Here is Washington, DC, laid bare by the discerning eye and poison pen of The New York Times Magazine’s chief national correspondent there. If you think most of what takes place in the nation’s capital has little or nothing to do with anything outside the District of Columbia, well, it turns out you’re right.
“Getting rich has become the great bipartisan ideal,” writes Mark Leibovich. “’No Democrats and Republicans in Washington anymore, only millionaires,’ goes the maxim. The ultimate Green party. You still hear the term ‘public service’ thrown around, but often with irony and full knowledge that ‘self-service’ is now the real insider play.”
This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—plus plenty of valet parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich @@@@ (4 out of 5)
Never before, with the possible exception of Rome under the Emperor Nero or Paris under Louis XIV, have so many self-indulgent people come together in one place to flatter one another so effusively while concealing sharp knives in their purses or pockets. It’s a wonder, really, why Mark Leibovich still keeps his home there . . . unless, perhaps, Washington DC society isn’t quite so pathetically narcissistic as his book implies.
Leibovich has a wicked sense of humor and writes with flair and aplomb. This Town is a wonderfully entertaining takedown on life among the members of “The Club”—those five or ten or twenty thousand people who circle around the bright flame of transient fame and find themselves in the Oval Office, on TV, or simply invited to the right parties. These are the best-known members of the media, the top lobbyists, the White House staffers, the more prominent members of the Senate and House, and, of course, the women who host the parties where they all rub shoulders, political party affiliation be damned.
As Leibovich points out archly in brief digressions from the arc of his tale, real-life events outside the Beltway actually do take place from time to time—the killing of Osama bin Laden, for example, or the partisan gridlock on the Federal budget—but these occurrences apparently aren’t important enough to The Club to cause them to do something life-changing such as canceling the White House Correspondents Annual Gala Weekend. (It appears from This Town that the bin Laden operation was actually postponed by a day because White House staff suddenly remembered that the President would have to be at that dinner on its long-scheduled day.)
What you won’t find in This Town is any plausible explanation for why the US Government has become so dysfunctional. It’s a huge mistake, Leibovich implies, to explain Washington DC as a standoff between two bitterly opposed political parties. That misses the point “that the city, far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected. It misses the degree to which New Media has democratized the political conversation while accentuating Washington’s insular, myopic, and self-loving tendencies. It misses, most of all, a full examination of how Washington may not serve the country well but has in fact worked splendidly for Washington itself—a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives.”
To master such an inchoate mix of personalities, events, and fields of interest, Leibovich focuses his attention on certain key figures—people who may be virtually unknown to the rest of us but are objects of awe to the denizens of the District: “superlawyer” Bob Barnett, “superlobbyist” Jack Quinn, “superstaffer” Kurt Bardella, blogger Mike Allen (“’one of the defining journalists of this period’”), hostess Tammy Haddad, and a few others. Superlatives don’t suffice to describe the lofty achievements of these titans who roam so freely inside the Beltway.
You may not learn much about current affairs from reading This Town, but you’ll gain perspective on the insularity of life in our nation’s capital — and you’ll have a lot of fun along the way.
For further reading
Like to read books about politics and current affairs? Check out Top 10 nonfiction books about politics (plus dozens of runners-up).
If you enjoy reading nonfiction in general, you might also enjoy:
- Science explained in 10 excellent popular books (plus dozens of others)
- Great biographies I’ve reviewed: my 10 favorites
- My 10 favorite books about business history
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.