Here’s how some Leading Thinkers came out: In “This Town,” we’re told that Chris Matthews and Matt Lauer have joked that David Gregory would rub out a few colleagues to advance his career. That Bill and Hillary Clinton are convinced that Tim Russert disliked them, and that they’re not wrong.That Harry Reid has “observed privately to colleagues” that John Kerry has no friends.That West Wing types suspected Valerie Jarrett had “earpiece envy” after David Axelrod got Secret Service protection, and so arranged the same for herself. And that when a national security official suggested that Obama shouldn’t skip the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner on the weekend of the Osama bin Laden raid because the media might get suspicious, Hillary Clinton looked up and issued her verdict: “[Expletive] the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”
It’s all quite fun but, beyond Washington, will many people care? I suspect most Americans can make it through their days without knowing what Tammy Haddad is up to. And Leibovich notes that, outside of “Game Change” and Bob Woodward tomes, political books like this one rarely achieve commercial success. “This Town” is as insidery as “Game Change,” but with lower stakes, and it lacks the historical import of Woodward’s deep dives into the White House. But it’s not trying to be a book for the ages — it’s a book for the moment, and it captures it well.
That moment begins with stories of frantic networking at Russert’s memorial service at the Kennedy Center in June 2008, and ends with Leibovich’s musings on Inauguration Day 2013. Other than the calendar, there is no clear arc to the tale, and by the 2012 campaign, “This Town” has lost some steam. If there is an underlying theme, one that Leibovich returns to between parties, it is Team Obama’s transformation from an above-it-all, apolitical wonkfest, at least in self-perception, into just another administration, where conflicts of interest are rife, lobbyists proliferate and outgoing staffers quickly sell out (although no one in Washington sells out anymore; they monetize their government service).
Leibovich recalls Obama’s attacks on lobbyists during the 2008 campaign, including the promise to keep them out of the White House. “It’s not who we are,” top aides intoned.
But it is who they became. In a near-parody of Washington’s revolving door, administration honchos joined up with some of the biggest corporate villains of recent years. Leibovich highlights the “unholy triplet”: Pentagon spokesman (and George W. Bush holdover) Geoff Morrell became BP’s head of U.S. communications , Treasury counselor Jake Siewert started spinning for Goldman Sachs, and OMB director Peter Orszag cashed in at Citigroup. (Morrell’s deal was negotiated by Barnett. Obviously.) And whenever lobbyists joined the administration, the White House would just “acknowledge the exception, wait out the indignant blog posts and press releases, and move on,” Leibovich writes. “That lobbying ban was so four years ago anyway.”