Finally comes the opportunity to talk about the book all of Washington has been talking about that has shot to the top of a Best Seller list that doesn't have a lot to offer right now — "This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus Plenty of Valet Parking – in America's Gilded Capitol," by Mark Leibovich, of the New York Times Magazine.
The occasion was an interview on C-SPAN's Q&A by Brian Lamb, a former Senate staffer who founded C-SPAN who doesn't wear his conservatism boldly but hides it in plain sight by saying that if he weren't doing what C-SPAN does, the government would be doing it. Unfortunately, perhaps, C-SPAN will never achieve its ambition of bringing policy into public view, but it projects more shadows on the wall than most viewers could ever see and maintains them as historical documents. As the print media has relinquished this role, C-SPAN has become the nation's newspaper of record. A compelling reason for readers to watch the recording of this interview
is that it includes a number of clips from interviews with personalities mentioned in the book.
Of course, the book is yet another example of the overly long titles that mark so many of the books that have been published about the ongoing political and financial crisis. The subtitle could have been "Plus Plenty of Valet Parking if You Make a Turn on 18th Street, Go Around the Block, and Stop at Morton's in America's Guided Capitol."
Asked by Lamb where he got the first sentence— "Tim Russert is dead" — Leibovich said it came out of a conversation with a colleague. He used the scene at the funeral, which will remind some readers of a scene from The Godfather, to illustrate the way people in the Washington Club use public events as vehicles for self-promotion, and he noted pointedly that the funeral took place at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
As an aside, I never bought into the cult of personality of Tim Russert, never appreciated the Buffalo Bills and gave up watching the Sunday talk shows altogether, whereas some of the most notorious politicians in town — one things of the likes of Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, – seem to build their week around trying to say something that will get them on the talk shows so they will be "relevant." For me, Meet the Press went downhill when it became more about Tim Russert than the so-called issues and policymakers.
Another example of this particular form of narcissism arises from the fact that the book has no index. There's a joke that in Washington, people read books starting with the index, to see if their names are in it. The Washington Post has compiled its own index that has 739 names. One of the missing names is that of Lanny Davis, a prominent crisis management/public relations lawyer who tweeted that he wasn't in the book and managed to generate some afterbuzz and gain a measure of what passes for relevance.
Lamb asked Leibovich about the phenomenon of legislators like former Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., proclaiming they will never lobby and then going to work for powerful lobbies like the Motion Picture Association; former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., pouting about his need for a recovery summer, then taking every opportunity to work for the usual suspects; and former Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., professing deeply held liberal ideals and then discarding them when he embarked on his lobbying career.
When, Lamb asked, did a journalist like Leibovich cross the line from skepticism to cynicism? Leibovich shot back, "When you see this," adding that what he saw in Washington was people coming to Washington to perform public service and transforming it into self-service, as part of what Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., called a "permanent feudal class," and Leibovich stated flatly that he finds this offensive.
Being a confirmed cynic, I would add that this is the reason why the story line of many events where policymakers expound their views in familiar cliches like "strike the right balance," "restore confidence" and "preserve the American Dream for people who work hard and play by the rules" is, "Who is the client?" Someone once quipped about the late Secretary of State Warren Christopher was "a brilliant lawyer. The question is, 'Who is the client?'" This is often not easy to discern, but the question must constantly be asked.
At the end of the interview, Lamb asked Leibovich for his reaction to critics who complain that he is not sufficiently bothered by the Washington culture he describes. One is reminded of the classic question by the ill-fated presidential candidate Bob Dole: "Where is the outrage?"
It is hard to believe that any viewer would not see the outrage in Leibovich's demeanor, but his answer is instructive. He replied simply that he is "not in the solutions game." From my point of view, Leibovich's stance is a relief, because there is no reason to presume that there is a solution for the broken state of policy, and the overriding reason is as simple as Leibovich's answer.
One of the author's themes is that Washington has prospered at the expense of the rest of the country. For the people and interest groups who have done so well, there is nothing to fix. The system is working well. They have learned to profit from Churchill's famous maxim, more recently popularized by Rahm Emanuel: "Never let a crisis go to waste." For the policy crowd in Washington, the good news is that another crisis is never far away.
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