This Town is in Us!

There was a lot of anger brewing in me while I read Mark Leibovich’s This Town. I’ve never been naive about the nature of politics and have been raised with a robust set of skepticism goggles. Nevertheless, after reading Leibovich’s log of opportunism, cynicism, and naked, shameless self promotion, it feels like I’m a kid again and Santa’s just ripped off his beard in front of me. Reading about the pure circle jerkiness of this closed club of insiders was utterly infuriating.

A comment from Seinfeld’s Elaine to Jerry springs to mind: “Sometimes when I think you’re the shallowest man I’ve ever met, you somehow manage to drain a little more out of the pool.”

That was my overriding sensation of the cliqueness that dominates Washington.

However, I realized something after reaching the back cover: isn’t that how we all are? It is so easy to look scornfully at others but to be utterly blind to those same faults.

There’s always in-groups and out-groups. The older you get, the stronger these distinctions become. Most people probably feel that inclusion/exclusion reaches a peak in high school and then slowly tappers off.

Wrong.

I remember working at a warehouse with all my friends (Home Decorators!) in college and there was the mentality of us, the employees, and them, the customers. We were gatekeepers to their cheap furniture. If they wanted a marble sink loaded in their Subaru, they had to go through us. We joked with each other, covered for each other. Even within the company, there were exclusionary groups. The warehouse staff was separate from the sales’ staff and we were all separate from management.

In college, those in my major had a whole secret, separate world away from other majors, who, of course, had their own parties, gatherings, and opportunities cordoned off from the outsiders. During graduate school, the MFA was almost a hermetically sealed chamber. Trying to bring outside friends or loved ones became one of those stressful social exercises of juggling two different sets of expectations and identities.

I think Jim Gaffigan said something about that…

And, as a professor, don’t even get me started on the inclusion/exclusion practices of academia.

Ultimately, I think what made me so mad about This Town is that many of those traits I saw on display reminded me of myself. I can imagine, being placed in that environment, the nation’s capitol, that I might make some of the exact some choices, act the very same way. I would be just as cloying and superficial as Mike Allen, Tammy Haddad, and Terry McAuliffe.

Sure, I might convince myself I wasn’t, that I was being noble and honest and, as a real bullshit covered cherry on top: “true to myself.” Still, the scary thing is I would likely be just as blind to what I’m doing as the glitterati of D.C. are because that’s how things are done there. That’s how things are done in a lot of places.

This Town is in us all.

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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.