Carlos Lozada is Outlook editor of The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @carloslozadaWP
Mark Leibovich toyed with several titles for his new book on self-interest, self-importance and self-perpetuation in the nation’s capital. “Suck-Up City” was one. “The Club” was another. Finally, he settled on “This Town,” a nod, he explains, to the “faux disgust” with which people here refer to their natural habitat.
It’s not bad, but the longer I roamed around “This Town,” the more I thought Leibovich should have borrowed Newsweek’s memorable post-Sept. 11, 2001, cover line: “Why They Hate Us.” His tour through Washington only feeds the worst suspicions anyone can have about the place — a land driven by insecurity, hypocrisy and cable hits, where friendships are transactional, blind-copying is rampant and acts of public service appear largely accidental.
Only two things keep you turning pages between gulps of Pepto: First, in Leibovich’s hands, this state of affairs is not just depressing, it’s also kind of funny. Second, you want to know whether the author thinks anyone in Washington — anyone at all? — is worthy of redemption.
(Are you in This Town? Read the unauthorized index here.)
Leibovich, chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine and a former reporter at The Washington Post (where we overlapped briefly but never met), is a master of the political profile, with his subjects revealing themselves in the most unflattering light. That talent becomes something of a crutch in “This Town,” which offers more a collection of profiles and scenes than a rich narrative. Still, his characters reveal essential archetypes of Washington power.
First, there is longtime NBC news reporter Andrea Mitchell — a conflict of interest in human form. Married to former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, Mitchell has specialized in covering administrations and campaigns that “overlapped considerably with her social and personal habitat,” as Leibovich puts it.
There are those weekend getaways at George Shultz’s home. And dinner with Tipper and Al. And that surprise 50th-birthday party for Condi. And what do you do when you’re reporting on the 2008 financial crisis and many people are pointing at your husband as a chief culprit? NBC tossed up a fig leaf: allowing Mitchell to cover the politics of dealing with the financial crisis, but not the conditions that gave rise to it. Such hair-splitting becomes inevitable, Leibovich writes, because Mitchell trying to avoid conflicts of interest is “like an owl trying to avoid trees.”
Next up is superlawyer Bob Barnett — if he doesn’t represent you, you must not be worth representing. He negotiated Hillary Clinton’s $8 million book advance (not to mention the $10 million he reeled in for Bill), plus eight-figure deals for Sarah Palin in book, speaking and television gigs. “The degree to which so many elite D.C. players stream to a single superlawyer cash redemption center is striking,” Leibovich notes, “even by the parochial standards of the ant colony.”
Yet, for all his antique cuff links, Barnett longs for the very thing he delivers for his clients: a reputation upgrade. “He hates being called an ‘agent,’ ” Leibovich explains, “with its hired-gun connotations.” Barnett’s desire to be considered a Washington wise man is evident in his desperate quest to join President Obama’s presidential debate prep team. When he finally broke in, before Obama’s last debate with Mitt Romney, he prefaced one of his suggestions to the president by explaining the “conventional wisdom” on an issue. Obama cracked, “Bob, you ARE the conventional wisdom.”
Tammy Haddad — “a human ladle in the local self-celebration buffet” — is another only-in-Washington personality, and embodies one of Leibovich’s rules for success here: If no one’s sure exactly what you do, you’re doing it right.
“My job is to be around the most successful people, the most up-and-coming people, and the people who have impact,” Haddad told Leibovich. A former producer for “Larry King Live” and “Hardball,” Haddad is a mix of journalist, businesswoman, philanthropist and, as Leibovich puts it, a “full-service gatherer of friends of different persuasions unified by the fact that they in some way ‘matter.’ ”
She’ll tote around a video camera (the Tam Cam!) and do ambush interviews of Washington notables. She’ll broker an Obama interview for a news weekly aboard Air Force One. And although she’s best known for her exclusive party marking the White House Correspondents’ Dinner every April, Haddad will fete you whether you want it or not — “party rape,” as the friend of one victim called it.