GJR book review: ‘This Town’ offers no prescription for reforming America’s gilded capital

‘Mark Leibovich. This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus Plenty of Valet Parking – in America’s Gilded Capital (2013) New York: Blue Rider Press, a Member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 371 pages

 

By Chris Burnett

The funerals of Tim Russert, longtime host of “Meet the Press,” and Richard Holbrooke, American diplomat and adviser to Democratic presidents, involved two men who would seem on the surface to have had little in common. Holbrooke, the hard-charging special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan at the time of his death in 2010, moved in the highest diplomatic circles, never shied away from controversy and made no attempt to keep his ego in check. Russert, who died two years earlier, was the avuncular everyman, known for his fair-minded but tough questioning of American political figures. He clearly had an ego, too, but he kept it under check, preferring to talk and write about his affection for his father, Big Russ.

In Washington journalism and politics, however, the worlds of these two men – and the worlds of countless other journalists and politicians – are shared. Funerals become special events, where the high and mighty (and political climbers from the media and politics) are on hand, as much to be seen as sensitive. Bill and Hillary Clinton, the apex of the social circle of today’s Washington, attended both funerals. In the world of insider Washington, funerals, just like April’s gala White House Correspondent’s Dinner, are not just attended and televised. They’re also tweeted about, covered for days and weeks before and after, and become Washington’s version of Hollywood on the Potomac. To be at these events, after all, is to be in “The Club” of Washington journalistic and political elite.

Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, and himself most likely considered a member of “The Club,” tells this story of journalistic and political Washington during the Obama presidency in the book “This Town.” It’s the ideal beach read – and if you’re into the world of politics and the media of the Beltway sort, it’s a real page-turner.

As a Washington reporter in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, and as an unreformed political junkie, I loved the book. It described a Washington journalism that still resembles that of the 1980s, but which also has changed. In the 1980s, journalists went with their political friends (generally those they covered or celebrities they were able to land) to the annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner, held at the Washington Hilton Hotel. They also angled to get jobs that would get them into “The Club,” which then consisted of the big national newspapers, networks and CNN. For those in the second tier (I was a regional reporter for the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch) members of “The Club” were those you worked next to, not really with. I’d go to the Correspondent’s Dinner, but not with the best prom date or invitation to the most glittering before and after parties.

What’s changed in the last 20 or so years, according to Leibovich, is the expansion of cable television news starting in the 1990s and the explosion of the Internet. Organizations such as Politico, the political news wire service started in 2007 that distributes its content in print, radio, television – and, most significantly, on the Internet – have taken away much of the agenda-setting role once played by the New York Times and Washington Post. The book is at its best in its profile of veteran Club reporter Mike Allen, whose daily “Playbook” column in Politico is a must-read ticker of the day’s news, with a focus on the personalities in the media and politics on Capitol Hill and in the White House. At 8 a.m. on any given day, those on the campaign bus are either reading or have already read “The Playbook,” Leibovich says.

Leibovich calls all this a sort of pigpen, with politicians and political “spinmeisters” jumping into journalism (as in Obama pal David Axelrod now serving as a commentator for MSNBC) or setting up lobbying shops, and journalists angling for higher-paying jobs in public and government relations. With the 24-hour news cycle feeding an orgy of the trivial and the trendy, and with insiders reluctant to burn the sources they are likely to run into at tomorrow’s party, what happens to serious coverage of government?

This book provides no answer to this question, unfortunately, that’s its biggest fault. This book entertains, even amuses, but provides no prescriptions. For those living outside the Washington Beltway, the book – which has no index, lest people quoted seek out reference to their name – has got to be a tad depressing. The fact that all these narcissists are running and reporting on major events involving the country, getting rich or at least living comfortably, while the rest of the nation struggles through an economic recession can get tiring when thrown in your face page after page. Still, I found “This Town” an immensely entertaining read. It describes a political Washington that President Obama promised to reform when he came to office, and it leaves you chuckling at stories but frustrated by what is most likely the impossibility of that task. Still, the book begs the question: Is this the best we can do?

Chris Burnett is professor and chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at California State University, Long Beach. He reported on Congress and the Supreme Court and the politics of Washington from 1979 to 1989.