Summer is reading season for vacationers, and as the nation’s capital clears out next month for its annual August sabbatical, there’s no doubt that most Washingtonians will tuck one book in particular into their beach bags and backpacks. If they haven’t already snagged an advance copy, as notables are wont to do, and set out for a marathon read.
"This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral – Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! – in America’s Gilded Capital," by New York Times Magazine chief national correspondent Mark Leibovich, skewers the inappropriately chummy, often insufferable incestuousness that is Washington today. It was a book so feared before publication that Politico, the city’s online chronicler of every tick and tock, did “some reporting on his reporting” several months ahead of its release, which is scheduled for next week.
The New Republic – in classic Washington fashion – then wrote that Politico's scribes were simply trying “to kneecap a writer whose upcoming revelations may well depict them as the people that they are: obsessive insiders who are obsessed with insiderism.”
This is, of course, a prime exhibit of why just such a book is necessary, The New Republic concludes.
The picture Mr. Leibovich paints of this company town as sadly self-promoting, with few workhorses and a vast stable of preening if also less-than-spectacular show horses, is as to be expected, according to the reviews. At least if you live here. There is no modest intersection of government, media, and the special-interest lobby in "This Town." Instead, it’s as if the Venn diagram of Washington, which once contained a modest overlapping center between those three worlds, has fallen in on itself, forming one large swarming circle of always-striving inhabitants.
As if to taunt this master class of very important people, Leibovich failed to include an index at the end of his book. But no matter, The Washington Post published an unauthorized version. (Pity the summer interns who spent their weekend on this project.)
So who is targeted? Will the rendering of them be devastating? Literary blows too damning to endure? Which subjects will be forced to flee to flyover territory?
Most of those chronicled are probably no-names to the vast majority of Americans outside the Beltway. They include: party-thrower and -goer and media-relations guru Tammy Haddad, super lawyer Bob Barnett, and a young congressional aide named Kurt Bardella. These folks are cogs, Leibovich suggests, with personal agendas that barely, maybe never, touch on the public interest.
Then there are the boldfaced names, weighing in on other boldfaced names – often in a fashion that makes them all seem a wee bit smaller. As a headline on the Fox News website puts it: "Book: Harry Reid Says John Kerry Has No Friends."
Reviewers who have logged Washington time (many of whom must publish accompanying disclaimers about their work or social relationships with the author) say the book is a witty and accurate portrayal.
“His tour through Washington only feeds the worst suspicions anyone can have about the place – a land driven by insecurity, hypocrisy and cable hits, where friendships are transactional, blind-copying is rampant and acts of public service appear largely accidental,” writes Carlos Lozada of The Washington Post.
Mr. Lozada adds: “Only two things keep you turning pages between gulps of Pepto: First, in Leibovich’s hands, this state of affairs is not just depressing, it’s also kind of funny. Second, you want to know whether the author thinks anyone in Washington – anyone at all? – is worthy of redemption.”
Under the headline, “Hypocrisy, Thy Name Is (Duh!) Washington,” one New York Times reviewer suggests that extreme partisanship has contributed to the city’s lack of productive work for the nation as well as to its draw of fame-seekers. Those hard at work, in journalism and beyond, writes David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Pittsburgh Press, would never appear in a book like this one. Why? Because they’re doing their jobs, not schmoozing it up.
“So here’s to all the big mouths, big egos, big shots, big machers and big jerks,” Mr. Shribman toasts. “In case you’re wondering, Mark Leibovich is on to every one of you, and his portrayal of ‘This Town’ is spot on. Because Mr. Leibovich, perhaps alone among capital insiders, has realized that Washington, once an inside joke, now looks more and more like a bad joke.”
So will you read the book? Or does 24-hour cable tell all you need to know about This Town?