Damn This Town

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I’m over two-thirds of the way into Mark Leibovich’s This Town and I’m ready to rip the book in half, a la the kung-fu dynamos who promise to tear phone books in half for your entertainment. This is not at all a knock against the quality of the book but might be an endorsement.

Leibovich, for those not aware of him, is a well heeled journalist on Capitol Hill. His recent book is a pseduo-tell all that, basically, tells us all what we’ve suspected for some time, that life in the Wash DC is a constant circus of faux conflict, cigar smoking backslapping, and lots, lots, of money exchanging hands.

It details the greased revolving door between public and private spheres where people get paid a whole lot to be a “strategist” or “adviser” or”consultant” or, fuck me “senior strategist” if they happen to know, or have worked, for the right people. And it makes me very angry.

What makes this reading bearable is Leibovich’s sardonic tone. He constantly references (even renders himself a party to) the incestuousness circle jerk that is Washington (This Town, to the trendy and in-the-know) politics. Consider this passage on page 224, where Very Important Person Richard Holbrooke confronts a White House Staffer, posed at the urinal, in the men’s room :

“Now here was Dick Holbrooke standing next to [Eric] Lesser, gatekeeper to one of the president’s gatekeepers, announcing that he was disappointed in him. Why?/ Because, Holbrooke said, ‘You haven’t gotten me in to see David [Axelrod].’ Holbrooke had been trying to get in to see Axelrod for some time. Holbrooke figured Axelrod was his best hope for scoring his elusive one-on-one with Obama./ When I asked Lesser about the urinal episode, which I heard about secondhand, he declined to comment except to say, ‘I prefer to keep my urinal discussion private.'”

Leibovich’s sense of humor is endemic in this section. Aside from the obvious wordplay at play here between two men in a bathroom, “Dick,” “private,” “disappointed,” “one-on-one,” “secondhand,” it is his ability to deftly showcase the absurd, onanic, masturbatory elements of This Town politics in a short scene that makes this book a winner. One can quickly envision the image of Alec Bladwin, tweaking the ear of a peeing junior staffer in the washroom, in this excerpt.

Despite this tone, This Town is not a comedy. I get the sense that Leibovich spends so much time snarking his colleagues, getting us to laugh alongside him, so we don’t read the entire book in tears.

There are some definite villains. Politico is, undoubtedly, a major culprit in the constant cycling of “news.” Mike Allen comes off as a man-child who runs around This Town, mouth agape, taking selfies with Very Important People (the trend to craft innocuous adjectives into formal titles is a wonderful texty tool of Leibovich’s). The Clintons (Bill and Hill) are clearly huge instigators, and beneficiaries, of  the W.D.C. scene and are, undeniably, slimy.

Perhaps a key moment in the book is after Richard “Dick” Holbrooke (a Hillary Clinton favorite) passes away from a torn aorta, so overworked is the aged, wannabe statesman trying to keep his status up. “In March, Kati [Holbrooke’s wife] received a postcard in the mail addressed to ‘Richard C. Holbrooke’ from the Democratic National Committee. ‘Your membership has expired.'”

Once you’re in This Town, you can never leave, unless, of course, you die. As Leibovich points out, This Town is a place you will always have lunch again, regardless of what you’ve fucked up on. The check only comes when you check out, permanently.

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The Man From Wilmette

The philosopher Aaron James defines an asshole, in his wonderful book Assholes: A Theory, as a person who: “allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically; [doing] this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.”

It’s a solid definition and James devotes plenty of time to separate what makes a true asshole different from the everyday jerk, dick, tool, or that guy who just gets cranky when hungry. An actual asshole is somewhat rare. Everyone is a bit off from time to time and can act like an asshole. But to be an asshole, that takes a special breed, a person you might not meet just walking down the street.

Nevertheless, as with most definitions rooted in philosophy, it can be a bit abstract, a bit Big Idea. After reading Kari Lydersen’s Mayor 1%, I think a clear example of an asshole can be found in Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel.

For those unacquainted with Lydersen’s book, and the narrative of Rahm “Fuck the UAW” Emanuel, it’s the brave story of a rich kid from down-and-out Wilmette, who beat up patients that came to his father’s medical practice, and went on to a short career making millions as an investment banker, a stint in Congress, and, as Chicago’s mayor, found the courage and wisdom to close down numerous mental health care clinics, shutter dozens of public schools in impoverished neighborhoods, and give noogies to reporters. You know, an all around good guy.

OK, maybe the noogies happened before he was mayor, but you never know what happens on city hall’s 5th floor! Hide your heads, here comes the mayor!

My interest in local politics has always been minor. I didn’t know who to vote for or, even, when to vote. This would be sad if it wasn’t already tragic that I’ve never voted. Ever. In any election. Some member of our demos I am.

A book like Lydersen’s is what will drive me to participate. It’s a wake up call. The alarm is buzzing and the tone is: “no more assholes.”

The lack of engagement with community leaders in the very neighborhoods he is having the most drastic impact on is, I think, enough to constitute a sense of entrenched entitlement that immunizes him from criticism: I’m Rahm and I don’t need to hear from you.

This is probably the most frustrating part of the asshole that James identifies, the immunization from criticism. Calling a true asshole out on what he (James is clear to identify that assholes are overwhelmingly male and white) has done is a fool’s errand. The sense of entitlement is Teflon for critiques. More infuriating isn’t that an asshole won’t listen to your criticism, it’s that you don’t even count as a moral subject worthy of consideration.

One’s words are ignored along with one’s self.

James also makes the point that assholes are morally responsible for their conduct. True assholes are made from their circumstances and, therefore, might be just as much a victim of assholery as those they encounter. Perhaps they just need therapy. Maybe we should empathize with Emanuel and how hard he has it. Mothballing 50 schools must be hard work.

However, their inability to count others as moral subjects is still incorrect for the functioning of a cooperative, pluralistic, democratic society. It’s their lack of empathy and consideration for others, despite their blindness, that renders them guilty. Consider the case of the ‘Affluenza‘ boy in Texas as a benchmark for the level of injustice that can occur when an asshole is deemed innocent of actions and deeds.

Lydersen makes clear that Emanuel’s political ambition won’t stop at Chicago. His whole life has been an exercise in achieving greater and greater success. Tip O’Neill’s famous comment that “all politics is local,” should be the watchword in case there’s ever a Candidate Emanuel on a national ballot.

Incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel gestures prior to inauguration ceremony of Barack Obama as President of the United States in WashingtonAngry people have long memories.