Leibovich’s Portrait of D.C. Will Make Even Cynics Cringe

The title might as well be, “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.”

Instead the book is called “This Town,” but it’s a tour of hell nonetheless -- an infernal vision of the U.S. capital as a cesspool of greed, vanity and spinelessness. And unlike Dante’s version, this one isn’t even a cautionary tale.

On the contrary, Mark Leibovich’s new book about Washington depicts a hell in which the inmates fight tooth and nail to remain in the place, glued to the Potomac and one another by easy money and mutual regard. A veteran reporter for the New York Times, Leibovich gives us a portrait of the capital so dark it makes Hieronymus Bosch look like David Hockney. Written more in snark than in anger, the book is consecutively delightful, exhausting and finally revolting.

It’s hard to believe anyone will be shocked to learn that Washington is awful or that the big money flowing through town nowadays dissolves principles as effectively as scotch melts ice. Yet Leibovich’s dismaying chronicle of four and a half years -- from June of 2008 through Barack Obama’s second inauguration -- in the life of “This Town” will make even hardened cynics cringe.

The book opens at the funeral of TV journalist Tim Russert, which Leibovich portrays as an orgy of sanctimony and self-promotion. But it’s a good place to meet what he calls The Club, “that spinning cabal of ‘people in politics and media’ and the supporting sectors that never get voted out or term-limited or, God forbid, decide on their own that it is time to return home to the farm.”

Cashing In

Take Evan Bayh. In announcing his retirement from the Senate, “the Indiana Democrat was extravagant in his grief over what Washington had become.” But after denouncing “strident partisanship” and expressing a longing for “honorable work,” he became a Fox News commentator and senior adviser to private equity and lobbying firms.

Although a leading contender to be Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008, he later joined Andrew Card, former White House chief of staff to George W. Bush, in promoting the interests of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- “arguably the most fervent opponent of the Obama administration’s agenda.”

In other words, he cashed in shamelessly. And he’s far from alone; Leibovich cites a report in the Atlantic saying that three percent of retiring lawmakers became lobbyists in 1974. “Now,” he writes, “50 percent of senators and 42 percent of congressmen do.”

Smart, Funny

Leibovich is a smart guy and a funny writer, and for the first 200 pages or so, it’s a privilege to examine the innards of this particular beast with such a witty gastroenterologist.

“No one was better attuned than Russert to the cultural erogenous zones of powerful men,” Leibovich tells us. “He spoke endlessly and nostalgically about dads and sons and sports and Springsteen.”

Senator Chuck Schumer, he reports, is so “lens-happy” that, according to Jon Corzine, then a Senate colleague from New Jersey, sharing a media market with him was like sharing a banana with a monkey: “Take a little bite of it and he will throw his own feces at you.”

Leibovich performs a valuable service by casting the harshest possible light on the forms of legal corruption that permeate “this town.” But somewhere along the line you stop being mad at Washington and start being mad at the author, whose sneering practically curdles the pages. He condescends to almost everyone, calling Mitt Romney “Mittens” way too often and referring to a group of elderly Americans as “geezers.”

No Context

Ultimately the project succumbs to the author’s unrelenting cynicism. “This Town” has no particular narrative, conclusions or recommendations; it exists solely as a catalog of evil.

Nor is there much historical context. Leibovich has next to nothing to tell us about how things got so bad, whether corruption was more or less outrageous in the past, or what might be done to redeem a democratic system so thoroughly entwined with special-interest lobbying as to be almost indistinguishable from it.

Worse, he either ignores or discounts the really big change in recent years, which is the capture of the Republican Party by its most extreme elements, and the success of this determined minority at throwing gravel into the gears of government. Anti-government zealots will derive reassurance from this work since, in Leibovich’s telling, the whole idea of national government lacks a single redeeming feature.

Not so his book, which has several. Just not enough.

“This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral -- Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! -- in America’s Gilded Capital” is published by Blue Rider Press (386 pages, $27.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Daniel Akst writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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