Politico Is ‘This Town’

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Photo: Clint Spaulding/PatrickMcMullan.com

The most baffling thing about This Town, Mark Leibovich’s romp through elite Washington, is the decision by Politico to define itself as the embodiment of the Washington insularity Leibovich skewers. Now, in many ways, Politico is an embodiment of Washington insularity — recirculating inbred conventional wisdom and treating the pronouncements of its financial and political elites as self-evident gospel truth — but it’s also a real newspaper with lots of good reporters. Politico comes off badly in This Town, but not especially worse than any number of other figures, and it also gets its due recognition.

Yet Politico has somehow decided the response to Leibovich is not to refute his caricature but to more fully embrace it as an ethos.

Politico’s editors preempted the book by writing a surreal, passive-aggressive column, the underlying assumption of which was that a harsh portrayal of Washington was a betrayal (“it seems clear that Leibovich is trying to work through his own conflicted feelings about ridiculing a culture he is very much part of - and wants to remain part of”). Yesterday, Politico published a beyond-parody story by Lois Romano fretting that the book was unsettling the Beltway social scene, and thus fraying the vital bonds that allow elite Washington to function oh so well:

there is a genuine concern that Leibovich’s reporting and tactics might pull the rug up on one of the last venues for camaraderie in a polarized city: parties. As Henry Kissinger wrote of Washington in his 1979 book, “The White House Years”: “It is at their dinner parties and receptions that relationships are created without which the machinery of government would soon stalemate itself.” …

In the elegant days of golden-lit dinners at Evangeline Bruce or Katharine Graham’s home — where presidents dined and serious players made private political deals — the news may have seeped into the public domain eventually. But it would have been unseemly, laughable, really, for Joe Alsop to write about what occurred in his column the next day.

Leibovich’s suggestion, of course, is that Washington is actually not functioning terribly well, at least not from the standpoint of governing effectively, as opposed to enriching its denizens. Politico’s dinner-party-nostalgia attack piece so perfectly fits This Town through contradistinction that I wonder if Leibovich himself planted it as a foil, like Tony Clifton.

By making Leibovich’s argument for him, Politico actually completes This Town. Indeed, the lack of any central argument is the book’s major flaw. Most critics of elite Washington are outsiders, forced to infer its insularity and self-involvement. Leibovich delivers the reportorial goods. He is in all the parties and supplies a wildly entertaining anthrolopogical tour. (His extended opening scene detailing the jockeying and throne-sniffing at Tim Russert’s funeral is worth the price alone.)

What he barely supplies is any analysis of what it all means. Is the problem that Washington promotes too much fighting? Or too little? At one point, Leibovich appears to endorse the latter analysis, writing, “The city, far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected.” He takes us through classic scenes of Republican and Democratic operatives fake-fighting on television, and then going off to drink or get rich together. He does not develop the observation, though. And later, he describes a scene where his Amtrak train broke down and the passengers started quarreling, holding this up as a synecdoche (“Everyone was arguing, nothing was moving – like our train.”).

Leibovich approaches an analysis, without reaching one, in his punctuated contrasts between the misery afflicting the country as a whole and the affluence within This Town. Yet still he fails to develop an argument as to what this juxtaposition means.

What it means, I’d argue, is that the Washington elite remains a still-potent social force shaping a conventional wisdom, overlaid against a politics increasingly defined by ideological division. This Town sees itself as a noble guardian of the fraying virtues of nonpartisanship and civility. And many of This Town’s impulses are noble. But the groupthink is both stultifying and invisible to those within its grip.

One effect of This Town groupthink is to wish away ideological differences and render all politics in personal terms. When you know all the major players personally, it is easy to think of politics as a story about people rather than ideas. The Clinton impeachment crusade was an insane outgrowth of this misguided personalization of politics.

This Town groupthink is also shot through with sublimated class bias. The ideology of This Town is left of center on social issues and slightly right of center on fiscal issues, reflecting the general disposition of the business class. It dismisses social conservatism and economic populism as self-evidently stupid. The failings of this mentality had the disastrous effect of turning Washington into a hothouse of anti-debt hysteria during a generational economic crisis during which the debt was precisely not the problem. Washington was crying fire during Noah’s Flood in no small part because, within its comfortable confines, there was no water to be seen.

Politico — Bad Politico, that is — embodies both of these failings. Last December, Politico’s editors wrote a remarkable column citing “conversations we have had over the past three months with top lawmakers, officials, their senior aides and the CEOs who advise and lobby all of them.” Having the conversations is obviously a useful form of reporting, but the amazing thing about the column is that it assumed that the existence of an ideological consensus between CEOs, lawmakers and lobbyists was proof of its wisdom.

Politico’s editors genuinely see themselves as the voice of This Town. Leibovich has forced them to expose the unstated premise that Washington’s elite consensus is wise and make it a stated premise, openly defending the golden-lit dinners of its elite salons as the ultimate repository of benevolent governing.