Sam Youngman has written a confessional Politico essay, “Take This Town and Shove It,” detailing his former life as a rising Washington reportorial star, his descent into a state of moral turpitude he ascribes to the city, and his glorious redemption as a journalist in Lexington, Kentucky. The essay has become the talk of This Town, for reasons that are hard to fathom at first, but eventually reveal themselves upon close inspection: Under the guise of renouncing everything about insider Washington media culture, it actually embodies it.
The stated thesis of the essay is that political reporters should “get out of Washington. It’s messing you up more than you know.” Youngman does not actually defend that premise, and he surely doesn’t believe it. (We should … not have journalists covering the federal government?) The faux premise serves the purpose of relieving him from having to state the actual premise of the essay, namely, that Youngman has become a morally superior human being, both in comparison with his former self and, by implication, in comparison with all current Washington journalists.
While putatively devoted to humility, Youngman’s essay is deeply (and quite cleverly) self-aggrandizing. He recounts in fond detail his accretion of status markers: Trips on Air Force One, name checks by the White House press secretary, invitations to exclusive dinners. He lets readers know he is a tough guy. (“In D.C., I was rarely in a room without another dude who inspired violent tendencies but was too pitiful to punch.”) Youngman was also apparently irresistible to women, taking care to mention his many one-night stands – so many that he “apologized to as many of those women as I could,” but since he could not possibly reach all of them, offered a sweeping public apology “to the ones I missed.” There were so, so many.
Youngman’s indictment of Washington journalism is an incoherent malange. He confesses to having wanted too badly to go on low-rent cable television spots, gestures vaguely at the triviality of campaign coverage, and insists, wrongly, that reporters can better assess the state of the race by interviewing voters than through polls. He bizarrely tosses his substance abuse problem — “I spent almost every night downing bourbon — and sometimes indulging in harder substances” — into the mix. While sad, it’s not clear what this has to do with journalism or Washington. “I Moved to Kentucky to Get Away From Bourbon” would be a strange basis for a confessional essay.
The unstated theme connecting his loose stream of reprimands is an assertion of populist legitimacy. Youngman is close to the people. He tells us his brother was deployed to Iraq and stood to be harmed by a potential government shutdown in 2011 (“By the time we hung up, I was almost shaking with anger and frustration.”) He scolds “know-it-alls in Washington and New York” who are obsessed with Game of Thrones, and later details his obsession with Kentucky basketball.
This amounts to a familiar kind of positioning that elite Washington journalists share with politicians — flamboyantly demonstrating their populist cultural bona fides. While a political journalist can’t plausibly claim to actually be a regular American, he can channel regular Americanness through skillful managing of his personal brand. Working-class friends or relatives can be flaunted, so as to absorb their regularness vicariously. (A soldier or a firefighter, is the jackpot, but a mundane blue-collar job can serve in a pinch.) Displaying working-class personal habits, like hunting or a strong rooting interest in the old hometown team, also helpfully conveys a grasp of the regular American manly virtues. Tim Russert, with his ritualistic invocations of his father and the Buffalo Bills, was the paradigmatic master.
At the very end of his essay, Youngman mentions, almost offhandedly, “I might someday return to This Town.” I am certain he will return, having absorbed the authenticity Kentucky can bestow upon him. And he will flourish.