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This Town

What really goes on among the power-brokers of Washington, D.C.? New York Times Magazine correspondent Mark Leibovich tells us in a book that is as dark as it is wildly entertaining.

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The hot hands of the moment, Obama advisers David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, find themselves engulfed in embraces and handshakes, signs of their candidate’s surging momentum as the Democratic nominee and the networking inherent in a major political funeral. Reflecting on the Clintons’ attendance at the Russert funeral, Leibovich writes, “Hillary has a memorial service to attend: the memorial service of a man she and her husband plainly despised and who they believed (rightly) despised them back.... But the Clintons are pros at death and sickness. They show up. They play their assigned roles.”

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Russert worked his way into becoming what the author calls the mayor of This Town by first working for the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Washington veteran who tormented fellow Democrats Bill and Hillary during the Clinton administration. Thus, Russert retains a grudge for the Clintons and they for him. This entanglement is tidy and straightforward, standing in contrast to many others navigated by Leibovich in the course of 400 pages of Washington resentment.

At times, the blizzard of majority and minority leaders and press aides and consultants can become as exhausting as the introduction to an omnibus budget bill. But, more often, Leibovich skewers his subjects (admittedly, no tough task, but still entertaining) and then dashes off to another ridiculous rite of D.C. (the White House Correspondents’ Dinner! Republican primary debates! Book parties at the Newseum!) before too long.

Conflicts of interest consume plenty of space in “This Town,” book and city alike. Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chairman, is married to Andrea Mitchell, the NBC News foreign affairs reporter, who finds herself restricted from covering the financial crisis because her husband was one of its main architects. Such matters pass by Beltway types with nary a pause. Far more troubling, the likes of BP double their government contracts even as the administration deriding the oil giant for its recklessness in the Gulf promises to bring its full power to bear. And, as Leibovich makes clear, the Obama team’s professed loathing of lobbyists and Beltway status wars, as well as private-sector cash-ins, proved to be more of a slogan than actual ethos.

Best (or worst) of all, Leibovich never lapses into outrage or self-righteousness. Instead, he caps especially ridiculous bouts of self-congratulatory excess such as lobster- and crab-heavy receptions by noting how often such feasts go uninterrupted even as unemployment surges toward 10 percent or a terrorist attempts to blow up Times Square. Why let such matters spoil a chance to hobnob?

“This Town” is, in the author’s view, “the most powerful, prosperous, and disappointing city” in all the land. He backs that opinion up with more than enough evidence.

It’s hardly new or news that powerful people and their supplicants tend to possess huge egos and equally sizable insecurities. But that doesn’t make it any less titillating, or horrifying, to glimpse Colin Powell griping about his preference (insistence) to be called General rather Secretary (as in George W. Bush’s former secretary of state), Hardball host Chris Matthews complaining for years about a single newspaper profile, or former McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt profiting from his disastrous decision to put former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on the 2008 ticket. Schmidt shaped the “narrative” – a favorite D.C. term – of what went wrong and, along the way, extricated himself from blame while managing to turn his blunder into a lucrative gig as a political analyst on MSNBC.


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