on July 16, 2013
This is not an in-depth investigation into Washington corruption; it is, rather, a panoramic view of the culture of Washington, the fertile soil in which the corruption grows and flourishes. Presented in a lively, humorous manner, it is rather enjoyable to read. So much so that one tends to lose sight of the fact that these are people - Washington insiders, that is - who enrich themselves with money taxpayers are forced to send to the government. You get the sense that these people always have a smirk on their faces, laughing at the stupid people - everyone outside of the Beltway - who support their little aristocracy upon the Potomac ('The Club', as it's referred to). The author, Mark Leibovich, doesn't draw conclusions for us, he presents the rather corrupt underbelly of Washington - politicians and their minions as they really are - and let's us decide just how bad it really is.
The remarkable aspect of the book is the author's ability to not take sides, politically: most books on politics end up offending readers from one side or the other but here both sides are equally hoisted on their own petards. Democrats may outnumber Republicans but only because Leibovich is writing about the last several years, with much of the book centered upon the 2012 elections. But, as a New York Times reporter, the author certainly isn't anti-liberal, by any means; he's simply giving an honest account of what he has seen behind the curtains.
That honesty, however, has its limits and this is my main criticism of the book. Leibovich shies away from exposing true corruption and seems to want to be friends with these people. I suppose a political reporter needs friends and allies in Washington and is disinclined to burn too many bridges by exposing the true breadth and depth of the decadence of 'The Club'. However, it's often like a member of the club - which the author certainly is - having had a few drinks too many is giving us a verbal sneak peek of how Washington works behind the scenes, but giving us only a few quick glances behind the curtain before closing it again (lest he risk his membership for exposing too much). But, to his credit, Leibovich does expose the way-too-cozy relationship between politicians and the media people who cover them, which seems to be the reason why Washington never changes: the public rarely gets the whole truth.
Overall, the book is an amusing and insightful view of Washington that most people never see. Full of unflattering anecdotes about top politicians, but more so a view of the culture that breeds such people and the constellation of enablers which surrounds them. If nothing else, it's a very entertaining book.
on July 20, 2013
Reading Mark Leibovich's "This Town," the image that kept coming to mind was a bunch of ant colonies that over the generations had merged together into one enormous super-colony. No longer competing for resources, they grow fat and complacent as they go about their oh-so-industrious lives. In nature, it would be at this point that something other force would invade - a colony of bigger, badder ants, or some sort of parasitic mite - and do them all in. Fortunately for the denizens of Washington DC, that doesn't seem to be on the horizon for This Town.
Like all dishy political books, most of Leibovich's best anecdotes were leaked before the book was even on the shelves, but there's still plenty of good stuff in there. And by "good stuff," I mean outrageous, maddening, excessive and just plain silly stuff. As Alex Pareene wrote for Salon.com, if you already hate Washington, this book will help you hate it with more specificity.
It's a difficult book to categorize. It's not satire or a polemic. Leibovich doesn't seem to have an ax to grind, and most certainly doesn't make any recommendations for change. In essence, this is a very well-written anthropological study of a specific tribe, with its own culture, language and social mores - with the author playing the part of the anthropologist...observing, slightly bemused, but unwilling to judge. He's willing to let his readers do that for themselves.
on July 19, 2013
For taxpayers, Leibovich's book brings into focus how indifferent our elected officials are to those of us who elected them.
Still, if you can set aside a so-this-is-how-my-tax-dollars-are-spent mentality, you should find the book witty, gossipy and informative - though not surprising. You must see the politicos and hangers-on as the preening pretenders that most of them are. There are few statesmen and women among this crowd and few genuine leaders - from the voter's point of view. Even when they say they are not making deals, they are. I have heard there's no longer a big social scene in D.C., a la the Reagan years, but apparently there is.
I am put off that the author has commercialized his relationships - no matter how shallow they are - but I am a political junkie so I downloaded the book on my Kindle anyway. It confirms what many of us have observed for years: media are more intent on protecting treasured sources than reporting the truth. Sometimes media ignore nasty stories about their favorite news sources. Whether it's Clinton, Petraeus or someone like Anthony Weiner, media love to tear down public figures (it sells)but celebrate their so-called comebacks (it sells). This book also confirms that those who have gotten caught with hands in the cookie jar or on private parts of a much younger woman, were usually already knee-deep in their misdeeds. Lesson for us: forgiving is fine, but we should probably not reelect these people - and we don't have to admire them either. It's fun to just laugh at them.
on July 16, 2013
From the start of "This Town," Mark Leibovich demonstrates his considerable writing skills and his insider's knowledge of Washington. The tales he tells so well confirm his nod to local literary tradition which at times compares D.C. to a high school. I'm betting that at this moment there are plenty of folks in D.C. devouring the book which came out today. ("What did he say about me? What did he say about my friends and the people I'm not friends with?")
The thing is Leibovich does it in such snappy, funny writing that he keeps you reading. He throws out phrases like "peacocking policitians," "garaged yard signs" and "pundit catnip." He breezily refers to insiders by nicknames like "the Tamster," "the Macker" and "the Money Honey." My favorite was that shortly before Romney became the 2012 Republican candidate, voters realized "that they were on the verge of nominating Thurston Howell III."
While Leibovich drops plenty of names, his book isn't just a 400-page version of a tabloid magazine. He has covered his beat (Washington) well and for a long time. No doubt some readers will be disheartened at the cynical and out-for-me attitude of most of the individuals Leibovich describes. Honestly, though, didn't we all pretty much know that already? Others will probably be disappointed that he didn't dish more dirty. But did you really expect the man to go there if he wants to keep his job and his connections?
The book is the solid, well-written result of years of experience. After a while though, it became one more story piled on top of another about smart people with tremendous abilities who almost always succumb to the narcissistic culture of Washington. Leibovich is too smart to offer any suggestions of how we can change it.
on July 19, 2013
Beginning with a big bang, Leibovich treats the reader to a delicious portrayal of vanity and runaway opportunism by the political and chattering classes at a memorial service for the late Tim Russert. And then the air slowly seeps out of the balloon as a gentle takedown ensues. With few exceptions, Leibovich both condemns and excuses the single-minded and shameless pursuit of money, stature, and power by mediocrities inside the Beltway at the expense of real America. Highlights include a well deserved beating for Steve Schmidt, the best line in the book for the reprehensible Richard Gephardt, pot shots at David Gregory who is singled out as a mediocrity in extremis, the shaming of the late Richard Holbrooke for overstaying his welcome, and excuses galore for the conflicts of interest attached to Andrea Mitchell.
Insiders and political junkies who actually watch the Sunday talk shows and patronize other pundit platforms will know most of the characters who swim through the narrative. Nobody else will.
on August 24, 2013
I spent two years on Capitol Hill 1970-72 and witnessed the same kind of behavior presented in this book. The names have changed, but the pattern has changed only in having more money to play with, and do so in a way that brings far greater risks to our country and civilization if we don't get it right. But then as now there is little sense among the political class of the grave responsibility they all have. The one factor that did sober them then was the risk of global thermonuclear war, which has now receded as a perceived danger, even though it still is. The threats now are more abstract, complicated, and difficult for the mediocrities in the political class to understand.
This book does not provide much analysis and no recommendations. It is mainly written to be entertaining, even if it happens to be enlightening as well. However, it does provide evidence that we can analyze, and that we can use to develop reforms. Liebovitz is a reporter, and he reports. The rest is up to us.
So what can we provisionally conclude?
1. With almost no exceptions, our leaders are not intellectually deep persons who value ideas or principles, or get their satisfaction from delivering good governance as an art. They are mainly salesmen, good at making connections and deals, who compartmentalize their thinking so that they can live in a bubble of enablers that is separated from reality and responsibility. No Jeffersons or Madisons among them, and those are the kind of persons that the situation requires. But the system does not allow such persons to ascend to those positions, because they can't be controlled.
2. It is not that our leaders are not representative of the people. They are all too representative. They are not much worse than most of the rest of us. But they need to be much, much better.
3. They behave that way because the structural incentives cause them to do so. Replacing them all would not change the incentives, and even much more talented and virtuous persons would probably mostly succumb to the corrupting influence of those incentives, and purge the system of the few who resist. We need to look at fundamental structural and procedural reforms.
4. The problem depicted is common to most countries that choose their main officials through popular elections. The voters are mostly rationally ignorant and willing to be influenced by the kinds of marketing money can buy, allowing public choice pathologies to prevail. The only alternative to that, other than dictatorship, is sortition, selection at random, like juries, but in a multistage process that alternates with filtering for aptitude and character. The Republic of Venice used such a system from 1268 through 1797 to select their doge, or chief executive. A similar process could be used to select legislators at all levels who would serve for only one term, and have no career path. Staffers could be similarly reassigned at random, preventing them from building empires of influence. There would be a stronger incentive to select persons of greater aptitude during the filtering phase of the sortition process. Without a stable poll of legislators and staffers, the influence of lobbyists would be somewhat dispersed.
on August 19, 2013
Maybe I'm too old to fully appreciate this book, or maybe it's just that I've read better books. I often found myself wondering why I was reading it, sometimes having the feeling that I had regressed 50 some years to high school days with all the ins and outs of being in or out, except in Washington there's big money, big names and huge egos.
Leibovich writes from an insider's perspective using inside slang and references (lots of nicknames - Leibovich wore out his "Mittens" and a few other nicknames), most of which he defines. But I had to look up a few slang words, some of which were in popular use by teenagers in the 1980s, and now they're in Washington. Unfamiliar with this author, I do not know whether this writing is characteristic of his style or if the style is idiomatic in this specific work. Either way, it seemed somewhat forced; a little too much emphasis on the author being "in," it seemed.
The section on Harry Reid was interesting enough for me to look up his hometown on Google Earth and take a small tour (it's a small town). Most of the book simply reaffirmed my perception of the characters being pretty much as they usually portray themselves. There was enough humor to keep me reading to the end, and the author apparently had fun with the writing. But, having heard an interesting National Public Radio interview of the author, I had different expectations, thinking there would be a little more substance. Yet, the title, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral? Plus Plenty of Valet Parking should have been a tip off. While often superficially entertaining, a deeper unstated theme, intended or not, might be that we're all fiddling while Rome is burning.
on October 9, 2013
This was a great idea that was poor in its execution. The author, at first, sounds as if he is going to take us into the middle of the fray and show us exactly what the problem with Washington and our government is. Only, he doesn't do that. It devolves into a messy People Magazine expose and gossipy piece of fluff. However, it did get Mark Leibovich his "fame episode". The author does little to tell us where the corruption is, does nothing in telling us where all this legal, yet corruptive money comes from. He simply tells embarassing tales about other people. And one can tell that all the while, he pulls his punches. Frankly, Leibovich sounds as stupid and self-possessed as those that he sort-of criticizes.
One can see the problem with the New York Times when you look at the careers of Leibovich and Maureen Dowd, among others. It's "People Magazine" for semi-serious readers. If you like jaded gossip from a fellow who is desparately trying to separate himself from his bretheren journalist insofar as popularity, then you will like this book. If you want to find out what is going on in Washington and options for solutions, do not waste your time with this book. I did and I regret it.
The inside-front cover blurb touts Mark Leibovich's THIS TOWN as a "blistering, stunning - and often hysterically funny - examination of our ruling class's incestuous `media industrial complex.' '' That's somewhat overstated, in my opinion, but the details unfurled by the author certainly flap with gossip and name dropping.
Leibovich is chief national correspondent for "The New York Times Magazine" and based in Washington, D.C. He is deeply imbedded in the nexus of politics and media, a position he has no trouble making fun of. An important aspect of his book is political a** kissing by reporters trying to get inside information about the workings of our government. He doesn't hide the fact that he's right there on his knees, scrambling with the pooched-up multitudes, trying to get newsy tidbits.
The book has an abundance of snarky comments and hearsay gossip. His background material must be pretty solid because there's not much retribution being reported and he still gets to attend glitzy parties. It's apparent that the feathers of our political and media elite are well-conditioned to the downpour of criticism heaped upon them. Their memories are also short and, with a few exceptions, long-lasting enmity is a rare occurrence.
Massive egos and self-advancement agendas are readily accepted among the elite in Washington. Indeed, the practitioners of normally frowned upon mannerisms seem to rise to the top of the power heap where they are idolized and caressed. That's not to say they are admired. The author cites numerous comical and critical comments passed around under the breaths of observers as the political parrots strut around.
Being somewhat of a gossip-monger myself, I enjoy mud-slinging and "foul whisperings," as Shakespeare put it. I admire Leibovich's willingness to put himself out there as he spreads the slime found within the workings of our government. It's apparent that he doesn't consider it hazardous to shovel dirt and that makes for an entertaining read.
I had some problems with the book, as I always seem to have. I thought there were too many names of non-important people thrown around who really have nothing to do with the author's scandalous look at the political world in our nation's capital. I also thought the account of his involvement in some questionable e-mail distribution practices was too lengthy and not particularly earth shattering. I found him somewhat long-winded in places, going on at great length to describe events that didn't fit into his theme. But I don't know the guy; that may well be his modus operandi.
I enjoyed the book. My impatience with his wordiness was overshadowed by my appreciation of his writing skills and the inside look at our seemingly ineffective political process. I also appreciated his nonpartisan reporting. Pomposity, stubbornness, and greed have no political party. Authors who can be neutral when writing about politics are in short supply these days.
Schuyler T Wallace
Author of TIN LIZARD TALES
on August 23, 2013
Mark Leibovich invites you to see Washington's malignant and corrupt dysfunction as sort of... funny. It's not -- most outside the D.C. / New York power axis find it tragic and infuriating. But that's not the cool, cynical, jaundiced view. And it's certainly not the view of the gilded elites Leibovich tracks through "This Town," because D.C. dysfunction is making them rich.
You won't know which is sadder: the tone-deaf isolation of all these media kings and queens, political fixers, shameless lobbyists, and assorted hustlers feeding off one another... or the author's failure to muster sadness or outrage. It is no secret that Washington culture is rotten, but what might be revelatory is the thorough lack of interest, on the inside, in doing anything to make government more effective and accountable.
Where the book is meant to be giggly and whimsical it's actually depressing.
Blame for Washington's "broken" state is often placed on "partisan gridlock," but "This Town" shows how little partisanship has to do with it. Democrats and Republicans belly up to the same troughs, are made rich by the same corporate interests, and work easily alongside one another when it's to their advantage. The real divide is between the privileged few thriving within Beltway culture and the rest of the country. The nation's attitude toward these people ought to be curdling into resentment, not relaxing into bemused tolerance at their zany antics. Yet that's where Leibovich asks you to stand.
Given all that's wrong with Washington, then, "This Town" isn't very helpful or constructive.