Today's Washington operatives more closely resemble Norma Desmond in "Sunset Blvd." — characters consumed by their own stardom, however pretend, always "ready for my close-up." These are the personalities and the city Mark Leibovich describes in "This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America's Gilded Capital."
"This Town," he writes, is a place where "self-pimping has become the prevailing social and business imperative," where "self becomes fused with brands" and where, quoting the late White House spokesman Tony Snow, "no one takes friendship too personally." The figures Leibovich paints — some well known, others utterly obscure — are grotesque, profoundly needy people whose egos demand constant reinforcement. Several eagerly cooperated with Leibovich's reporting, flaunting their connections in hopes of winning prominent mention in a book about how people in Washington flaunt their connections.
As Leibovich notes, their circles are his, as well. A staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, where some of the material already has appeared, and formerly a reporter at the Washington Post, he has spent years honing his skill at writing incisive profiles. That work has given him access to the book's subjects — a collection of lobbyists, high-profile journalists and the sort of former senior government officials who seem to thrive for years providing vague "consulting" services.
He limns them with great skill. Often, a single line will do.
Former Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the onetime Democratic presidential hopeful and friend of organized labor, now a lobbyist, got $70,000 a month from the government of Turkey to block a congressional resolution condemning the slaughter of Armenians in 1915.
"Genocide goes down a little easier at those rates," Leibovich writes.
Or listen in as former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) describes how he considered taking the top job at the Motion Picture Assn. of America for an annual salary of more than $1 million. "I don't give a ... about piracy," Leibovich quotes Kerrey as saying, "but for that money, I have to admit, I started getting a little interested in piracy."
In the end, the job went to another former Democratic senator, Chris Dodd, who had said repeatedly that he would not lobby when he left Congress. Explaining his $1.2-million change of heart, Dodd shows no contrition. He had made the no-lobbying pledge "before this opportunity was on the radar screen," he says.
In other cases, an anecdote illustrates the unrelenting self-absorption of Leibovich's characters.
The late ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke was desperately trying to get a meeting with President Obama. Blocked by officials at the National Security Council, he hoped to enlist the help of Obama's strategist, David Axelrod. First, however, he had to get to see Axelrod. That meant lobbying Axelrod's scheduler, Eric Lesser. So Holbrooke confronted Lesser in a White House men's room, pressing his case as the two men stood at adjacent urinals.
Then there is Terry McAuliffe, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, prominent (and constantly self-proclaimed) "Friend of Bill" and current candidate for governor of Virginia who serves as one of the book's recurrent characters. Early on, Leibovich tells readers all they really need to know.
"McAuliffe made his mark as one of the most irrepressible money men in American political history," he writes. "So committed is the Macker to his art that he even stopped off at a fundraiser on the way home from the hospital with his wife, Dorothy, after she gave birth to their newborn son, Peter. Dorothy stayed in the car, crying, while the baby slept and the Macker did his thing. 'I felt bad for Dorothy,' he would later write, 'But it was a million bucks for the Democratic Party.'"
Such gems provide this book's strength. Its weaknesses come when Leibovich grabs for Deeper Meaning.
In American popular culture, politics used to figure mostly as a setting for morality plays involving elected officials — "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" or "Advise & Consent" being the archetypes. But at least since the Bill Clinton era, a succession of stories from "The War Room" to "The West Wing" to "Game Change" has turned lower-level operatives into celebrities.
That newfound fame, coupled with the endless hours of cable airtime begging to be filled, has helped swell the ranks of those who populate Washington's greenrooms, Leibovich correctly notes. That change, in turn, has helped give rise to a Washington media culture of "buzz" that rewards rumormongering, however baseless; speculation, however foolish; and celebrity, however vapid.
Not incidentally, it has created a market for a book that critiques and lampoons that celebrity even as it feeds off it.
What Leibovich leaves unsaid, however, is how few of the people he writes about actually matter outside their own self-obsessed social circles. Washington has many tribal cultures. The tribe Leibovich writes about consists mostly of nonideological back-scratchers and deal makers. But Washington is an increasingly ideological capital that makes very few deals anymore.
Over the last generation, the most consequential change in Washington has been the huge energies and immense sums that have poured into organizations designed to define rigid ideological rules for each party and punish elected officials who stray beyond the bounds. The "gridlock" that so many Americans profess to dislike about Washington owes far more to those ideological warriors than to the preening talking heads who flit from greenroom to greenroom.
The people Leibovich profiles live to pontificate about process, not to fight over substance. The only parties they care about take place in the evening and feature drinks. His skillful depiction of their warts would have been stronger had he more openly dealt with the limits of their influence.
Lauter is The Times' Washington bureau chief.
Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America's Gilded Capital
Blue Rider Press: 386 pp., $27.95