WHEN ALEXANDER HAMILTON and James Madison agreed in 1790 that the capital of the United States should be moved from New York City to somewhere between Maryland and Virginia, they created a compromise city — a quick negotiation between centripetal and centrifugal forces already at work in the culture. Hamilton wanted to pass legislation allowing the Treasury Department to assume the states’ public debts, securing for the national government unprecedented discretionary power over public finance. Madison, in exchange for supporting Hamilton, wanted a capital closer to the south of the country and farther from its financial hub.
But compromise is rarely durable, and intentions rarely fulfilled. Over 200 years later, Washington, DC, remains a center of government, but the centralization Madison attempted to hedge against has accelerated, inflating the capital’s significance as well as its insularity. Built on our most important and durable — if not most efficient — industry, the capital has become America’s last company town. Its products are policy and political theater.
To live and work in the capital is to be almost immediately confronted with the obvious predominance of these theatrical gestures and the strikingly circumscribed atmosphere in which they are produced. In my third week living in the city in the summer of 2012, I played a minor part in one of these acts, standing in a circle for several hours outside the Supreme Court, waiting for the announcement of the decision on the Affordable Care Act. There were probably 60 of us there, on the left side of the court steps, mostly low-level employees of progressive organizations dispatched as extra bodies for the planned demonstration, who traded notes on supervisors and chanted “We love Obamacare” when cued. In the center of the circle were the event organizers and a half dozen or so more passionate participants, all of whom ended up on the front page of The New York Times, set off against our indistinct forms. The impression the photograph produced was of a mass of committed ACA supporters euphoric at the news that the law had been upheld, rather than 60 hungry interns sweating uncomfortably in suits and skirts — a perfectly normal disjuncture, but one that conveyed a distinctly ideal sense of the event to millions of faraway readers.
The stage on which these acts are performed is a sanitized and contracted one. It runs about five blocks, from Independence Avenue north to Pennsylvania Avenue, comprising the National Mall plus a few other major sites — five blocks in which most of the “action” covered by Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and The Daily Show plays out. The direct and behind-the-scenes participants, most of whom are white and upper-middle class, work in a slightly wider radius, roughly from Independence Avenue to Columbia Heights, or most of Northwest Washington — an area of wide concrete streets, unremarkable glass buildings, sedate Georgian brownstones, upscale restaurants, banks, and Starbucks cafés. This slightly wider radius is still a narrow window in which to exist, and, in the more visceral terms of an acquaintance who settled there last year: “I’m a little surprised; everyone here’s like me.” Even U Street, near the top of the Northwest quadrant — the one place in this section where the African-American presence remains predominant — has recently become an attractive destination for higher earners precisely because of its “authenticity.” One notable resident, for instance, is Sonia Sotomayor.
In other words, what we talk about when we talk about Washington, DC, is an extremely paradoxical place: hermetic in its everyday reality, universal in its pretensions, and increasingly reliant on coordinated staging rather than substantive speech. Not unpredictably, this situation begets a strange, self-referential culture. That culture, a simmering pot of likeminded ingredients, is the subject of Mark Leibovich’s new book, This Town. Despite the misleading fluffiness of its subtitle, “Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital,” Leibovich’s book is not a lurid tell-all. Nor is it a piece of literary journalism, a work of political science, or an ideologically charged polemic. This Town is more empirical, accessible, and restrained than any of these. It is a series of observations, made between 2008 and 2013 by the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, of the kind of profit-obsessed, personality-consumed culture that political centralization and technological change have fostered in a one-industry town. Leibovich is writing about players at a very high level — we’ve come a long way from the sweaty interns collecting on the Supreme Court steps — but the rules of the game are recognizable even at these heady altitudes. In fact they are more pronounced, and even more deeply ingrained.
Leibovich takes us through his observations at a steady, conversational pace, and his narrative rarely lags. (The notable exceptions are sections devoted to the 2012 Republican presidential campaign, which seems to have dispirited Leibovich to the point that the most telling anecdote on offer regards Chris Christie and a golf cart sagging beneath his weight, and the most subversive salvos are coy references to Mitt Romney as “Mittens.”) What prevents the book from losing itself in its anecdotes is Leibovich’s nuanced structuring: This Town is implicitly organized around certain nagging, recurring themes (an alternative subtitle could be “Ten Things to Hate about Washington, DC”). As the vignettes come and go, the reader begins to intuitively slot them under particular categories of bad behavior. These vignettes are acutely described, reliably comical, and occasionally startling. And the city that emerges from them is a singularly unattractive place.
In this city, major policy initiatives and events are covered like sports, so that the more political parts of the political process (the “action”) overshadow any real issues that may or may not be at play. Leibovich spent part of January 20, 2013, watching NBC reporter David Gregory summarize the president’s second inaugural address in terms entirely removed from its substance: “I think what we’ve learned from this president is that his outside game is much better than his inside game.” Two and a half years earlier, when Stanley McChrystal was removed from the command of American forces in Afghanistan after Rolling Stone published a profile that featured McChrystal and his subordinates leveling comprehensive criticisms at the Obama administration, the standard of analysis brought to bear hinged on inner-circle etiquette: did Michael Hastings, the article’s author, violate an unspoken code between reporters and embedded units?
But Leibovich, who breaks in at prudent intervals to editorialize, is more clearly irritated by the loose and implicit understandings between Washington’s players not deemed sufficiently important to be disclosed to the electorate at large. Since 2009, for example, the Obama administration has repeatedly stated its commitment to sealing the White House off from lobbyists, despite the fact that, by 2011, three major Obama advisors had decamped for Goldman Sachs, BP, and Citigroup. Similarly, when Indiana Senator Evan Bayh and Utah Senator Robert Bennett left the Senate publicly bemoaning the ideological intransigence that has now transfixed the place, it was unsurprising — just part of the game — that they would set up shop as lobbyists, joining an industry in which money is made off conflict, not compromise. Even when definite ideological divides exist, they are not necessarily determinative ones: Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville, and his Republican wife, Mary Matalin, have channeled what an outside observer might naively assume are serious disagreements into a book, joint TV appearances, and a contract advertising Maker’s Mark bourbon.
Merit is one form of tender not much in use in Washington, at least as Americans tend to understand the term: the capital’s heady altitudes are surprisingly accessible to people who arrive with seemingly little to inherently recommend them, and surprisingly inaccessible to those without references to do the same. This appears to be Leibovich’s most deeply felt complaint, since he spends his longest chapter narrating, in cold detail, a case study of the trend. Leibovich’s subject is Kurt Bardella, who graduated high school in 2001, worked for several California state legislators, secured a job with former US Congressman — and recent resident of federal prison — Randy “Duke” Cunningham, served briefly in Senator Olympia Snowe’s office with a “much higher caliber of people” — who nonetheless were too slow-moving for his taste — and eventually surfaced in Representative Darrell Issa’s more congenial orbit. Issa, then the incoming head of the House Oversight Committee, was eager to make a name for himself and relied on Bardella’s manic, pit-bull instincts to earn him a prominent spot in congressional news coverage. Bardella was flying high until he began forwarding his correspondence with other aides, journalists, and the occasional congressperson to Leibovich for a book that Leibovich had mentioned possibly writing about Bardella. Politico uncovered his indiscretion, Bardella was fired, found God on Facebook, was hired by The Daily Caller as a commentator, and then, after six months, rehired by Issa as a political aide.
What is arresting about this Icarus-reborn story, besides Bardella’s apparently secure position as a “Washington insider,” is the role of Politico, a subject about which Leibovich seems less irate than resigned. Founded in 2007, and now a DC staple, the online newspaper is entirely devoted to the political “process.” Its most famous feature is probably the “Playbook,” a “must-read briefing on what’s driving the day in Washington.” Politico reporters surface at the capital, in restaurants, and at book parties; often, like reporter Patrick Gavin, walking around with a camera for a brief “video clip of the action that would run the next day.” To a bemused-sounding Leibovich, Gavin is “precisely the kind of ‘entrepreneurial’ journalist who would have, in another age, honed his craft by writing several stories a week on things like city council meetings in places like Ames, Iowa.” Today, “the Patrick Gavins can come straight to D.C. and, in short order, get a job that includes the privilege of videotaping other journalists at parties.”
Corresponding with this atmosphere of privilege is an unmistakable sense of superiority to people further from the “action” — in other words, to the residents of the country at large. Leibovich supplies a telling, unequivocal quote on the subject from Politico: “'[F]ickle’ is a nice way of describing the voters of 2012, who appear to be wandering, confused and Forrest Gump- like through the experience of a presidential campaign.” A similar remark comes from the mouth of Heather Podesta — Democratic lobbyist and wife of Democratic “super-lobbyist” Tony Podesta, the brother of John Podesta, President Clinton’s former chief of staff and President Obama’s transition team leader — who called Charlotte, North Carolina, the site of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, a “grim,” “second-tier city,” adding that “going to the NASCAR Hall of Fame isn’t reason enough to be in Charlotte.” So when Charlotte locals inevitably expressed unease, Heather stuck to the script of “being good” for the convention, confiding to Leibovich, “I cannot believe so many Americans are currently on food stamps. The situation is still spinning out of control.”
So there we have it: the last company town at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, eyes firmly fixed on its own perambulations, and on the stock phrases and images it must project to all those people in the grim, second-tier, NASCAR-racing dark. How we’ve gotten to this point is, in broad strokes, clear enough. Leibovich is not a historian, but his stabs at context — a blossoming national defense industry since 9/11, a media that has been obsessed with the capital since Watergate, and a series of lax electoral-spending laws and evadable lobbying regulations — serve as effective enough background for his anecdotally anchored narrative. We can guess at how insular Washington is, but Leibovich’s book provides a rare inside glimpse at what actually goes on there. Our suspicions are confirmed, but the details are no less salient because of this.
The bigger problem — how we fix it — is not given an entirely novel treatment, but here, again, Leibovich’s reliance on observation still pays dividends. He probes the events of the most prominent recent declaration of war on the town, by Barack Obama and his circle of advisors from Chicago, for another case study. It didn’t take long for the Obama administration to split over the question of how to handle the company town they were nominally running. The options they came up with, in Leibovich’s persuasive reading, were either savvy insiderism (favored by chief political advisor David Axelrod) or ineffective aloofness (the style of primary Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett.)
Obama himself swung between these two poles and has repeatedly expressed frustration at his apparent inability to master the capital. It is a sentiment shared by many of the young, politically minded Americans who followed him to Washington — and, in a different register, by conservative voters who see the capital as almost predestined to corruption. For both of these groups, Leibovich’s book will only confirm their worst assumptions.
Nevertheless, particularly when it comes to young Washington Democrats, who stop short of rejecting the capital entirely but remain suspicious of its modes of operation, this pervasive dissatisfaction may produce tangible results. Not all of these people live in the Northwest quadrant of the city, and many of them eschew the overstated, gestural mode of transactions preferred by older journalists and politicos. They would like to pass electoral-spending laws, regulate the Pentagon’s transactions with private contractors, and pass tighter lobbying bans.
But there are limitations to how much Washington can be transformed. In fact, perhaps the most provocative implication of This Town is one that its anecdotal author does not explicitly address. Namely, that in the type of society in which we now live, a gilded capital is the norm. Very few of us would give up Medicare, social security, homeownership loans, interstates, the Food and Drug Administration, airport security, and the other bulwarks erected by the state between its citizens on the one hand and an unpredictable economy and rapidly changing external threats on the other. But for government to assume this level of responsibility it has to operate on a correspondingly large scale, and the price we pay is a certain distance from the people who govern. We see them on TV, we can even learn disconcertingly quickly about their particular problems (from books such as this one), but we cannot reach or comprehensively regulate them. Nor can we entirely prevent the kind of side-profiteering and rapt self-involvement that exists in such large, relatively invulnerable organizations.
This is the implicit cost that Madison recognized in 1790, and it is a fairly obvious one. But our culture is not one that tends to frame its public narratives in terms of complex tradeoffs between gains and losses. We tend instead toward woolly idealism or intense nostalgia, aptly embodied by the two most powerful political movements of the period Leibovich chronicles: Obama’s and the Tea Party. But neither hope nor regret can alter the facts of the case. Even if regulations cure it of its worst excesses, the Washington that Leibovich chronicles will still in some sense be there.