Washington, D.C., is an interesting place to live.
Everyone has an idea about what they think it's like, but you really have to live here in order to absorb the details. Fox News and MSNBC make it seem like a continual mosh pit for people with bachelor degrees in political science. CNN's take implies that everyone has a PhD in international relations and that they're trying really hard to solve the world's problems. The C-SPAN cameras paint our elected officials as regularly delivering important speeches before their colleagues (and not as acting in future campaign ads).
No -- this is all wrong. K Street and the Kremlin aren't invading our nation's capital. Rather, a pretty small city is being overrun by more than 600,000 people who dream of the White House. Expensive real estate keeps many people out, but there are a few things you can read to understand what's going on in this godforsaken place.
Here are five of them (all three books are published in 2013 for the sake of time).
1. Playbook. There are only a few peculiar souls in Washington who don't read Mike Allen's "must-read briefing on what's driving the day." The daily tip sheet in Politico, whose eastern influence I detailed three weeks ago, is essentially a newsletter from everyone to everyone. Political junkies get their fix and White House insiders who press 'enter' too quickly get the boot in what has become a chronicle of life and death inside the beltway. You'll see the headlines before they're in print and tomorrow's moves before they happen, and soon enough you'll learn to love the ceremonial peepshow we pretend is political discourse.
2. FishbowlDC. Nobody spells 'gossip' better than this Mediabistro property where all the Capitol's hookups, breakups, hires, and fires are catalogued in painstaking detail. Betsy Rothstein and company publish the memos and rumors that most reputable newspapers won't touch. With a tentacle in what seems to be every newsroom and office in Washington, FishbowlDC validates the famous Kurt Vonnegut credo: "True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country."
3. The List. Karin Tanabe, a former reporter at Politico whose own life has been the focus of numerous FishbowlDC posts, is no stranger to political voyeurism. In fact, it's the very topic of her new book. Inspired by her time spent in the breakneck world of beltway journalism, Tanabe nails the blurry commotion of modern newsrooms, which she sets as the backdrop for her caffeine-addicted main character, Adrienne Brown. Most real-world reporters aren't busy chasing down a prominent politician's sexual escapades (unless they're on the Anthony Weiner beat), but Brown's mindset is a great introduction to the moral dilemmas facing the addled strangers whose bylines we read each morning.
4. Roger Ailes: Off Camera. If nothing else, Washington cares about public relations. And that means it cares about media. New York City likes to tout itself as the media capital of the world, but that's only accurate in terms of where the printers are. Ailes is the president of Fox News and is quite possibly the one man at News Corp. whom Rupert Murdoch can't turn to stone. Zev Chafets, the biographer in question, gives a fascinating glimpse into the incestuous nature of pundits on both sides of the aisle that will certainly get you thinking about how sincere these bobbleheads really are. Piers Morgan's start at the Murdoch papers, Rachel Maddow's unlikely friendship with Ailes himself, and other surprising pieces of information are scattered throughout the book, too. You can rest assured that television networks are less chaotic, and more methodical, than you may have thought beforehand.
5. This Town. In what has become the quintessential summer read for lobbyists between consultation appointments, Mark Leibovich details the neurotic lives of D.C's elite. The work left many people fearing (and hoping) that their names would appear in its index; Leibovich took what is understood to be a hush-hush culture in which the revolving doors are plenty lubricated, and he used it to ink a sweet deal with the Penguin Group. The sophistication of Washington's most influential networks will likely inspire you to create your own connection to this professional escalator. The book explains the fierceness and fragility of contemporary political alliances perfectly. And yet it's only the beginning.