Book Chat: This Town, Session #1

No matter how disappointed people are in their capital, even the most tuned-in consumers have no idea what the modern cinematic version of This Town really looks like. They might know the boilerplate about “people who have been in Washington too long”, how the city is not bipartisan enough and filled with too many creatures of the Beltway. But that misses the running existential contradictions of DC, a place where “authenticity and fantasy are close companions”, as the Washington Post‘s Henry Allen once wrote. It misses that the city, far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected. It misses the degree to which the New Media has democratized the political conversation while accentuating Washington’s insular, myopic & self-loving tendencies. It misses, most of all, a full examination of how Washington may not serve the country well but has in fact worked splendidly for Washington itself — a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives. — page 10

Back in the 1970s, a friend who’d grown up in the Beltway suburbs first taught me how Washington is a company town. Just as Detroit produced cars and New York produces finance, DC is the place where “government” is the monopoly industry. The vicissitudes of the individual government-producing factories (the White House, Congress, the Defense Department) have an outsized weight in the local conversation, because of the degree to which the fortunes of every small business and civil servant and real-estate agent depend upon those factories. Perhaps the main difference, forty years later, is how much that ‘New Media’ has allowed those of us well outside the company town to see every unsavory part of the sausage-making machinery…

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So far — I’m on Page 80, loving Harry Reid even a little bit more — This Town seems to betray Leibovich’s newspaper roots. It’s both eminently readable (there’s always another fun nugget in the next paragraph) and hard to pick up again once I’ve put it down (none of those nuggets seem to be leading to a wider arc).

How far have you guys gotten?
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ETA: Thanks to all who participated this week!

Gonna do at least one more ‘This Town’ discussion — same time, same place, next Monday at 9pm EST.

Anybody want to argue for a different day or time, add a comment here or email me directly at annelaurie (at) verizon.net (click on my name under ‘contact’ in the right-hand column).

What’s your opinion, so far?






35 replies
  1. 1
    lahke says:

    I’m only about 100 pages into this book, but stalled because I’m having trouble with the major tongue-bath he’s giving Tim Russert. From skimming the notes in back, I don’t see that he ever addresses the reality of how much Russert was a corporate shill, let alone the lying by omission that he performed every day between the time that Valerie Plame was outed in 2003 and he finally testified in 2007. He was a participant in the original leaking efforts by Libby, he testified in secret to the grand jury, and all the while he was pretending to report objectively. If Leibovich can’t bring himself to mention this stuff, he’s even more in the tank in This Town than he admits to.

    Here’s the link on Russert:
    http://www.beachwoodreporter.c.....ussert.php

    I agree that it seems to be all tidbits so far, so it’s been hard to get back to.

  2. 2
    Chris says:

    The vicissitudes of the individual government-producing factories (the White House, Congress, the Defense Department) have an outsized weight in the local conversation, because of the degree to which the fortunes of every small business and civil servant and real-estate agent depend upon those factories

    To be sure.

    I used to work in a government building close by the White House, and we had a few shutdown scares in the time I was there. Every time that happened I remember looking around at all all the coffee shops, hot dog stands, fast-food joints, CVS’s, et al and thinking “holy shit, these guys are going to get hit hard if all the fed buildings around here close for a few weeks.”

  3. 3
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    I’ve read, I guess, not quite half. I’m finding it an easy and enjoyable read — the guy can write, and tosses in enough snark to keep me coming back for more. His subject matter is, of course, deplorable — I am newly sickened at the circle-jerk of politics-government-media-lobbyists-entertainment-and-ridiculous-wealth he describes (but describes so deliciously).

    Still, for someone who is essentially in the position of a fish explaining what it’s like to be wet all the time, he’s doing a decent job.

  4. 4
    Anne Laurie says:

    @lahke: In Leibovich’s defense, if you think of his book as an anthropological tract, the Tim Russert idolization is part of the point.

    “Here we have a savage tribe that idolizes something they call ‘access’. Their recently deceased official King of Access was mourned with vast public shows of ‘bipartisanship’ and savage camera-scrumming. And by tribal custom, all public interactions must now include accolades to the late King Russert, until a new King of Access can be anointed by winning a sufficient ‘mind share’ of the media green rooms plus Politico… “

  5. 5
    lahke says:

    @Anne Laurie:

    But all he did with the access is cozy up to people, and be known for it. It was like hoarding money you’ll never spend.

    Unless it was all to get a job for Luke, of course.

  6. 6
    Steeplejack says:

    I’ve read only the first chapter so far, and I find myself being distracted by Leibovich’s clunky writing style.

    [Robert Gibbs] keeps getting approached in airports and on the street for his autograph. He is a destination for a populace trained to view human interaction through the prism of “How can this person be helpful to me?” [. . .]

    Next to Gibbs presides another beneficial destination: David Axelrod, a Democratic media consultant and kibitzing walrus of a mensch who orchestrated Obama’s run to the 2008 Democratic nomination.

    (I put in the first paragraph only to give context for the word destination in the second.)

    A “destination” “presides”? And the guy is not just a mensch but a kibitzing walrus of a mensch? This reads like some demented post-modern version of Walter Winchell mated with a wise-guy sportswriter. I am turning each page fearful that if I see ducats used for tickets I will get a nosebleed.

  7. 7
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    When This Town was first published, there was a lot of buzz about the fact that it didn’t have an index, so DC players couldn’t do the “Washington Read” (i.e., looking up their own names). Well, I’m reading it as an e-book, and of course it’s super easy to type in any name you want into the search box and it wil bring up every mention.

    So this morning, when I had on NPR in the background and heard Cokie Roberts doing her weekly phone-in to “Morning Edition” (because she is such a very important journalist!), I typed “Cokie” into the search box.

    Nothing. Nada. In this book, Cokie is a non-person. (By contrast, her high-powered lobbyist brother, Tommy Boggs, is mentioned frequently.)

    Made me chuckle.

  8. 8
    Hunter Gathers says:

    I’ve read all of it. although I skipped the bit about the Issa staffer who was fired for whatever reason.Could give a shit about another Captain of Upward Failure, so I skipped ahead. Felt like Leibovich pulled his punches a bit. But not everyone can be HST. If anything, my opinion of the DC Press Corpse is even lower thanks to Leibovich.

  9. 9
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @lahke:

    the major tongue-bath he’s giving Tim Russert.

    Yep. I “read” the book as an audio book this summer during my commutes, and while I enjoyed it overall, I kept being just astonished at how blind he was to being part of the very issues he was describing.

    Russert strode like a God in Washington, apparently, beloved by “both sides”. The only time Leibovich even alludes to anything negative was a brief passage about Arianna Huffington, mentioning her “Russert Watch” column, but then only mentioning Russert’s take on it, which was something about how it was revenge for a past personal slight that Huffington imagined she suffered at the hands of Russert. Leibovich didn’t even mention that Arianna had made a 180 degree turn in her politics since the first incident, and that “Russert Watch” was all about catching him propping up Republican talking points.

    There’s a lot of that in the book, he barely seems to acknowledge that there’s a liberal/progressive/left wing blogosphere or viewpoint, it’s all just shades of conservative, which he seems to think is all there is.

    Joe and Mika are treated the same way as Russert by the way, and Mike Allen I think gets the entire second half of the book, and I’m not exaggerating by much, if at all.

    Leibovich mentions somewhere a saying from his grandfather, that “fish don’t know that they’re swimming in water”. All I could think when hearing that was that it described him perfectly: Seeing himself as someone exposing Washington’s ways, he’s actually a perfect example of the Villager mindset, while seemingly unaware that anything other than it exists.

  10. 10
    CaseyL says:

    @SiubhanDuinne:

    Nothing. Nada. In this book, Cokie is a non-person.

    A strong point in its favor, then.

  11. 11
    chopper says:

    @Steeplejack:

    I think ‘kibbitzing walrus of a mensch’ would make an excellent floating tag line.

  12. 12
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    To me, so far, the creepiest person Leibovich describes is Tammy Haddad who seems to be a kind of videographer-cum-party-planner, but not exactly. She is just a towering presence, whose currency is power and having access to powerful people. If Tammy knows them, they are by definition “powerful.” Really quite repellent. Leibovich calls her “a human ladle in the local self-celebration buffet,” which I guess is as good a description as anything.

  13. 13
    Anne Laurie says:

    @lahke:

    But all he did with the access is cozy up to people, and be known for it. It was like hoarding money you’ll never spend.

    Maybe it’s like a very white-bread, media-person version of potlatch?

    Only the ‘aristocrats’ get to hold a potlatch, but any aristocrat who doesn’t lavishly demonstrate his vast stores of ‘access’ loses his authority. Maybe the purpose of being Tim Russert was to keep the magical access flowing properly?

    Of course Luke Russert is the Dauphin of Access, but it seems like he hasn’t been able to demonstrate the proper skills in using it. Whenever I hear about Luke, it seems to be in the context of doing something stupid & off-putting (like asking Nancy Pelosi why she wouldn’t retire and ‘make room for younger people’).

    So maybe there’s an opening for a non-nepotistic King/Queen of Access. Anderson Cooper seemed to be getting a lot of attention for while…

  14. 14
    Chris says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim:

    I haven’t read the book yet, but,

    There’s a lot of that in the book, he barely seems to acknowledge that there’s a liberal/progressive/left wing blogosphere or viewpoint, it’s all just shades of conservative, which he seems to think is all there is.

    Sounds like a breath of fresh air compared with the drumbeat nonsense about “liberal bias” and “liberal media” you hear all over the place. As far as Official Washington is concerned, it often seems like the shades of conservative are indeed all they see.

  15. 15
    DougJ says:

    I liked it a lot but I felt like I understood everything that would be in it after about 20 pages.

  16. 16
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim:

    Joe and Mika are treated the same way as Russert by the way, and Mike Allen I think gets the entire second half of the book, and I’m not exaggerating by much, if at all.

    Hmmm. Extending my metaphor, I’m sure Scarborough would love to be the New King of Access, but from what little I know about him, he doesn’t seem to be liked even by the people who agree with whatever nonsense he’s shouting any given morning.

    On the other hand, if Mike Allen gets to be the New King of Access, “official media” has officially lost all relevance. At least the average American voter had an idea that Tim Russert was a TV personage — I don’t think even most political junkies could pick Mike Allen out of a lineup…

  17. 17
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Chris: He’s definitely not on a tirade against the left or hippie punching or etc. He’s the kind of conservative who thinks that he’s just the neutral middle.

    From there, of course, Russert is the middle, Joe Scarborough is the middle, Mike Allen is the middle, and so on.

  18. 18
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Anne Laurie: I can’t swear to it and can’t really check since mine is an audio book, but I’m pretty sure that in the case of Joe and Mika, “they stride like Gods in Washington” is an actual quote.

    Mike Allen is damaged goods now, compared to when the book came out. That changed a lot after that exposé about him. Notable that Leibovich spent so much time writing about him by the way and yet it wasn’t until someone else did it that all that came to light about payola.

  19. 19
    Cervantes says:

    @lahke:

    I’m only about 100 pages into this book, but stalled because I’m having trouble with the major tongue-bath he’s giving Tim Russert.

    Asked by Peter Sagal why he wrote the book:

    SAGAL: And what finally put you to the point where you’re, like, I just have to write this book-length screed about these shallow, horrible people?

    (LAUGHTER)

    LEIBOVICH: I think it was probably a self — or an unconscious attempt to check myself before I became too much part of the club, maybe. But no, I don’t know. I mean, I think it was probably sitting at Tim Russert’s memorial service in June of 2008 at the Kennedy Center and seeing it degenerate into a cocktail party and people trying to book politicians and suck up to them while ostensibly mourning a giant in the news business.

    So I figured Washington had then reached a tipping point of self-celebration and non-self-awareness, and it was time to write a book.

  20. 20
    Cervantes says:

    @SiubhanDuinne:

    So this morning, when I had on NPR in the background and heard Cokie Roberts doing her weekly phone-in to “Morning Edition” (because she is such a very important journalist!), I typed “Cokie” into the search box. Nothing. Nada. In this book, Cokie is a non-person. (By contrast, her high-powered lobbyist brother, Tommy Boggs, is mentioned frequently.) Made me chuckle.

    The Sagal interview again:

    SAGAL: Actually, I wanted to ask you about that because this is a fairly frank book. You say a number of cutting things about a lot of people. And so what has been the effect on your, well, your social connections and your life in Washington?

    LEIBOVICH: Oh, I’ve been out of town all summer. So I’m just now getting back and to experience the full scope of my pariahness.

    SAGAL: Really?

    LEIBOVICH: No, I mean, look, I have insulted many people by keeping them out of the book.

    SAGAL: Really?

    (LAUGHTER)

  21. 21
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Cervantes:

    Ha, ha! Exactly! Pretty sure Cokie was pissed not to have been mentioned.

  22. 22
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Cervantes:

    seeing it degenerate into a cocktail party and people trying to book politicians and suck up to them while ostensibly mourning a giant in the news business.

    So all he’s saying here is that he thought people using the occasion of supposedly mourning “a giant” as a networking opportunity instead needing poking up. And sure, why not, good point. However the whole idea that Russert was a saint-like creature, totally beyond reproach compared to these others, is one that he props up again and again in the book. That’s what amazed me, that he couldn’t even seem to see that there might be another viewpoint, other than perhaps by one female acting out of having been slighted personally. Same treatment for Joe Scarborough and Mike Allen. It really became embarrassing after a while.

  23. 23
    Cervantes says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim:

    There’s a lot of that in the book, he barely seems to acknowledge that there’s a liberal/progressive/left wing blogosphere or viewpoint, it’s all just shades of conservative, which he seems to think is all there is.

    Yep, the Sagal interview again:

    LEIBOVICH: But, yeah, I think that in a sense what – Washington has become one big conga line for conjoined interests, and Democrats and Republicans and people in the media and lobbying. And I think one of the myths about Washington is it’s hopelessly divided, but in fact it’s hopelessly interconnected into one big conga line.

  24. 24
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Cervantes: Good point. He’s more part of it than he seems to realize though. I mean there are other viewpoints than that one, they’re not the dominant ones, but still.

  25. 25
    Kay (not the front-pager) says:

    Read the whole thing on eBook between thanksgiving and Christmas. I found it a fun – if depressing – read. Not too much left a lasting impression however, except for its tone. Sort of prurient/horrified/contemptuous/envious fascination.

    I grew up in the shadow of the beltway, and returned 26 years ago after spending 15 years in various cities in Ca and a miserable 2 years in Fl. Things had changed. In the’50s and’60s DC and its suburbs were definitely a one-company town. By the time I returned in the late ’80s there was much more diversification. I think the media/political cabal are very insular and isolated from the rest of the DC metro community. They’re just weird.

  26. 26
    pseudonymous in nc says:

    DC is the place where “government” is the monopoly industry

    There are downsides to a large capital city that concentrates several industries — a London or Paris — but I think they’re less problematic than a small dedicated “city of government”. One of the places where American civic innovation was a bit of a fuckup. That’s why the Washington Post too often reads like an industry newsletter. A seat of government needs to have stuff of national significance going on that’s not just governmentin’.

  27. 27
    Cervantes says:

    @pseudonymous in nc:

    A seat of government needs to have stuff of national significance going on that’s not just governmentin’.

    You’re under the impression that there’s a lot of governmentin’ going on in DC?

  28. 28
    hitchhiker says:

    I can’t stand this book. Bought on audible & it’s the only book I’ve ever returned to them.

    Page after page of smug self-referential, self-important, self-aborbed, selfy self-self bullshit.

    Who honestly cares? They’re not nearly as important & interesting as they believe themselves to be, good christ. It’s just annoying and stupid to be shown their narcissism in such nasty, petty detail.

  29. 29
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    Thanks for arranging this, Anne Laurie.

  30. 30
    lahke says:

    Shall we keep reading or move on to the next book? Some of you have been persuasive that there’s no more there, there.

  31. 31
    Anne Laurie says:

    @lahke: I think I need/want the incentive to finish the book, so — one more week!

    Then, on to Overdressed!

  32. 32
    lahke says:

    @Anne Laurie: Okey-dokey, I’ll try to finish also.

  33. 33
    Jane2 says:

    I got about 100 pages done and could take no more….I’m not sure he realizes he’s one of them. As Christy Blatchford recently said about another political book, ” She is utterly relentless, and I am weakened by her book, and must take to my bed.”

    I’m going to start the second selection.

  34. 34
    Steeplejack says:

    @lahke:

    Ditto. With gritted teeth.

  35. 35
    kathleen says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: Yes, you got at something I kept trying to zero in on. He’s one of the pathology he describes, yet he tries to present himself as sitting outside and describing it.
    By the way, this is one of the most depressing books I’ve read in quite a while. Although it did explain why WHAT gets done in DC gets done.

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