Brand building trumps consensus building in Washington

Speaking on the second-day of the federal government shutdown, journalist Mark Leibovich said Washington doesn’t work anymore because of media polarization, big money and the “celebritization” of politicians. He said the media “has made it easy to grandstand” for politicians such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Leibovich, chief national correspondent of the New York Times Magazine, is author of the acclaimed “This Town” book skewering Washington. He delivered the James C. Millstone Lecture at the new Saint Louis University Law School Oct. 2. Millstone was a legendary editor of the St. Louis Post- Dispatch who died in 1992.

Instead of seeking the collective good, politicians “build a brand” with the complicity of a pliant media, Leibovich said, adding: “We have a segregation of media now. We have liberals watching one network and conservatives another network.”

Three big changes in the capital this century have resulted in a system built to serve “self-interest,” he said. Those changes are:

  • New media.
  • Big money in political campaigns.
  • The emphasis by politicians on creating a brand.

He referred to the cacophony of new media voices as the “anarchy of the peanut gallery.”

When politicians leave Congress, they cash in as lobbyists, he said. About 42 percent of former members of the House and 50 percent of senators take that route, he said, as opposed to just 3 percent in 1974.

Leibovich pointed out how different that path is from the one taken by former Sens. John C. Danforth and Thomas F. Eagleton, both of whom returned to St. Louis to practice law after leaving the Senate. Danforth, his wife, Sally, and Barbara Smith Eagleton, the senator’s widow, were in the audience.

Leibovich said he agreed with a comment by Sen. Danforth that “no one laughs” anymore in Washington, and members of Congress and their families don’t know each other very well. John Danforth added from the audience that part of the problem is the demand for ideological “purity.” By contrast, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., would always be asking whether members were getting things done.

Asked if opposition to President Barack Obama is fueled by racism, Leibowich said he didn’t know what was in people’s hearts. He noted that President George W. Bush “had some enormously vitriolic critics on the left, and President Bill Clinton had vitriolic critics on the right.”

Leibovich doubted whether the current dysfunction in Washington will continue.

“I don’t think this is sustainable,” he said. “I think something will change. Obama’s election and the Tea Party win both are of a piece that speaks of a hunger for change.”


William H. Freivogel is the publisher of Gateway Journalism Review and director of the SIU Carbondale School of Journalism.  He is a former editorial page deputy editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and contributes to the St. Louis Beacon.  He is a member of the Missouri Bar.

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