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‘This Town’, for a laugh and cry

weatherby JAMES

“This Town,” is both a funny and sad portrayal of Washington, DC’s elite. Author Mark Leibovich is the New York Times Magazine chief national correspondent. In his view, our nation’s capital is a town with a lot of back stabbers and self-serving parasites who are doing extremely well financially and not at all disturbed that the rest of the country is not.

“This Town,” hilarious reading at times, is combined with a searing critique. Snarky remarks are sprinkled throughout, made at the expense of well-placed DC celebrities.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is described as having “all the magnetism of a dried snail.” When interviewing Reid, the author imagined that Reid had “a little self-editing gerbil inside his skull hurling itself in the unimpeded pathway that typically connects his brain directly to his mouth.” But, believe it or not, the Reid profile is relatively positive; he’s weird but efficient, more authentic than most.

We, from far outside the beltway, regard DC as a highly polarized city, divided into fiercely warring partisan camps. But Leibovich writes of a much different version – one of bipartisanship and teamwork – but that’s not a good thing. The goal of these political elites is primarily to make money, lots of it. These powerful insiders are politicians, lobbyists, consultants, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals.

Leibovich concludes that “far from being hopelessly divided, in fact they are hopelessly interconnected.”

The explosion of money over the last twenty years or so in and around the federal government has sparked a virtual gold rush: increased spending in governing, campaigning, and lobbying. The capitalists among us would say that’s okay; nothing wrong with making money, unless we consider that much of the money in their pockets are our federal tax dollars. No wonder that Washington DC is America’s wealthiest town.

There’s plenty of fodder in this book for those who reflexively hate and distrust DC.

Solving our nation’s problems is becoming less and less a priority. According to Leibovich, “the business of Washington relies on things not getting done” – so much for all of the optimistic talk about both immigration reform and tax reform. Why leave millions of dollars on the table by solving problems today that could fester for many more years of debate and conflict producing even bigger lobbying and consulting payouts. And, when problems are eventually “solved,” the solution often comes in the form of huge, complex legislation loaded up with all kinds of loopholes quietly inserted by lobbyists, the kind of legislation elected officials probably don’t even read. These supposedly minor tweaks to the legislation mean hundreds of millions to the interests who pay the lobbyists and “rent” the elected officials.

Washington’s revolving door swings wider as these elites move seamlessly between public and private sector employment. It used to be only a few stayed and became lobbyists. Now it’s common for elected officials and top staffers to parlay their experience and connections into lucrative lobbying contracts. Few go home anymore.

“Formers stick to Washington like melted cheese on a gold plated toaster.”

All of this movement raises at least one major ethical issue – conflict of interest. Who are these people working for at any given time? When did they actually become coopted? When were they approached by a lobbyist saying something like: “you’re good at your job, what are you going to do when you leave. Maybe you could come to work for us?” Instantly a whole new world opens up, dollar signs dance in their heads. What Leibovich calls the “preemptive bride” has been tendered. Once that kind of bribe is offered and positively responded to, it is a legitimate question to ask who indeed are they working for as they complete their “public service careers?”

Leibovich makes a powerful indictment but, as a journalist, offers no remedies.

Washington’s political culture is held up to a mirror but the reader is left looking for solutions on how our ship of state might be righted. What Leibovich has given us should make even the most committed big government fan cringe. What kind of trajectory are we on? What kind of outrageous tale might a similar book tell twenty years from now: a larger elite class, unencumbered by term limits, still feeding off the public trough to the determinant of the rest of the country? Are there any limits to the growth of the mercenary crowd?

What difference, if any, will this book make? Will it be known more for scathing comments and profiles or for planting the seed for real change in Washington, DC that is too often promised but rarely achieved? That, to a significant degree, rests in the hands of the reader who, once informed, may or may not join the revolution to really change the culture of our nation’s capital.

(Weatherby is an emeritus professor, former lobbyist and a native of the Palouse country. He lives in Boise.)

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