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Books for Our Times: This Town by Mark Leibovich

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Fourth in an ongoing series, Books for Our Times.

With government dysfunction becoming habitual -- another shutdown, another default threatened -- and with national decline becoming a commonplace, I came to This Town, the year's big best-seller about Washington, looking to see how our leaders had things in hand.

Sadly, the book confirms our worst suspicions of how our nation's capital works -- or rather, doesn't. It also reflects a news media failing in its watchdog function. Still, there is hope beyond the book's negative portrait, about which, more later.

In his title, author Mark Leibovich, national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, cues the city's endless self-reference with an increasingly-cited locution: Washington power players expounding, in proprietary tone, on how things operate in "this town." Subtitled Two Parties and a Funeral -- Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! -- in America's Gilded Capital, the book opens with an image worthy of Trollope -- "Tim Russert is dead. But the room was alive" -- the "room" in question being one of the cavernous halls at the Kennedy Center, where throngs of power players have turned out to see, be seen, and to transact at the memorial service for the moderator of the "beyond reproach" TV interview program, Meet the Press. Even in death, the Washington calculus -- "How can this person be helpful to me?" -- is operative.

Leibovich describes the archetypes and their behaviors that drive This Town: In addition to the principal players -- the president and members of Congress -- there are the legions of "formers," former members of Congress or White House staff or agency personnel, who "monetize" their insider experience as public servants by moving through "the revolving door" to become exorbitantly-paid lobbyists.

Other featured players include a pathologically narcissistic Capitol Hill press aide who takes ambition to self-immolating ends, then resurfaces in various media gigs before getting rehired by his original boss, Congressman-on-the-make Darrell Issa: Redemption plays in D.C., especially if God is invoked publicly and often. There is the ex-cable TV producer who repurposes herself as a fixer and hostess, replacing the Georgetown salonistas of yore. And there's the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, tasked with the impossible: to solve the terrorism problem in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. While Leibovich stresses Holbrooke's ambition -- whenever Holbrooke entered the White House, staff would signal, "The Ego Has Landed"; he employed a personal archivist -- the author might have highlighted Holbrooke's brokering the deal that ended the bloody Bosnian war of the '90s, the Dayton Accords. For such immense achievement, the unambitious need not apply.

Leibovich is insightful on the internal workings of Washington: that it's less the continual partisan food-fight that Main Street might imagine and more of a club, with players, many of them surprisingly insecure and burdened with daddy issues, straining desperately to be the club's leaders, which is why "attaboys" work better than attacks and why players, when you meet them, look "past your sweaty brow" and scan the room for other players who can be useful to them. As to the Washington power player's habit of checking the index of a new book for his or her name, the author checkmates it: The book's back cover carries the advisory, "This Town does not contain an index. Those players wishing to know how they came out will need to read the book." In this transactional context, friendship is provisional: As the author writes, "I have lots of Washington friends and also some real ones."

Leibovich expands usefully on the growing role of money in politics. "Formers" no longer retire to their home districts, because the money in lobbying is too good; as the author drolly puts it, they now can dedicate themselves fulltime to the cause that is their "pa$$ion." Leibovich names names and the stupefying leaps in income.

As might be suspected, given the whirlpool force of this Washington power club, those outside it -- that is, the citizens and voters on Main Street -- don't signify much at all. As a pollster quoted by Leibovich says, "The first lesson you learn as a pollster is that people are stupid" -- ill-informed, contradictory, easily swayed -- "a belief," the author goes on to claim, "held equally by Washington politicians, lobbyists, and certainly journalists." This last part, about journalists, surprised me.

Which leads me to my problems with This Town: perspective and depth.

First, perspective. One expects a journalist who's covering the city that, despite universal speculation about America's decline, remains the Center of the Universe, to come with his critical equipment intact and to fly at the 30,000-foot level permitting that critique. But Leibovich doesn't even fly at the 30-foot level; instead he crows about access -- "I was in the room!" [exclamation point his] -- without applying much in the way of critique; observation, yes, but not critique. But given the rooms he gains entry to -- party after party, banquets honoring various power players, "rollouts" for insiders rolling through the revolving door into lobbydom -- criticism would be, well, inapt. Unless I missed it, he doesn't report on any Congressional hearings or any member's office where staffers work through the night writing up a bill -- boring places where the serious work gets done.

Certainly a journalist needs access, otherwise he's writing fiction, but unless he keeps an Olympian detachment, he risks being played by the players. Perhaps the problem lies with Leibovich's professed low opinion of journalism: About Sen. Harry Reid's query to a staffer when Leibovich arrives at his office -- "Is this the sleazeball you told me me about?" -- Leibovich writes, "He had me at 'sleazeball.'" Where is Walter Lippmann when we need him? Elsewhere he refers to the reporter as "maggot." It's hard to believe Leibovich really holds that opinion and is not just playing at self-deprecation in order to run with the players. Doing so, though, he risks losing a reader's trust, not to mention the larger picture.

Which leads to my other problem -- depth -- which problem breaks out in two parts.

The first part is the grave historical moment -- of national decline, of financial upheaval -- in which we find ourselves 12 years after 9/11 and five years after the Wall Street-driven financial crash. In his uncritical closeness to the power players, Leibovich gives us gossip -- which member of Congress hates which other member and how much -- but almost nothing of the gravity and urgency of this hinge moment in our history or how dismayingly little has been done in our capital to reverse the decline. The Washington he paints is a carnival -- business as usual -- operating with little sense, apparently, of national peril.

And yet: The "stupid" citizens on Main Street certainly understand -- down to the cellular level -- this gravity, this urgency. I know many conscientious citizens whose doctor tells them that, for their own health, they must stop worrying about their country's fallen state. That Main Street deserves a reporter, especially one from our newspaper of record, who burns with the same anxiety and fire and, instead of crowing about access, frames his queries to power players thus: "So, how does this bear on the common good?" or "In light of America's decline, Senator...." But then, Leibovich's ultimate audience is not the American public, but Washington. (The author is silent on his reaction to the pollster's "lesson" about the public as stupid; one has one's suspicions.)

The second part of the depth problem lies with Leibovich's focus on Washington's front-of-house performers to the exclusion of the enormous supporting cast -- the reviled "bureaucrats," Capitol Hill staffers, "do-gooders" in advocacy organizations, and myriad others who do the great and good work that decades of Republican anti-government rhetoric effectively masks. And, to be fair, there are front-of-house players, those wielding power, who take office deeply infused with high purpose and vision, but Leibovich unfairly scants them. Impressive people populate the Federal City (as I know, having worked there 25 years). They come, tops in their graduating class, with majors in political science, public administration, international relations, history, economics, the sciences; they dedicate their entire career to what they deem the highest calling, public service; they're determined to live worthy lives. That's the city our visitors referred to when they spoke of Washington as being "so serious." Leibovich touches on this other city when he writes:

"Washington is one of the two or three most popular destinations in the country (along with New York and possibly Los Angeles) for those seeking self-creation, reinvention, and public purpose on a grand and national scale. People work obscenely hard, and they do it despite/because of the baggage they bring. And they do it, in many cases, with a desperation that, to me, is the most compelling part of the Washington story, whether now or before: it is a spinning stew of human need."

Would that Leibovich felt compelled to write of this deeper, more serious Washington. This isn't to say his book's portrait is not accurate -- superficially. He captures the performative quality of today's power politics, the quality on view daily on talk shows and every Sunday (to close the book's loop) on programs like Meet the Press. And he's accurate on the growing and controlling role of money in politics. But then, all this is not really new. After all, Washington is a center of power and machinations over power have been playing out since Caesar and the Roman senate.

But as the Italians say, "E vero ma non troppo": It's true but not too true. Leibovich's portrait pertains -- until it doesn't. Contrary to his showboating power players, it's the deeper Washington that was profiled in the eulogies for the twelve workers killed at the Washington Navy Yard two weeks ago. And, contrary to his portrait of dysfunction, Washington actually functioned in the recent Syrian chemical weapons crisis: Main Street was actually heard in its protest to military strikes; the President, hearing that protest, went to Congress; and Congress, weighing the strike option, actually acted like grown-ups. Of course Congress is back to showboating over another government shutdown and, even more grave, a default on the United States' full faith and credit -- dysfunction in the extreme.

A big best-seller, Leibovich's book reinforces the destructive stereotype -- the reality -- of our capital city as shallow and dysfunctional. But absent from the book is another reality: the grave and serious historical moment of national decline and the failure to reform the financial system that crashed us five years ago. If This Town is taken as a final word on Washington's capacity to turn the helm on these fateful challenges, my fear is this: that Washington's dedicated bureaucrats will begin to ask, Why public service? And the conscientious souls on Main Street will sink to the point of asking not only, Why vote? They will even ask, Why be a responsible citizen? If any of these conditions take hold, This Country is sunk.

Enough with reporting on Washington's bonfire of the vanities! We need a Fourth Estate that covers power with a sense both of history and mission from Main Street.

Carla Seaquist's forthcoming book of commentary is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." Her book, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character," came out in 2009. Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which includes "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is working on a play titled "Prodigal." Formerly a resident of Washington, D.C., she now lives in the "other" Washington, Washington state.