spring of 2012 that, so far, “the top 150 consulting companies had . . . grossed more than $465 million” during the campaign.
All of which has given rise to another unlovely development: political consultants and their concomitant celebrity. This breed has, Leibovich says, essentially replaced the old-style political bosses. One might ask: is it a bad thing that we now have the omnipresent James Carville and Mary Matalin and their ilk? Aren’t we better off for this “celebrity-industrial complex” instead of the smoke-filled rooms of yore? Over to you, but at least the boys in the smoke-filled rooms didn’t yap at us on TV on the Sabbath and endorse Maker’s Mark bourbon. (Honestly, James and Mary. They’re also doing the safety briefing voice-over for Independence Air. Is this a great country or what? Meanwhile, on “Good Morning America” tomorrow, George Stephanopoulos’s guests are. . . .)
Bringing us to the fourth change: Pandora’s (cable TV) box. The rise of cable television and the 24/7 news cycle, as well as Facebook, Twitter and the rest of social media, have provided all these people with heretofore unimaginable influence. “Suddenly,” Leibovich writes, “anyone without facial warts could call themselves a ‘strategist’ and get on TV. Or start an e-mail newsletter, Web site or, later, blog, Facebook page or Twitter following — in other words, become Famous for Washington.”
It has also enabled journalists to turn themselves into pundits, with all the glittery and greasy emoluments of that lower trade. “Punditry,” he writes, “has replaced reporting as journalism’s highest calling, accompanied by a mad dash of ‘self-branding,’ to borrow a term that had now fully infested the city: everyone now hellbent on branding themselves in the marketplace, like Cheetos (Russert was the local Coca-Cola). They gather, all the brands, at . . . self-reverential festivals, like the April White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, whose buffet of ‘pre-parties’ and ‘after-parties’ now numbers more than two dozen — because a single banquet, it is clear, cannot properly celebrate the full achievements of the People Who Run Your Country.”
Nevertheless, what I've witnessed since arriving in the DC area a month before Bill Clinton won his first term in office is how the money pump, which has always propped up the world's largest "company town," has in the years since the start of the War on Terror and particularly since the insane federal borrowing and spending in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, almost literally paved the streets of the city and its immediate suburbs with gold. This incredible surge of wealth, most of it going to the lobbyists, lawyers and "Beltway Bandit" contractors, can be seen everywhere from the countless new suburban McMansions and upscale shopping malls to the many regentrified DC neighborhoods that have changed the demographic makeup of the so-called "Chocolate City" so dramatically that it no longer has a black majority population. Washington as a workplace is no longer a locale for citizens who really believe in public service (as I once did), but has instead become a gold rush city where the greedy and power hungry come to strike it rich.
And all of this, of course, is enabled by Americans who are either ignorant, stupid or willfully blind enough to believe it still matters what party label the sociopathic social climbers who come to Washington to make their fortune wear. The real truth is personified by former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who after his recent "stunning" primary defeat almost immediately signed on as a lobbyist making 26 times the average annual household income of his former Virginia district.
Of course, for all of their bluster and preening these people are still just puppets dancing on the ends of strings held by the billionaires who pay the bills. And the system that supports both them and their paymasters is getting more brittle and creakier by the year. Someday, the whole (ahem) house of cards is going to come crashing down, and those who have so come to disdain their fellow citizens are going to get a rude awakening in just what it means to be the objects of their collective hatred.
Bonus: "They still call it The White House, but that's a temporary condition"