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Our Town

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Carolyn Kaster/AP Images
White House correspondent for Time Michael Scherer, comedian Conan O’Brien, Michelle Obama, executive vice president of Fox News Michael Clemente, and President Barack Obama during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, Washington, D.C., April 27, 2013

The completely unforeseen announcement that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will be buying The Washington Post for $250 million has unleashed a tremendous amount of speculation, again, about the future of the newspaper business. What could Bezos have up his sleeve? Print romantics, looking past the fact that Bezos’s company has largely destroyed the brick-and-mortar bookstore, seem to believe or at least hope that this whiz of contemporary capitalism surely knows something the rest of the world doesn’t and will light the path toward resurrection.

There are side issues that many find only slightly less interesting. What are his motives? Does he privately entertain fantasies of himself as having the political success that eluded Charles Foster Kane? What are his own politics, and to what degree will he seek to impose them on the editorial page when it comes time, say, for presidential endorsements? From political donations and reported past comments, we glean that he is fairly liberal on some social issues, notably same-sex marriage; but when it comes to his money, he gives signs of being a passionate economic libertarian. He contributed a hefty $100,000 to an effort (ultimately successful) to defeat a 2010 ballot initiative in Washington state that would have raised income taxes on the top 1 percent, Bezos of course among them, to fund schools and public health programs.

Finally, there is the question—admittedly of concern to a smaller audience—of what impact this incursion will have on the social anthropology of the nation’s capital. The Graham family, which has owned the paper since the year Franklin Roosevelt took office, will no longer control it. For those who think about such things, it’s unthinkable. In a written statement to Post employees at the time of his purchase, Bezos said, “I am happily living in ‘the other Washington’ where I have a day job that I love.” This was intended to reassure the staff that he won’t be a meddler. But it also means that the new owner of the Post, the institution so central to Washington for so many decades, is someone who isn’t a part of Washington culture and has no desire to join it; whose interest in politics is dwarfed by his passions for low-cost human space travel and a clock that will keep time for 10,000 years, two ventures into which he has plowed many millions of dollars.

The idea of a “Washington establishment” can be traced back at least as far as Henry Adams, who moved to the city with his wife, Marian, in 1877. The capital, Adams told a friend, “is the only place in America where society amuses me.” Marian, or “Clover,” ran a literary salon, advancing a range of progressive views, from the Adams house on Lafayette Square just across H Street from the White House (today’s Hay-Adams Hotel stands on the contiguous sites of Adams’s house and that of Lincoln aide and biographer John Hay).

The definition of society evolved in due course from the Roosevelts (Jews were permitted entry, not least because of their presence among the brain-trusters) to the glamorous Kennedys to the Reagans (even more glamour, now allied with Wall Street money). And as it expanded and metamorphosed, the Washington establishment became more and more powerful. The image of Dean Acheson and Walter Lippmann conferring and sparring at Georgetown dinner parties became well known. When the liberal Republican senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky helped lead the Senate group fighting to defund the Vietnam War, he took a risky and somewhat radical position. But Cooper had married a prominent Georgetown hostess and was a regular at the right parties. His position was tolerated and even embraced. He was, as is sometimes said in the capital, “one of us.”

That sense of one-of-us-ness is what defines Washington society more than anything else. And since its members today are typically politicians or journalists or high officials, along with some wealthy lobbyists, they have no shortage of platforms and opportunities to tell the rest of us about their association—the stuff required to be a member, the outlook on the world that applicants need to imbibe. A seminal date here is November 2, 1998, when Sally Quinn, wife of the Post’s famous former editor, Ben Bradlee, commandeered the Post Style section for a 3,500-word (extraordinarily long for a newspaper article) calumniation of the Clintons for having outraged the Washington establishment with their louche behavior.1

Quinn quoted many fellow members of her circle—David Broder, David Gergen, Cokie Roberts, Letitia Baldrige—who excoriated Bill Clinton. Broder: “He came in here and he trashed the place, and it’s not his place.” Meanwhile, what view did these insiders take of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, then pursuing an investigation that substantial majorities in polls consistently said should be dropped? Quinn: “Starr is a Washington insider, too. He has lived and worked here for years. He had a reputation as a fair and honest judge. He has many friends in both parties. Their wives are friendly with one another and their children go to the same schools.” Rarely if ever had the worldview of “the Club,” as Mark Leibovich calls it—or “the Village,” as it is known among liberal bloggers—been on such frank display.

That was fifteen years ago, but it remains a revealing moment not merely because Quinn went public with some establishment codes. It was important also because the establishment lost. Not everyone quoted in Quinn’s article wanted Clinton removed from office, but they wanted him to be censured and humiliated in a way that he never quite was. True, he had to endure impeachment by the House, but the public was always on his side, which made many in the establishment livid.

Today, the Village is even less powerful than it was in 1998, less powerful than it’s been in a long time or maybe ever. There are too many other voices now. In the golden era of the establishment, only a few outlets and individuals participated in forming the conventional wisdom. Now, hundreds of websites scream for attention. At one time, the “informed” political person had to read, say, Anthony Lewis and William Safire. Today, no one really “has to” read anything. Instead, what one must now do is monitor an endless flow of information and commentary from a vast range of points of view, via new technologies like RSS feeds and Twitter. In such a milieu, some well-known columnists or television commentators still have power, but nothing like the power their predecessors had. The process by which news is manufactured today and the conventional wisdom arrived at is too diffuse.

There is an ideological element to this diffusion as well. Both sides now have their own media, their own Villages, their own sets of trusted leaders. This is especially true on the far right, where the belief is widely held that practically every sentence uttered on every network except Fox is part of a liberal conspiracy against truth. On any issue today, there are now at least two and probably three “realities” being created—by liberal, mainstream, and conservative media—all vying for public attention.

The proliferation has meant that the establishment has to share bandwidth with more and more outlets and journalists who don’t care about joining the Club. Josh Marshall, the proprietor of the Talking Points Memo website, an important liberal news source that draws some 2.75 million unique visitors a month, coined a concise phrase to describe his site’s relationship to Washington: “in it but not of it.” That is, Talking Points Memo is immersed in the capital and informed about its goings-on, but by design and intention, it is not angling to join a clique that decides who’s in and who’s out.

The past decade or so has also seen the rise to much greater prominence of certain nonjournalist participants—experts from think tanks and nonprofit organizations, say, or selected academics who can write serviceable prose. They all have their own outlets now. Crucially, their status has also been elevated by the ascendance of a new generation of policy journalists who are less interested in news per se than in information, and who promote experts’ work far more widely than it was promoted a generation ago. This breed is typified by The Washington Post’s young star (and occasional New York Review contributor) Ezra Klein, and it has aggressively challenged the conventional wisdom, especially on economic questions.

One recent example of how things have changed was the discrediting (to many) of some influential economic research by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff of Harvard. They wrote a paper in 2010 purporting to show that countries with debt-to-GDP ratios greater than 90 percent experienced slow growth. The paper was used repeatedly by deficit hawks as evidence that attacking the deficit had to be a higher priority than job creation.

Then, in April of this year, three economists at the University of Massachusetts went over Reinhart and Rogoff’s data and found that they’d made significant errors, ultimately wrecking the deficit-hawk case.2 Fifteen or certainly thirty years ago, the U-Mass paper would have been consigned to the pages of left opinion journals, and official Washington could have ignored it entirely. This year, not only the columnist Paul Krugman but these new media made the paper impossible to ignore, and, indeed, the conventional wisdom on deficit hawkery is changing in Washington (admittedly, more because the deficit is falling faster than expected, but the article on Reinhart and Rogoff had a part as well).

In sum, technological changes have challenged the long-held definition of what the Washington establishment is and how much influence it now has. This shifting of power relationships is an interesting or even fascinating story, and the telling of it would shed some useful light on why we get the political and policy outcomes we do in today’s Washington.

That book would be a serious and valuable one. Unfortunately, Mark Leibovich, the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, decided to give us a far lighter reading of Washington culture. This Town is at bottom a portrait of about 250 people, or at most twice that—insiders like Sally Quinn, the editors of Politico, a few of the more prominent talking heads, a small number of rich lobbyists, all of whom share the author’s inflated sense of their own fading importance. It’s as if he were writing about the Bourbon court of the 1750s but doing so in 1791 while pretending that not much had really changed.

The book—heavily promoted and keenly anticipated in Washington—was billed for months as a no-holds-barred takedown of Washington culture. It is in fact the opposite, a winking, aren’t-we-all-clever account disguised as an attack. No one mocked in this book will come out with his or her reputation actually damaged. For the insiders about whom and to whom Leibovich is writing, it’s all one big in-joke, and merely being mentioned in This Town is a validation.

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Rick Wilking/Reuters
Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, and Donald Graham, the CEO of The Washington Post, Sun Valley, Idaho, July 10, 2013

Tammy Haddad, a former television news producer who now runs her own media company, and who throws some A-list parties and dashes in and out of many others with a white Sontagesque streak in her dark hair, is, for some reason that’s never entirely clear, Leibovich’s chief target. But even toward Haddad a certain backpedaling solicitousness finds its way into the prose:

You gotta love the Tamster. Actually you don’t, and some don’t, though not in any deep or greatly malicious way, at least in most cases. Tammy is a contradiction in that she is also one of those people of whom it is often wondered: What exactly does she do? But she also gets points for transparency (in whatever it is she does). Or at least ubiquity. She eschews the high-minded pretense that this is anything but a festival of vanities and gossip….

And so on. Some aspersions are made and then come the words “on the other hand” or “at least.” Terry McAuliffe, the Bill Clinton friend now running for governor of Virginia, also comes in for some sarcasm, but the portrait of McAuliffe—“The Macker”—does not diverge in any significant way from the one offered in the mainstream press of a mostly lovable rogue, a standard Washington type.

A lengthy section is devoted, and not without cause, to Politico, which since its founding in 2007 has become an important fixture in the Washington media. Leibovich notes that Politico “often gets blamed for defining down and amping up political news today,” with its obsessive focus on what is “driving” the day. But Leibovich never tackles what’s really wrong with Politico, which is that while it has several first-rate reporters and is worth reading, its fixation on day-to-day political jockeying combined with its relentless tone of studied neutrality produces coverage that’s sometimes completely devoid of substantive analysis, creating a world in which politicians’ actions are judged solely on the perception among insiders of their tactical shrewdness. If Politico had existed in Berlin in 1933, it might have been capable of producing sentences like “Even the new chancellor’s harshest critics agree that his recent moves, whatever their legality, have been politically masterful.” There is something at stake in the way Politico covers Washington, but Leibovich is not able to define what it is.

What is often called the “incestuous” culture of Washington is a theme of books like this. One way in which This Town differs from other such accounts is that the author quite cheerily includes himself in the family, stopping parenthetically in the middle of this or that vignette to note that yes, the person he’s writing about is an old friend, as is this other person, and that one.

A full fifty pages of the book are occupied by the account of an ambitious young congressional aide to Republican Representative Darrell Issa. The aide, Kurt Bardella, had agreed to cooperate with Leibovich for this book. Leibovich “loved the sheer unabashedness, even jubilance, of Kurt’s networking and ladder climbing and determination to make it in The Club.”

Bardella at one point started sending Leibovich copies of e-mails he was receiving from other journalists. Then he started boasting about it. Naturally, word got around, and—naturally—Politico wrote about it. Leibovich was interviewed by Politico editor John Harris, a friend and old colleague. Jack Shafer, then of Slate, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, and Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker—all friends—wrote about it, too. Issa fired Bardella, and then rehired him six months later. That’s the story. Fifty pages. If Bardella has since been getting attention, it is because of his association with his incompetent boss. Darrell Issa, spearheading the House probe into the current IRS matter, has said or insinuated more than once that he has proof that the White House was directing IRS staffers to deny nonprofit status to conservative groups. No proof has ever materialized, and even some Republicans will privately acknowledge that Issa’s actions have been embarrassing.

The story actually tells us very little about this town, but quite a bit about This Town. The Bardella tale is one that can amuse Washington insiders but will offend none. That Leibovich chose to make it such an anchor point of his book suggests something about the book’s aims. He apparently wanted a book that would zing a few people here and there, just enough so that it could be peddled as an exposé. And there is some material that is of interest along these lines. The author has an appropriately jaundiced view of big money lobbyists and the politicians (Evan Bayh, Chris Dodd) who become lobbyists after swearing they would never do so.

But ultimately, the book guards and protects and celebrates the status quo. It thus can be read as an extended job application to be president of the Club someday, which one has little reason to doubt he will be. This interpretation is reinforced by Leibovich’s apparent desire to be in good standing with Sally Quinn, to such an extent that Leibovich asked her to permit him to break the news in This Town of Ben Bradlee’s dementia. She granted the request, and the whole business of revealing so intimate a matter in a book of this sort strikes me as unfortunate.3 (When he’s not revealing the ninety-two-year-old Bradlee’s illness, Leibovich predictably lionizes him.)

A shame, this book, because a serious, detached, and critical examination of political Washington’s culture, one that tied such an examination to outcomes, would perform a great service. We are careening toward potential disasters this fall that, in my circles at least, are making people so angry and depressed that they can barely bring themselves to discuss them until they absolutely have to. A government shutdown and a downgrading of our credit rating loom if the administration and Congress can’t agree on spending levels and raising the debt limit, and both possibilities must be taken seriously.

The House’s failure at the end of July to pass a transportation-funding bill was telling. The dollar amounts in the bill were in accord with Paul Ryan’s budget, which Republicans in the House had previously embraced with enthusiasm. But Ryan’s budget just contained broad spending-reduction goals, not actual numbers. Once the appropriations bill with actual numbers was placed before the House, even many Republicans blanched at the severity of the cuts. Speaker John Boehner pulled the bill. The Republicans can’t pass their own bills, let alone bills negotiated with President Obama.

The stalemate is as brutal as it is because of the intimidating Tea Party influence in the House. A recent analysis by Alan I. Abramowitz, the distinguished political scientist from Emory University, presents a fascinating finding that explicitly illuminates, for the first time so far as I’ve seen, why compromise with Obama in particular is nearly impossible. In his new book, Abramowitz performs a multivariate analysis of the factors that are likely to make a citizen a Tea Party supporter.4 Conservative ideology matters most. But next—ahead of demographic factors like age, gender, and income, ahead of church attendance and even party identification—are “racial resentment, and dislike of Obama.” Abramowitz concludes:

These results clearly show that the rise of the Tea Party movement was a direct result of the growing racial and ideological polarization of the American electorate. The Tea Party drew its support very disproportionately from Republican identifiers who were white, conservative, and very upset about the presence of a black man in the White House—a black man whose supporters looked very different from themselves.

These voters and their representatives now have a tight grip on Washington. This, too, is an aspect of Washington “culture,” but the Tea Party hardly figures in This Town at all. I kept thinking while reading Leibovich’s book how much more interesting—and less evanescent—it would have been if he’d burrowed into these cultures across the spectrum and tried to understand their values and social origins. I like gossip; I’m a journalist, after all. I go to some of these parties, and I enjoy them. But there’s more to life in Washington than that. Leibovich could have discovered a city where everything isn’t a game, where everyone isn’t just in it for the money and the parties, and where many thousands of people do interesting work but don’t come within a whisper of the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. They shape this town, too.

  1. 1

    See Sally Quinn, “In Washington, That Letdown Feeling,” The Washington Post, November 2, 1998. 

  2. 2

    See Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin, “Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff,” Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts–Amherst, April 15, 2013. 

  3. 3

    For Quinn’s account of this arrangement, see Lloyd Grove, “Mark Leibovich and the Preening Egos of ‘This Town,’” The Daily Beast, July 12, 2013. 

  4. 4

    Alan I. Abramowitz, The Polarized Public?: Why American Government Is So Dysfunctional (Pearson, 2013). 

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