Suck-up city

By far the best book of the season is This Town, a skewering of the Washington, D.C., elite. Written by Mark Leibovich, national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, the book arrives with a long subtitle: Two Parties and a Funeral – plus plenty of valet parking! – in America’s Gilded Capital.

In fact there are two funerals, one for Tim Russert, erstwhile host of Meet the Press, the other for Richard Holbrooke. Both events are described in vicious detail, right down to how people arrived wearing studio-ready pancake makeup. Barack Obama was the first of fifteen eulogists for Holbrooke, who brokered peace in Bosnia, but found no place in the Obama White House. After his remarks the president remained on stage, looking as if he wished he could flee. Particularly when Bill Clinton introduced the concluding speaker, Hillary, by saying: “Hillary and I were asked to end the program, and we are appearing according to Holbrooke protocol. The one with the real power speaks last.”

Other players are also ridiculed. There’s a wonderful description of Bay Buchanan in a spin room after a presidential debate, with few listening to her views. Finally, a reporter from Iceland asks if she has a minute. Buchanan rolls her eyes and says, “This is what I’ve been reduced to. Iceland.” Or how about Veep Joe Biden on the campaign trail telling an African-American audience that if Mitt Romney were to be elected, “he’d put y’all back in chains.” When asked about his vice-president’s foot-in-mouth disease, Obama shook his head and said, “What can you do?”

Leibovich offers many such deft observations, often capturing people’s foibles with their own words. Or his own. He describes super-sized New Jersey Governor Chris Christie clambering into the front seat of an SUV: “His bright white dress shirt rose a few feet in the air to where it almost touched the glove compartment, making it appear as if the airbag had deployed.” Others help, too. Someone in the White House sent Leibovich an internal email about senior adviser Valerie Jarrett who was being profiled. Among the many positive talking points suggested was this one: “Valerie is someone here who people inside the building know that they can trust.” Then the anonymous writer added, in brackets, “(need examples.)”

But the theme of the book is more important than the impudent fun. Journalism has been trumped by punditry. Everyone sucks up to everyone else. Money rules. Members of Congress never leave. When they retire or are defeated, almost half stay in Washington to become lobbyists or advisers, earning seven-figure annual salaries. Aides are equally self-absorbed. They work on Capitol Hill for a couple of years with their eye on the real prize, landing a high-paying job helping clients gain access to lawmakers.

This Town. It’s irreverent and relevant. You’ll love reading it, but you won’t enjoy the message.

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