By CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY
July 25, 2013
Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital
By Mark Leibovich
386 pp. Blue Rider Press. $27.95.
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.”
Contrary to the subtitle, there are actually two funerals, which constitute the high — and low — points of the book: the farewells for Tim Russert, longtime host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and Richard Holbrooke, late of the State Department. These chapters are mini-masterpieces of politico-anthropological sociology. Leibovich does for Russert’s memorial service at the Kennedy Center what Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic” did for Lenny and Felicia Bernstein’s party for the Black Panthers. Holbrooke’s valedictory, also held at the Ken Cen, First Secular Megachurch of Self-Regard, reads like the funeral scene in “The Godfather,” transplanted to the banks of the Potomac. Both occasions were (yes, of course) sad, both men having been cut down in their prime (or near prime). But in Leibovich’s rendering, they are gorgeous pageants of Human Comedy, large-C and small-c.
No one, Leibovich notes, would have enjoyed it more than Russert, a greatly beloved figure — “mayor of This Town.” He “would have loved the outpouring from the power mourners. And he also would have understood better than everyone that all of the speeches and tributes and telegenic choke-ups were never, not for a second, about him. They were about people left behind to scrape their way up the pecking order in his absence.” If it were a movie, and pray may it become one, it could be called “Netwaking Tim Russert.”
Holbrooke’s memorial service, in turn, featured 15 eulogists. “The stories were told in the spirit of ‘You can’t help but love the guy,’ ” Leibovich writes, “even if some people very much could.” His account takes on a Shakespearean flavor as various eulogists turn it into a not-even-thinly-veiled smack-down of the conspicuous captive mourner sitting onstage — President Obama. As a personality, Holbrooke was your proverbial larger-than-life dynamo. But dynamos are exhausting, and Obama had reached his exhaustion point early on, after which he seemed to take perverse enjoyment in undercutting and humiliating his special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Enter (trumpets, fanfare) former President Clinton, who uses his eulogy slot to plunge a stealth dagger into the man who defeated his wife in 2008. This makes for spectator sport of the very highest order, and the craftiest bit of eulogy jujitsu since Mark Antony took to the rostrum in 44 B.C. to praise Brutus and the rest.
Bonus details: Obama apparently hates having to sit through other people’s speeches, even when they aren’t sneak attacks on him. Also: Henry Kissinger telling Holbrooke’s widow that Obama is, as Nixon was, a loner, with this rather piquant difference: “Nixon liked to have big personalities around him. Obama does not.” This is a telling observation, coming from the man who has known all the personalities of his time.
In one sense, these episodes simply affirm, as do the two parties of the book’s subtitle, an old, familiar theme: Vanity Fair, peacock egos, lust for power, greed, betrayal and broken hearts. We’re shocked — shocked — that human nature is taking place in the nation’s capital! Pass the salt, would you?
Anyone who’s lived in Washington for any length of time, listening to the latest candidate for the nation’s highest office thump the lectern and proclaim he is going to change the way we do business in Washington . . . will yawn. We heard rather a lot about all that in 2008. So, has Washington changed? Or as Sarah Palin would put it, “How’s that hopey-changey thing workin’ out for ya?”
The answer, according to Leibovich, the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, is: yes, actually, it has, but not in ways that benefit the Republic that the founders bequeathed us and that we squander so promiscuously.
He adduces four serious — I’m trying to avoid saying “tectonic” — shifts that have taken place over the last 40 years. Combined, they make “This Town” read like the endgame chapters of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” In addition to his reporting talents, Leibovich is a writer of excellent zest. At times, this book is laugh-out-loud (as well as weep-out-loud). He is an exuberant writer, even as his reporting leaves one reaching for the Xanax. As for those four big changes:
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.
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.” Tom Brokaw, current wearer of the mantles of Walter Cronkite and Tim Russert, has now publicly declared he’s over and out and done with the damn thing, which has become a grotesque, narcissistic self-parody.
The proliferation of “formers” and pundits has resulted in “a high-profile blur of People on TV whose brands overtook their professional identities. They were not journalists or strategists or pols per se, but citizens of the greenroom.”
“Citizens of the Greenroom” would have made a dandy title for this vastly entertaining and deeply troubling book. So would — to borrow from Garrett Morris’s Chico Escuela shtick on the old “Saturday Night Live” — “Washington Been Bery, Bery Good to Me!” Or, to borrow from P. J. O’Rourke’s imperishable 1991 study of Washington, “Parliament of Whores, Continued.”
By the end, one is left thinking that our country would be so much better off if, after putting in their years of “public service,” all these people would just go home. Or just away. But then what would we do for entertainment, being left with a mere Parliament of Bores?